In September and October 2014, newbie social network Ello was the talk of the (tech) town, making waves with its minimalist interface and a staunch anti-advertising stance. At the time, Facebook was mired in a bit of controversy over its real-name policies, and users flocked to Ello as a refuge from Facebook’s relentless commercialisation, and contemplated making the switch to Ello as their main social network.
Of course, Facebook kept its throne as the controversy died down, and not long afterwards, the hype surrounding Ello faded away too. But in the two years since then, Ello has been quietly developing itself into a strong community for makers, artists, and creative users of all kinds, adding new features and launching apps on both iOS and Android.
Despite standing firm against advertising on its site, Ello is not averse to monetising or to teaming up with businesses, especially those with a creative slant. And early last month, it realised a long-held goal of adding ecommerce features to its site, launching ‘Buy’ and ‘Hire Me’ buttons to help its users monetise their content.
Ello is the latest in a long line of social networks to venture into ecommerce. So what is Ello’s take on ecommerce, and how does it hope to set itself apart from its competitors?
Ello meets ecommerce
Ello has always been upfront about the fact that it would need to monetise its content somehow in order to stay afloat. In early interviews, in which Ello’s founders were often quizzed on their ability to keep the site ad-free, they outlined plans to sell additional, ‘premium’ features to users for a small fee, such as the ability to log in to multiple accounts. Other ideas on the table included allowing Ello’s creatives to sell their work on Ello, with Ello taking a small cut of the proceeds.
“We’ve always intended to move into native ecommerce and offer unique Creator buying and selling experiences,” says Todd Berger, who is Ello’s co-founder and CEO. “We’ve been closely considering native ecomm since we’ve launched and have a number of working designs in play.
“The effort to move into native ecomm is a big one, so we’re taking our time and evolving Ello in accordance with where we think the most value is for our Creator members and their audiences.”
Items for sale in Ello’s Shop category
A number of ecommerce websites aimed at independent artists, such as Etsy, Society6 and Redbubble, have found success in recent years, but none of them have integrated social features into their interfaces – something which Ello seems to be honing in on as a unique selling point for its ecommerce offering.
Along with the traditional ‘Buy’ button – which allows Ello’s users to add a green dollar icon to images of their products for sale on Ello, together with a link back to their individual shop – Ello has launched a ‘Hire Me’ button for freelance creators to signal that they are available for work. This takes the form of a button on their profile which Ello users can toggle on and off in their Settings.
“We very much want to connect Creators with one another to facilitate opportunities for idea exchange and for new work to be produced, while creating quality employment opportunities at the same time,” says Berger. “There’s a “collaborate” experience coming to Ello very soon too. We see our “Hire” and “Collaborate” experiences shaping the future of the Ello community.”
A month on from the launch of Ello’s new features, the community seems to be embracing the new functionality, listing everything from art prints and books to clothes, jewellery and even pairs of skis for sale on Ello.
The different items for sale are all curated in Ello’s ‘Shop’ category, although at the moment there is no ability to search within buyable items, something which it would be a good idea to implement if Ello wants to get serious about being an ecommerce platform.
A different kind of social commerce
The big difference between the way that Pinterest, Twitter, Facebook and other social networks have approached ‘Buy’ buttons and ecommerce features and the way that Ello has approached them, though, is its focus on the individual user.
Other social networks market their ecommerce features specifically towards brands and businesses: Twitter launched its ‘Buy’ button through partnerships with major retailers like Burberry and Home Depot, and Pinterest’s buyable pins are only available to specific brands and commerce platforms. Ello, by contrast, makes its ecommerce features available to any user who wants to put their work up for sale, with its emphasis firmly on the individual “Creator”.
“Surviving and thriving as a Creator is a challenge, but design and technology are levelling the playing field and creating new and different opportunities,” Berger says.
“That’s what Ello is really all about – using design and technology to connect Creators so they can share their ideas, develop new ones, build new relationships, grow their reputations, get hired, collaborate and inspire others while being continually inspired.
“I think one of the big differences between ecommerce on Ello and other platforms like Twitter, Pinterest and Snapchat is that our community is comprised almost entirely of Creators, so there’s a focus and appreciation for the Creator that’s not necessarily factored in to the experiences on those other products. Being Creator-focused empowers us to think differently and to support our community in ways that those platforms don’t necessarily consider or act on.”
But in spite of this focus on independent artists, Ello doesn’t see itself as competing with websites like Etsy and Redbubble, either. Instead, it sees them as potential partners. “We’d prefer to partner with marketplaces to help better promote the Creators that sell there,” says Berger. He points to Threadless, an ecommerce platform which sells clothes featuring designs by independent artists, as an example of this.
Ello and Threadless have one of the social network’s longest-standing partnerships, Ello x Threadless, a range of T-shirts with designs by Ello artists. Ello plans to expand this partnership in conjunction with its ecommerce features, allowing anyone who makes an artist shop on Threadless to promote their wares on Ello, and in future, import them directly.
Ello x Threadless T-shirt designs
Could Ello’s user-focused approach enable it to actually profit more from ecommerce features in the long run, in contrast to how many bigger networks have struggled to get social commerce features off the ground? At the moment, it’s early days. It’s not immediately clear whether or how Ello is currently making money from its ecommerce features; when asked whether Ello tracks sales of items that are made from a user clicking through from Ello, Berger replied that, “We do not directly track sales through to member’s stores, but some of our referral partners do.”
He elaborated, “As we move into more custom affiliate relationships, our partners will be tracking sales, or account creations – transactional things that come with referrals. Our affiliate partner program is really one experiment among many. We desire to help Creators sustain themselves and we’re considering and testing many ways to do this, while working to sustain ourselves in the right ways at the same time.”
Berger also confirmed that Ello still plans to introduce premium features that users will pay to have access to, as well as a ‘premium subscription’ model for users who want access to “more Creator-focused specialty tools and experiences”.
In this respect, Ello isn’t all that different to other social networks who monetise by trying a whole mix of strategies and seeing what sticks. But Ello might be smart in going about this in a way that larger social networks have so far eschewed: by mobilising its creative user base and playing to their unique talents; by marketing with them, rather than to them.
A platform like Tumblr, which is rich in artists, makers and crafty types, might have benefited from trying this tactic, instead of throwing increasing levels of advertising at its users and hoping to make money from them before it drove them away.
It’s not an approach that would work for everyone, of course. But if Ello can make a success of it, it could serve as a possible model for other social networks to follow in its footsteps.
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