Despite a name that sounds like some kind of lab-grown synthetic material, and a relatively-tiny number of staff compared to other major social platforms, Polyvore has rapidly grown to become one of the world’s most dynamic, innovative and resoundingly-popular online communities.

Users are encouraged to create image-collages, mixing and matching products to assemble ‘sets’ which they can then comment on and share over social media – the concept helps people discover and define new trends, and then go on to buy items for themselves, since every image on Polyvore is linked directly to a brand’s e-commerce site.

Dating back to 2007, the website, which disrupts and blurs the lines of an already fragmented world of social media and e-commerce, brandishes an impressive 20 million+ unique monthly visits, not to mention accounting for 20% of all social conversions, not too shabby for a company that began life as part of a home-redecoration project.

Rise of a Social-Commerce Giant

Polyvore is the brainchild of a former Yahoo developer named Pasha Sadri. While assembling photo collages of furniture he made use of a Yahoo content-combination tool called Pipes, which he soon realised had potential for the fashion industry given how often people revamp their wardrobes. The site’s winning tactics can possibly be put down to 2 key personnel – CEO Jess Lee was a Google employee who, with a detailed critique of Polyvore and possible improvements impressed Sadri so much he gave her a job, while Chief Revenue Officer Arnie Gullov-Singh came from social-advertising platform Adly, and established the conviction that still holds true at Polyvore – a sustainable revenue stream depends first and foremost on a high-quality user experience.

Two-Click Wonder

PolyvoreDisplayGullov-Singh’s approach can be seen in the site’s clean layout and a very smooth purchase process – one click over an image will go to a product information page, the next to the retailer’s store, with Polyvore’s team of engineers spending a great deal of time automating software to check that links are valid, ensuring a seamless shop.
The community site is intensely popular with our social generation because it can turn anyone with an internet connection and an eye for fashion into a trendsetter, and it allows people to instantly share their creations among friends and influential followers. 43% of the billion-odd sets created by visitors every month are shared over social media, especially Pinterest, which gets 18x as many shares as Facebook. The average time spent on the site is upwards of 14 minutes, and the visitor return rate is a solid 60%.

Big-name brands are falling over themselves to get involved – 600+ at last count. Most of the site’s revenue is generated from affiliate marketing, as users here tend to be older, wealthier and more buy-minded than idle browsers – the average basket price here is an incredible $220. Retailers can use Polyvore to launch new products and collect feedback on them; they can show style-conscious consumers how to create a look from their range, and they can run native advertising as well as specialist competitions and campaigns – for instance both Burberry and Versace have partnered with Polyvore and seen great returns in both traffic and revenue.

Big Data

Plus, of course, this much traffic produces huge swathes of usable data, the Grail for marketeers. Brands can see in real-time what products are resonating with a selected audience, and what keywords are getting the most search requests.
The majority of sets, or ‘mood boards’, are in jewellery, footwear, and home furnishings – women are Polyvore’s main client base – and while it is gaining footholds across several global markets, its biggest markets are in North America and the UK, with other European countries not far behind.

The Polyvore Special Ingredient

Screen-Shot-2013-02-10-at-9.34.57-PMAsk Gullov-Singh and he’ll tell you “Bringing together content, commerce and community, I think, is what makes Polyvore special.” But while that is of course a winning formula, there’s more to Polyvore’s success. Firstly, it’s the type of users it attracts and the techniques it uses to convert them, such as celebrity tie-ins and widespread distribution through other forms of social media. Few other platforms are as commercially-minded – Pinterest, which started only 2 years after Polyvore, is nowhere in the race for profitability.

Secondly it’s the way they engage their community – look for example at Polyvore’s Designer Collective scheme – taking a series of new, independent brands and mentoring them in how to get the best exposure on the site whilst showcasing their product ranges – shoe designer Madison Harding’s sales grew by 2,250% with 70% of traffic coming through Polyvore – that level of involvement fosters incredible loyalty between the site, retailers and users. Polyvore is that rare thing – a mix of e-commerce and social media platform that is both intensely popular, and seemingly-dedicated to putting the customer first instead of seeking to maximise profitability to the detriment of usability.

What The Future Holds

Naturally Polyvore is cagey about its future plans, but Gullov-Singh has commented in the past about what he sees as the next steps. They are, unsurprisingly, all to do with expansion:

  • Into new markets, bringing with them their own individual challenges and opportunities – for instance people in South America are known to be very enthusiastic about sharing imagery online, but does the same hold true for China, or the Gulf States?
  • Into new platforms, the Polyvore iOS app met with success but Gullov-Singh admitted there was a lot of work to do, and with mobile tech moving at such a fast pace this could easily become a predominant obsession.
  • Into new verticals, at the moment Polyvore is all things fashion, home, and interior, however as improvements to the platform continue and their market reach expands, Polyvore could easily find itself in a position that could allow the inclusion of new verticals creating a fully immersive lifestyle social commerce community.

Put the user first

There’s also the question of how to fend off the competition, Pinterest draws high levels of traffic and if it finds a good way of turning that into cold, hard cash then the rivalry could heat up. Meanwhile Amazon is also starting its own community-curated ranges. Lastly there is the problem of how to continue increasing profitability whilst maintaining the usability so beloved by shoppers. But on this last point, it seems there’s little to worry about. Polyvore is in good hands – 40 million of them, and counting.

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Fast Company
Mason Interactive