Is the Hallmark card of the future a video? One startup’s pivot is betting on it

Vift lets customers add a video message to online gifts. (Vift via UpstartCity)

Anyone who has stood unsatisfied before rows of Hallmark cards knows that picking the right message for a gift can be difficult. A New York City startup called Vift is trying to make that process easier in an impersonal setting: buying online.

KeepTree, founded in 2011, created a spin-off brand called Vift in 2015, pivoting its time-delayed video system from a novelty into an e-commerce service. The company is now shifting its focus to growing Vift, which has helped the company turn a consistent profit, said Brody Ehrlich, general manager of KeepTree.

Ehrlich views video as part of the future of gift-giving. “Online shopping has become a big thing now, the internet is available to everyone,” he said. “But for some reason technology never really caught up, at least in this particular space.”

Similar to how shoppers can add gift wrapping or a card to go along with a present bought online, Vift lets customers add a video message. Online stores use Vift as a plug-in, which appears as a step in the checkout process. The software uses the tracking number of the package to email or text a link of the video to the recipient when the gift arrives. Vift hosts the videos on its website.

KeepTree began as a way to let people send videos on a time-delay, an idea the founder, Jon Loew, came up with while battling a nearly fatal illness: he wanted an easy way to leave videos for his children’s life milestones. The idea for Vift came out of how KeepTree users often sent birthday and anniversary videos to their friends and family, Ehrlich said.

Depending on how an online store sets up the tool, customers either pay $1.99 per video, split between Vift and the company, or the online store can set its own price after paying Vift a monthly fee.

Personalization can help marketers match consumer needs and preferences, said Tulin Erdem, professor of business and marketing at the NYU Stern School of Business. Personalization is especially important for giving gifts, she said, where uniqueness and personal touch show that the giver cares.

Gyft, founded in 2012, has also faced the challenge of creating a connection between gift givers and recipients in online shopping. Similar to Vift, Gyft customers buy and send online gift cards and can include video messages. “People think that gift cards are a little bit impersonal,” said Jean Park, director of marketing. “So we wanted to make it as customizable as possible, and people really loved the video aspect of it.”

For now, Vift’s primary retail customers are small online stores. Ehrlich said the company is piloting the technology with larger retailers, whom he declined to name. He said some larger retailers hope to use video as a way to upsell, for example by offering Vift for free on purchases of more than $50. During one pilot with a large retail store, which offered Vift for free, about 13 percent of customers added a video and about 80 percent of recipients watched the video, Ehrlich said.

Mika Smith Collins of Texas created Royal Mermaid, an online skincare store, in 2015, and added Vift as a way to encourage customers to send her products as gifts. Customers gave her positive feedback but, “The only problem was that no one ever really used it,” she said. She took Vift off her website but plans to add it back now that she has more customers. She added that low use might have been caused by how she placed Vift into her website.

Gift-giving in particular needs personalization to thrive, said Smith Collins. “Whoever is giving that gift has to let that other person know this isn’t for anybody else,” she said. “This is for you.”

General Manager Brody Ehrlich at KeepTree’s Manhattan office, Sept. 29, 2016. (Paula Seligson/UpstartCity)

As it grows Vift, KeepTree will continue to maintain its KeepTree service, along with a free version called TroopTree for military families. For Vift, Ehrlich said the company plans to focus on building out the product’s features. Vift recently added frames for videos, and plans to add gift cards and the ability to send a thank you video back.

“I think you always have to be willing to pivot,” Ehrlich said. “You have to be willing to listen to what people want and adjust what you’re offering based on feedback.”