At Copious, The Love Button Drives Social Commerce

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Here’s the simple premise behind Copious, the San Francisco-based social marketplace: despite all the buzz about “social commerce,” the social networking revolution hasn’t really come to online buying and selling between consumers. The two biggest exchanges, eBay and Craigslist, are products of the first Internet boom, circa 1995, and the experience of discovering products on those sites is still structured mainly around search, rather than social cues. That just doesn’t click with many consumers today, who often don’t even realize they want something until they see a recommendation from someone in their network.

There’s a huge, winner-take-all prize waiting for the company that figures out how to capitalize on this new style of envy, says Copious co-founder and chief operating officer Jonathan Ehrlich. Trillions of dollars’ worth of usable but unwanted merchandise is sitting in consumers’ closets, attics, and garages, just waiting to be sold to someone who values it more—and Copious is “hell-bent on being the company that captures the lion’s share of that demand,” along with the fees that good middlemen can extract, he says.

Jonathan Ehrlich, co-founder and chief operating officer at Copious

Jonathan Ehrlich, co-founder and chief operating officer at Copious

Ehrlich admits that he and Copious co-founders Jim Rose and Rob Zuber don’t know much about women’s clothing, which has always been the biggest product category on the site. But they do know a thing or two about social marketplaces. The Canadian natives founded Mobshop, a group buying startup, back in 1998, and grew it to 180 employees in nine countries before the dot-com crash put a halt to the nascent, pre-social-networking effort.

Ehrlich says the return of social buying à la Groupon—and much more importantly, the rise of Facebook, where Ehrlich was director of brand and consumer marketing from 2009 to 2011—convinced them it was time to try again.

“The whole nature of commerce is changing,” he says. “Up until about two years ago, if you wanted something you would go to a search box on Google or Amazon or eBay, and it would be a blood sport [among the competing marketplaces] to get that click. Now the demand is being created and reinforced through social connections with friends, on platforms like Facebook, Pinterest, and Lookbook. The challenge for brands now is ‘How do I affix myself to this massive conversation that’s going on, and make sure that when the demand is ready to be filled, it’s filled with me?’”

In a visit with Ehrlich late last year at Copious’s crammed SoMa headquarters, I got the lowdown on how the startup taps social conversations, and why Ehrlich thinks it’s positioned to surpass its far larger rivals. The refreshingly blunt COO say it all comes down to “the opportunity to create a crap ton of e-mail”—meaning the marketing messages that are generated automatically every time someone on Copious lists, likes, or sells a product. Why this actually works out as a benefit for members, rather than a spammy mess, is part of Copious’s intriguing formula, which may be unique among the social-commerce businesses I’ve encountered.

To get a bead on Copious, you have to start by understanding the power of social sharing. In other words, you have to ask yourself why the content sharing site Pinterest is so much bigger than the crafts marketplace Etsy.

According to Web traffic stats compiler Compete.com, Pinterest had 27.3 million unique visitors in November 2012, compared to just 10.3 million for Etsy. That’s surprising at first blush, given that both sites amount to curated visual catalogs of quirky products, projects, and housewares, and that Etsy had a five year headstart in building  a following (it was founded in 2005; Pinterest didn’t come along until 2010). The two services even feature many of the same tools: on both sites, you can follow other members and “like” the products they post.

The big difference, in Ehrlich’s view, is that sharing was an afterthought at Etsy, whereas at Pinterest, it’s the whole point. “With Etsy you come in and you still see a catalog,” he says. “Pinterest came along and said, ‘We are going to turn this beautiful Etsy idea on its head, and instead of organizing around products, we are going to organize around people and what they pin.’ In effect, they sucked the discovery layer off of Etsy.”

Copious, which introduced its service to a select group of beta users in April 2011 and opened up to the public in January 2012, takes a big cue from Pinterest. Under the hood, it’s a simple online store where anyone with an item to sell can upload a photo, set a price, and wait for a buyer to come along and make an offer. Copious handles the credit card payments when a transaction closes; to reassure buyers, it holds the money in escrow until the purchased item arrives in the mail. The startup makes money by subtracting a 3.5 percent processing fee from the seller’s profits and adding a 6 percent fee to the buyer’s price.

But that’s where the resemblance to eBay or Craigslist ends. Copious tries to make the user’s experience “personal out of the gate,” Ehrlich says, by asking them to login using their existing Facebook or Twitter identity (90 percent of members choose to connect through Facebook). That lets the company immediately suggest a group of people to follow, meaning that there will always be some new items in the “feed” that appears on a new member’s Copious home page. There’s also a page that lets new users specify what kinds of things they like, from gadgets to purses to vintage shoes.

The Copious feed, which is the rough equivalent of the “Following” page on Pinterest, amounts to a personalized store where every item has been endorsed in some way by someone in a member’s network. “Everyone’s experience is unique based on who you are, as a function of your friends, the styles and categories you identified when we set you up, and the actions of the people you are following,” Ehrlich explains.

"Power seller" Althea Harper's page on Copious

"Power seller" Althea Harper's page on Copious

Equally important, every product page features a big heart-shaped button that lets you “love” a product, and a comment area where you can leave your thoughts about it. If you love or comment on a product, an update or “story” about that event will show up on the feeds of your followers, and in e-mail updates to those people.

The interplay between the Love button and the personal feed is where things really get interesting. All marketplace-based businesses face the same economic pressures: they have to acquire users and generate transactions at the lowest possible cost. The more people who see an item’s product page, the more likely someone will buy it. So Copious has poured a lot of effort into building mechanisms for story creation and sharing.

