How Birchbox Amplifies Social Interactions that Inspire and Acquire / Behavior & Business 1.8

This is the eighth in a series of ten articles focused on designing better cross-platform retail experiences. To read the complete issue, download it here.

In our first post, we gave an overview of the challenges we see facing cross-platform retail, and an introduction to the three opportunity areas we think retail companies need to think about today and in the future. In this article, we dig into the third opportunity area, My Platform Retail, and the first of three ways to approach it: Amplify Social Interactions that Inspire and Acquire.

Opportunity 03: My Platform Retail

One of our favorite points in Chris Messina’s great article on conversational commerce highlights why people enjoy conversational experiences. He suggests: ‘Conversational apps are…organized around the way I organize my life, rather than the way the app maker might dictate.’ He goes on to say that conversational UX is a form of extreme personalization, and that the ‘lack of inherent friction in the experience changes a user’s (positive) perception of the service.’ When we think about this point in relation to retail experience design, the meaning is profound. As customers, why are we forced to come to stores in person or use channels that we’re not used to using? Why can’t we immerse ourselves in products in ways that we find most comfortable, personal, and natural?

My Platform Retail is taking a customer-centered approach to creating retail experiences that highlight and connect the best parts of all platforms, owned or otherwise.

Brands need to design retail experiences on the platforms where customers live their lives — at home, online, and in conversation — in addition to the platforms that retailers own and control themselves.

Amazon’s retail store brings virtual behavior to the real world. Categories based on shopping habits, people’s reviews, or star ratings are features that can be found anchoring the space.

The next evolution of retail experience design, however, will require more than just a platform-agnostic approach. It will also require being more platform-specific in the ways that matter most to users. This means brands will need to create specific content and experiences that leverage each platform’s idiosyncratic value. My Platform Retail, in that sense, is taking a customer-centered approach to creating engaging and profitable retail experiences that highlight and connect the best parts of all platforms, owned or otherwise.

Behavioral Analysis: Returning to the Market’s Social Roots

Often, when social scientists and business leaders talk about a market (like the market for a product), they mean an abstract space of exchange, the meeting place of supply and demand. But the conception of markets has its origin in quite a different register. Markets were the physically embodied spaces embedded within the cities that grew up around them, and they were anything but abstract: they were bustling, noisy places populated by a range of social activities that extended far beyond pure economic exchange. Markets were originally places of engagement where people got their news, socialized, and discussed politics at the same time that they fulfilled their economic needs, buying and selling goods.

Historians and ethnographers have returned to this basic affinity between markets as abstract spaces of exchange and their physical manifestations in cities as one way to get at the range of interactions — social, political, as well as economic — that take place in economic interactions. For much of the 20th Century, markets were treated as highly rationalized spheres of behaviors postulated by self-maximizing economic theory: people decided to buy something, then weighed their options to maximize gains and minimize losses. It was as if all the other aspects of life were cut off from economic activity. Many ethnographers critiqued this approach. Karl Polanyi (and later Mark Granovetter), developed the concept of embeddedness as a different way of talking about economic life, one in which economic activity is embedded within, not detached from, broader cultural practices. They founded a tradition of study dedicated to thinking through the links between economic and social life by watching people carry out actual economic activities — activities that were also social, cultural, and political.

Anyone who spent their teenage years hanging out at the mall can relate to this fundamental sociality of economic activity. Shopping malls were the late 20th Century’s attempt at creating safe, high-intensity shopping experiences in specialized environments. But in the movement from urban shopping centers embedded in the social life of cities to suburban shopping malls, there was also a sense that something was lost. (It’s not for nothing that a classic zombie film like Dawn of the Dead takes place in a shopping mall, drawing on wider cultural references to the combination of material plenty and social anomie that characterized them.) Teenagers nevertheless adapted malls to social purposes — a convergence that malls themselves eventually came to embrace, expanding food courts and other forms of entertainment to complement shopping and increase foot traffic.

Markets were originally places of engagement where people got their news, socialized, and discussed politics at the same time that they fulfilled their economic needs, buying and selling goods.

We see something similar happening today that pulls together this historical relationship between commerce and a vibrant social life. Today’s cross-platform retail space is pushing the relationship between social interaction and commerce in new directions, embedding commerce within conversational platforms like WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and social media platforms like Instagram and Snapchat. In a way, it’s a return to markets’ more social roots, made possible through mobile technology. And instead of people going to markets to socialize, companies are taking their products to spaces where social interaction is already happening, finding ways to make commerce an important part of those conversations. If done right, it’s an opportunity to embed economic activity within social activity that can benefit both customers and retailers.

Business Directive: Amplify Social Interactions that Inspire and Acquire

The connective tissue between the companies we love, their products, our own networks and personal identities have never been stronger. Cross-platform is no longer the realm of a brand’s wholly owned channels; it now means cross-network, cross-use, and cross-identity.

Earlier this month, my first meaningful contact with Pokémon Go was on Instagram. A friend had taken screenshot his wife’s reaction when he was trying to capture a Goldeen Pokémon. Here was the Pokémon Go UX in use, served on a platform I use every day to record memories and get inspired, being presented through the filter of a friend’s experience. The scene with his commentary made me laugh and I downloaded Pokémon Go then and there.

