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As someone who believes we all have a responsibility to contribute to society (not just in our home country but also to important global issues), I’m receptive to initiatives that marry consumerism with philanthropy.

When the industry I work in contributes to good causes, it puts a smile on my face.

That’s why I’m interested in how e-commerce facilitates socially responsible actions, such as enabling donations to Charities and not-for-profit organisations, without placing the burden on the individual to part with cash.

The latter is particularly important given the continued economic woes and financial pressures.

At a PR event in London earlier this month, I had the chance to sit down and discuss this type of business model with the CEO of a fast growing UK e-commerce company: Polly Gowers of Giveasyoulive.com.

I thought our discussion would make an interesting post. 

The business concept

Originally launched in 2005 as Everyclick using a paid search model, it quickly grew to a quarter of a million users. It became apparent to the management team that to get traction, the business had to think like an e-commerce retailer and provide a high quality proposition for the consumer.

Therefore, the focus shifted to using an affiliate marketing model, delivering high class usability and user experience driven by technology, on the premise that only by stripping away the barriers to usage would the service gain mass market appeal. 

The key concept: allowing people to give to charity without putting their hand in the pocket and not making them visit the website to initiate the purchase. 

Using the affiliate model strips away the barriers, as the cost is borne by the retailer and 50% of the commission received by Giveasyoulive.com is poured directly into Charity coffers.

Retailers are used to this model because affiliate is an established and thriving channel (affiliates drove more than £5bn in e-commerce revenue in 2011, according to our UK Affiliate Census).

As Polly explains:

Charities are great high street retailers with their charity shops that are filled with second hand donated goods. However, as the high street moves online, affiliate marketing offers an new opportunity where the donated goods become the commission from millions of new products  that a charity’s supporters are already buying online. 

Give As You Live is now a £6m retail business. And this is an important distinction: it’s not a social enterprise. It’s a business that uses e-commerce and retail clout to support Charities and is run by experienced digital professionals.

How it works

There are two ways for people to shop. 

Online via the shop

Like a traditional affiliate partner, Giveasyoulive.com is a shopfront to the retailers’ products. It trades the site as a retailer would – product led, using price and promotion to get the customer’s attention and then intelligent web design to facilitate purchases. 

This is similar to other affiliates with a charity twist, such as Easyfundraising.co.uk, which has donated more than £4m to good causes in the UK. 

From this angle, it faces competition from large, established online shopping portals like Quidco and Top Cashback where the customer can earn cash back for making a purchase. This is why being competitive regarding price and promotion is essential to growth.

Using a browser extension

This is the key differentiator: you can download the browser add-on which then acts as a permanent account management tool, enabling you to see which retailers support the program and how much money you are raising for your chosen charity.

Initially launched in IE, it’s now also available in Firefox, Chrome and Safari (I’ve added the Safari version, quick and easy – see below).

 

Tapping into the psychology of shopping behavior

As an industry, we’ve learned quickly that providing solutions to make customers’ lives easier is the best route to e-commerce success. I’m not going to quote stats or research. I think we can all agree this is an established maxim.

Polly believes that online shopping behaviour is ingrained, it’s far harder to try and change it than to tap into it. So, shift the focus from getting people to part with their money to rewarding their shopping loyalty with competitive deals and a social bonus that generates goodwill.

I think there are two benefits to this:

  1. Those who explicitly want to support good causes can do so transparently and easily.
  2. Those who aren’t so inclined can feel subconsciously better about their shopping having a positive side-effect (like taking credit for someone else’s actions).

Whilst I don’t 100% agree that you can’t change people’s behaviour online, I think providing a service aligned with existing shopping behaviour is the easiest for shoppers to embrace. 

I know, I’m already using the browser extension. And it’s really easy. I love the way it overlays the logo for participating retailers in SERPs (see below).

I think Giveasyoulive.com is differentiated in its use of technology. Technology is the driver, not the enabler. The browser add-on makes it easy for the consumer to:

  • See which retailers support Giveasyoulive.com in SERPs.
  • Know what commission rate will be passed on to their charity of choice.
  • Keep track of how much money their shopping has generated for this organisation.

Usability at the core. Easy sign-up for retailers & shoppers

The browser extension was designed to reduce reliance on retailer data feeds for driving revenue. Why force people to go to the shop when the shop can go to them? 

Retailers simply need to accept Give As You Live into their affiliate program via the networks, then provide a data feed. As per standard affiliate marketing, the commission level can be set at category and product level to help protect margins.

This isn’t re-inventing the wheel, it’s using existing processes to minimize the barriers to uptake. 

Future challenges to remain a technology driven proposition 

E-commerce is rapidly changing. The growth of mobile, multichannel (I still have a pathological dislike of the term ‘omnichannel’) and social is constantly changing the way we access information and making buying decisions. 

For example, mobile apps like Shopkick in the US reward mobile customers for visiting stores, even if they don’t make a purchase. We’re seeing the emergence of an e-commerce generation that expects services to be cross-channel and on-demand, not isolated to the web and invisible in-store.

In light of this, the key challenges I can think of are:

  1. Multichannel commission structure. Generating commission regardless of the channel the purchase is made from (including offline).
  2. Improving the user experience for smartphone. The current site is not mobile optimised but this is planned in Q1 2013, essential to maximize peak sales [December 2011 drove 40% of total annual traffic, of which 20% was via mobile devices].
  3. Integrating high quality digital marketing optimisation, like retargeting. The front-end is only part of the consumer challenge.
  4. Mobile tracking for affiliate marketing. Challenges with tracking mobile device activity to ensure commissions are triggered, increasingly important as many shoppers are multi-device users. 

Polly has identified technology, and more specifically mobile, as being a key battleground:

Without doubt the rate of change in how people use and access the internet is the most exciting challenge. The expectations of a user depending upon the device they use to access information is a challenge that we constantly review. Being “mobile compliant” is a technology requirement – understanding what experience a user needs and wants from the technology they are using is, I believe, the biggest question to effectively answer.

Who is using it?

Retailers

  • Over 2,000 and counting. 
  • 87% coverage of the top 100 retailers in the UK.
  • Top brands include Boots and House of Fraser.

Shoppers

  • Currently there are 250,000 unique users.
  • The number of shoppers increases on average by 16.8% per month (Sept-Oct 2012 saw a 50% increase in new shoppers)

Charities and not-for-profits

  • It works for all 200,000+ UK Charities.
  • It has raised funds for over 17,000 UK causes to date.
  • The team increases the number of charities they actively work with by 300+ each month.

I was happy to find that The Rosemary Foundation, a local volunteer organisation I support (they looked after my Grandad so well) is part of the program, so they’re now linked to my account – I just need to start spending but I’m sure my wife will be happy to oblige!

Are you using it?

So what’s your take? Do you think socially aware e-commerce solutions like Give As You Live will continue to prosper in the affiliate marketplace at the expense of other players who don’t have a visible charitable contribution?

Is this an easier way of getting people to support the ‘big society’ concept than traditional fundraising such as street hawkers?

What challenges do you think Polly and her team face to rapidly grow the user base and revenue streams?

I’d be interested to hear whether or not this social contribution would encourage you to shop via Give As You Live instead of other affiliate sites (think Quidco), provided the offer and price was competitive.

And if you have examples of other e-commerce sites using the affiliate marketing model and donating to good causes, please add them in the comments.

James Gurd

Published 21 November, 2012 by James Gurd

James Gurd is Owner of Digital Juggler, an ecommerce and digital marketing consultancy, and a contributor to Econsultancy.He can be found on on Twitter,  LinkedIn and Google+.

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