Ehrlich walked me through a hypothetical example involving Kaitlyn Barclay, who happens to be Copious’s community manager. In the example, Kaitlyn “loved” a black-and-gold handkerchief dress being sold by Kim, one of Copious’s leading sellers. Kaitlyn has 1,200 friends on Facebook, 200 followers on Twitter, and 50 followers on Tumblr, which means her actions created the opportunity for 1,450 stories to be shared across her networks.

But that was just the beginning. Kaitlyn also has 30,000 followers on Copious, and Kim has thousands of followers of her own. Also, 114 people had “loved” the handkerchief bag prior to Kaitlyn, meaning they were also destined to get updates about actions related to the item, both on their Copious home pages and in e-mail updates.

In all, Kaitlyn’s simple action in the example Ehrlich shared generated nearly 60,000 stories—most of them in the form of personalized e-mails, which happen to have very high open rates. That’s copious.

“That is the idea that makes the experience powerful,” Ehrlich says. “If you think about it, Facebook was also built off e-mail. When friends tag you in a photo, it’s like a person-to-person e-mail, not Facebook-to-person, so the efficiency is much higher.”

When people on Copious set up their profiles to receive e-mails when things are loved or followed or sold, Ehrlich says, “the result is this crazy, organic, viral, engaging experience where people are coming back in based on e-mail notifications. And when they do come back, they oftentimes buy things. I haven’t seen another commerce experience that’s doing this.”

Copious members can specify which of a dozen different events on the site should prompt an e-mail, so there’s an opportunity to dial back if they’re feeling deluged. But so far, members haven’t complained that they’re getting too much marketing e-mail from the company, or so Ehrlich says.

Because sharing is the engine behind the commerce at Copious, Ehrlich doesn’t mind if members spend more time clicking the Love button than they do actually buying things. “The action of loving creates a message to the graph that brings people in who may love another item or buy another item that is more applicable to the mood they’re in,” he says. “It’s that serendipitous discovery that really makes this thing work.”

Copious focused on women’s clothing as its first big product category because women are bigger online shoppers, and tend to have more unwanted items in their closets waiting to be sold, donated, or thrown out. But recently the company has added categories like men’s clothing, home products, and art that it hopes will appeal to men as well as women. “If we are going to move into other categories of items, we first have to cross the chasm of gender,” Ehrlich says.

An even bigger and more immediate challenge for the 15-employee startup, which has raised $7.5 million in venture funding from Google Ventures, Foundation Capital, and Relay Ventures, is recruiting more users. The site already has “several hundred thousand” registered members and is gaining thousands every day. And once people have supplied a Facebook or Twitter credential and logged in, they buy stuff at an encouraging rate, Ehrlich says. But the community isn’t big enough yet to be “super liquid and scalable,” Ehrlich says. Translation: there aren’t enough people around to snap up the available items quickly.

“The percentages are good, but we have more work to do on total mass,” Ehrlich says. He’s hoping Copious’s growth will mimic that of Airbnb or Pinterest itself. Both companies had user bases that grew very gradually for a couple of years “until they found the knee in the curve,” in Ehrlich’s phrase.

Ehrlich doesn’t think Copious is the only Web startup that’s awake to the potential of social sharing as an organizing principle. He says Quora is following the same principles in the question-and-answer market, as is Spotify in the music sector and Gogobot in the travel sector.

But even though eBay recently revamped parts of its site to incorporate more social signals, Ehrlich doesn’t think of the 18-year-old auction giant as a direct competitor. That’s in part because Copious’s audience is so different—it’s mainly frequented by women under 45, while eBay’s audience is older and more male. But it’s also because he doesn’t think eBay groks social.

“The greatest marketing channel today is your users,” Ehrlich says. You have to figure out how to hitch your wagon to them, and if you can’t do that efficiently it’s going to be impossible to scale. We fundamentally believe that this is going to transform every single industry. And we think marketplaces are where there’s the greatest opportunity.”

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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  • http://www.dailygrommet.com Jules Pieri

    I have to admit, being in a business that uses email heavily too, that I always wonder who those people are that have time for a “crap-ton of email”, as Jon hilariously puts it. (We think so hard–too hard?–about being useful and not producing spam when we craft our emails.) It certainly softens the email bludgeon effect if it is person-to-person as Copious understands, and their competitor Yardsellr really makes hay with social sharing tools very well too.

    Jon is very astute in recognizing that Pinterest “sucked the discovery layer off of Etsy.” I would go further in saying that Pinterest recognized that their users probably perceive Etsy as mostly about shopping, with the exception of people who do avid crafting. Pinterest is much more about dreaming up a better future for yourself, which makes it feel less like a time-waster and more like therapy. I’m not sure that Copious can really draw on that oxytocin effect with a marketplace, but they sure have the cred to give it a college try.

    • http://www.xconomy.com/san-francisco Wade Roush

      Thanks as always for the comment Jules! I think you’re right that Pinterest has found a special formula. At some level it’s all about stuff, but the materialism isn’t front and center. The site is more about aspiration and constructing a self-image by curating the things you like. I don’t know if Copious can afford to go that far — it’s always going to be more about selling and buying.

  • Bette

    Too bad copious doesn’t pay their sellers or respond to their emails.

    • http://www.xconomy.com/san-francisco Wade Roush

      Bette, if you have a specific problem with Copious that you don’t feel is being addressed, I can probably help put you in touch with some people there. Write to me at wroush at xconomy dot com.