In many ways, the story reminded me of something our collaborator and friend, Joe Rizk, mentioned to us last year: ‘Identity is playing an increasingly dominant role in purchase decisions. It’s become clear the best brands being built today are acting as mirrors of their customers. These companies have chosen to de-prioritize their own singular brand in service of the people and stories that are actually powering their service.’

When we think of a brand, we think of the stories of customers. Brands are essentially the embodiment and manifestation of value being delivered to (as its used by) people. As the cross-platform strategy evolves to be more open and egalitarian to a customer’s personal platforms, it makes sense that customers should help lead the brand and business narrative. It’s more authentic and less costly to empower customers to guide product development and marketing efforts through the social interactions that they have every day, and to provide ways that inspire (and acquire) new customers at the same time.

When we think of a brand, we think of the stories of customers.

Birchbox is a one of the longer running subscription-in-a-box services out there, delivering makeup, skincare, and haircare samples right to your door every month. Over the past six years, the company has evolved into an online retailer that now does 35% of its $200M business on birchbox.com through direct product sales. A critical path to growth for Birchbox is in connecting these two distinct parts of its business model: subscription-based sampling and retail sales.

‘The Dry Shampoo Starter Kit’ from Birchbox.

Let’s think a bit more about sampling behavior. When a customer receives a monthly Birchbox, they’re usually trying a mix of branded samples that they may have heard of or new brands that the company recommends. The sampling aspect of the experience helps Birchbox achieve its mission: ‘to help customers find products they love.’ And we’ve covered why people like to try before they buy above.

Birchbox flagship store in SoHo, NYC.

The issue becomes this: once the box of samples arrives at someone’s door, how does Birchbox gather feedback? How do they know what samples are landing well during what’s usually a highly personal beauty-care process for their customers? The answers to these questions have meaningful impact not only on how to make better subscription boxes, but also on how to stock, market, and sell product in the growing and more profitable full-price retail sales channel.

The sampling aspect of the experience helps Birchbox achieve its mission: ‘to help customers find products they love.’

This is where Snapchat and its 150M users come in. With over half of it’s users under the age of 24, Snapchat is clearly an experience that resonates with younger customers. Maybe that’s because the platform is built to be as public and private as a user wants, offering the ability to create and candidly share real life moments.

But in our minds, the power of the Snapchat experience comes from constraints, specifically the timed nature of posts. Whether it’s in Stories or regular Snaps, time is a limiting factor that urges users to share messages in ways that can be quickly absorbed and understood. With much of the UX based on a consistent flow of messages that get fed to followers in rapid succession, the demand to generate more and more messages as a way to stay relevant in one’s personal network is high. Instagram and Twitter have similar demands of users to stay relevant, but time feels like a more acute constraint with Snapchat. We’re talking seconds and minutes, not hours and days.

So for Birchbox, what could be better than realtime product feedback of samples in use, broadcast out amongst a customer’s own Snapchat network? Not much. The brand is able to get a high volume of feedback because younger customers are often high volume contributors as a way to stay relevant.

Birchbox customers post product samples in use on Snapchat, giving the brand immediate and honest feedback.

After sample boxes are sent, Birchbox will post certain products to their Story and prompt customers to screenshot their sample in use. The brand quickly gets an idea of what customers think about the sample via both snaps and chats, as well as which product samples are rising to the top through the level of social activity. (Maybe it’s part of the reason why the brand recently started testing customer service through Snapchat.)

Similar to Ledbury using custom short-run sales to prototype potential ready-to-wear products, Birchbox gets honest and customer-pure feedback in realtime. It’s a perfect marriage between how the content-generating time constraints of Snapchat helps Birchbox optimally select and turn product quickly for next month’s subscription boxes as well as future retail sales. The result is a more authentic and less costly way to guide product purchasing, inventory control, and customer acquisition of a younger audience.

The next post in the series, How ShopStyle Mashes Up Your Platform with Theirs, continues to examine how brands embrace the My Platform Retail opportunity. It comes out on Wednesday 10/19. If you can’t wait, you can download the entire issue of Behavior & Business here.

About Behavior & Business

Behavior & Business is a series that explores the behaviors of customers and the ways businesses are meeting their needs in innovative ways that drive growth.

About Runyon

Runyon is a design and innovation firm that helps companies grow. Behavior & Business is indicative how we approach our work: we use equal parts customer behavior and business strategy to inspire the market-facing and revenue-generating experiences that we design with our clients.

About the Authors

Anthony D’Avella is the Founder of Runyon. He designs growth experiences with great brands like American Express, Target, and the Harvard Innovation Lab, as well as with amazing startups. Prior to Runyon, Anthony designed, built, and launched cross-platform businesses at IMG and for Fortune 500 clients in IDEO’s New York studio. He holds an MBA from Harvard Business School and teaches venture design in the graduate MFA program at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. When he’s not at work, you can usually find him on a beach somewhere with his wife and daughter.

Dr. Nicholas D’Avella is an ethnographer with research interests in markets, expert knowledge, and urban ecologies. His work connects Science and Technology Studies with anthropological themes related to money, exchange, and value. He completed his PhD at the University of California, Davis prior to holding postdoctoral fellowships at the Center for Science, Technology, Medicine & Society at UC Berkeley and at The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science & Art. He is currently a Hunt Postdoctoral Fellow and Visiting Scholar at the Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics at NYU.