Case Profile – Zazzle

By Lara McPherson | 20 Jul 2010

For Mike Karns, Director of Consumer Marketing and International at Zazzle, the key ingredients for success in e-commerce are the three Ps – but they’re not the same Ps you may have learned along with your marketing study. “People, product, and passion!” he says with a level of enthusiasm indicative of the whole Zazzle approach […]

For Mike Karns, Director of Consumer Marketing and International at Zazzle, the key ingredients for success in e-commerce are the three Ps – but they’re not the same Ps you may have learned along with your marketing study. “People, product, and passion!” he says with a level of enthusiasm indicative of the whole Zazzle approach to business. Karns explains that the Zazzle culture greatly contributes to ongoing innovation and a team feeling. “The Zazzle team works incredibly hard (and smart), but we also know how to have fun.  We shun the idea of cubicles or closed workspaces, choosing instead to organise in open working ‘pods’ which contribute to the team approach we apply to everything we do.” This doesn’t mean that they aren’t focused on delivering results.  “Since the beginning of the company in 1999, the founding team has been extremely focused on quality, technology, and data-driven decision making,” explains Karns. “As a company, Zazzle remains uniformly committed to these core principles, and this commitment continues to differentiate us from our competitors.”

It was this balanced approach that led to the creation of a very unique e-commerce business which is part custom goods boutique and part artist-to-market moderator. Sound complicated? It is actually quite genius in its simplicity. Artists, designers, illustrators and the like can submit their designs to be displayed on the site, allowing customers to purchase those they like to customise unique t-shirts, stationery, mugs and all manner of giftware. A portion of the proceeds goes to the artist, a portion for manufacturing and a portion to Zazzle. The site also has a select few licensing agreements with big brands like Disney and Hallmark which have identified the market for custom products within their brands.

As the business model shows, Zazzle concentrates on quality designs, and as Karns explains, the company does not see Zazzle itself as the brand. “We focus the limelight on the great designs, content, and products provided by our millions of members and less attention on the Zazzle brand itself,” he says. “Zazzle is a services platform, and less a consumer brand in-and-of itself.”

An understandably high level of detail was required for creating the Zazzle site. With no real blueprint or examples to base its site on, the team took great care in ensuring the site included all the necessary features to showcase its unique offer, but also that it included the elements required to provide a good user experience to customers and also the artists. One of the significant challenges was ensuring customers could see an indicative representation of the product they are purchasing, before paying to have it custom made. “The visualisation technologies that we have come up with, including Zazzle Realviews, the Zazzle Stitchplayer, Zazzle Screen Printing, and the powerful Zazzle design tool, enable customers to see the products and design in a much deeper way,” says Karns. Offering further reassurance is the Zazzle Promise. “One hundred percent satisfaction and no-questions-asked 30-day return policy – this underscores everything we do, not just on the fulfillment side of our business, but company-wide.”

Another unique challenge for the company is how to manually merchandise more than 30 billion customisable products. Automating the system takes the guess work out of merchandising. “We use a system of algorithms to help float the best products to the top of the Zazzle Marketplace. Ultimately, customers decide,” says Karns. While the business does have its challenges, it also has the benefit of no inventory holdings, as all products are made to order. To complement their unconventional business model, Zazzle has custom built its own back of house systems to manage stock enabling the company to fulfill most custom orders within 24 hours.

The company already has a strong presence with social media thanks to more than 20,000 Facebook fans, multiple Twitter accounts (for marketing and customer service) and plenty of Twitter buzz. YouTube videos posted on the Facebook page also serve as a useful branding tool, displaying some of the shenanigans that the team get up to at the office parties. Like many e-commerce companies, Zazzle is yet to determine just how to leverage its efforts with social media to generate sales. However, the company already benefits from the social media efforts of individual designers which helps to expand its customer base and indirectly increase engagement with the brand.

While the business model does allow Zazzle to capitalise on the good branding of sellers and designers to grow the customer base, there is also a large focus on a high rate of customer retention.  Robust email marketing campaigns for post-purchase engagement as well as more traditional value drivers like in-package promotional fliers help the company to increase customer value. But as Karns explains, it is the company’s thoroughly considered user experience, from the site to delivery methods, that maximises customer loyalty. “That includes everything from the design and layout of our website, to site speed and reliability, to the quality of our products, to the friendliness of our customer service agents, to the dependability of our logistics and shipping partners,” he says. “In general, loyalty is driven by an overwhelmingly positive overall user experience with the Zazzle website and service, from end to end. ” And like all good e-commerce businesses, the team is still optimising and evolving the site, striving for the best possible user experience.

As a company that is constantly striving to make things easier for its customer, Zazzle is predictably excited about mobile technologies. When a mobile strategy is implemented, Karns is adamant that it too will be a seamless addition to the existing offer and serve to enhance the site and the user experience.

And with the company now moving into custom screen printing, they are opening the company up to the remaining 99% of the market they are currently operating in. And while it’s come a long way from the business the Beaver family started in 1999 (brothers Bobby and Jeff remain senior partners with the business), the family business feel is prevalent. While a significant investment in the company (thanks to Google) has changed the scale at which the business operates, the business is still operating on a strong foundation of innovation, backed up by sound data and more than a little bit of fun – check out Bobby and Jeff’s video below.

Zazzle has set a great example for small businesses to do things differently in order to grow. What elements of the Zazzle business could be beneficial to your business?

  • Use analytics and data to guide your decision making.
  • Don’t be afraid to try something new and different.
  • Remember that great ideas can grow from collaboration.
  • Sound fulfilment and supply chain processes are a key element of your marketing strategy and can greatly contribute to customer retention and loyalty.
  • Always consider each element of your business in the context of the business as a whole and assess your data accordingly.
    This can help to clarify which elements are working and which need attention.

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