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Streamlining your online business

RedBubble was first conceived as a me-too local version of a successful overseas website, but a change in direction made it one of the world’s most successful online art communities.

Josh Mehlman speaks to co-founder Martin Hosking about the difference between a community and a social network, and the best ways to streamline the e-commerce experience. 

Optimising the buying experience

Since launching the site, RedBubble has spent a lot of its time and resources on streamlining the online shopping process. This was based around an important understanding of user behavior: that some users were there to browse and communicate, while others were there to shop for artworks or to print their own. It might even be the same person on different occasions.

“Trying to separate the buying experience from the community experience, but allowing both to coexist and thrive, has been the most challenging thing we have done from a design point of view,” says Hosking. “If you tip too far in one direction or the other, the whole thing falls over.”

Hosking believes many sites fall down when they give the user too many options, so RedBubble aims to keep things relatively simple.

“If people are buying a piece of framed wall art, most of them don’t know whether they want museum-grade AAA paper or museum-grade AA paper,” he says.” We said, ‘Let’s only allow enough configurations so people can get it looking the way they want.

“So yes, you’ve got four or five different types of T-shirts, you’ve got multiple choices of color, but allowing those decisions to be made in a relatively fluid way, and as you make a decision, you see what the result looks like.”

The site also provides enough information early in the buying process about important issues like how long the products will take to print and how much they will cost to ship.

“People get really pissed off if they get surprises about that sort of thing,” says Hosking. “It’s essential to show the information upfront. If we offer free shipping when you buy four T-shirts, we say, ‘OK, this is how many more T-shirts you need to buy to get free shipping.”

Hosking admits developing and refining this functionality has been expensive, but it has paid off.

“The difference it makes to your economics is just phenomenal,” he says. “You can increase how much people buy by 25 to 40%, depending on how you adjust that end of the site.

“People are making decisions about do they really trust this site, is the stuff really going to ship, what it is going to look like, what happens if the quality is wrong.

“If you make that difficult, in the e-commerce world, it’s so easy for people to say, ‘Oh, I can’t be bothered right now. Once you’ve lost them, you’ve typically lost them forever.”

Online business is different

Hosking thinks people who start online businesses make two common mistakes: trying to replicate the real-world experience online and not putting enough thought into the economic model behind their sites.

“People try to replicate online what is in the offline world and as a result, they end up with something that doesn’t work well online and is no better than what was happening offline,” he says.

“In our case, we said we were going to be an online art gallery. You can’t. Walking into a gallery and talking to the artist or the curator about the history of the artist, that’s an experience you can’t have online. If you say you’re going to replicate that, you’re bound to fail.

“You have to think about the power that the internet gives and the different things it can do. It loses something and it gains something. “

Online entrepreneurs need to recognize what is lost when they build a website, and to build on what is gained, he says.

“The second mistake and this has become more common, is not thinking seriously about your economics from an early stage.

“We have been deluded by a whole series of successes over the past 10 or 15 years, and you cannot in Australia build a Twitter and say, ‘We’re going to worry about the economics later’. #

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