Data Driven Disruption at Shutterstock

Lately I’ve been spending some time thinking about how we use all the data available to us at Shutterstock to drive disruption. I’ve given presentations on this topic, and decided it was time to put the talk into blog format.

At its core, Shutterstock is a technology company. Forty percent of our more than 300 employees are technologists — programmers, product specialists, and data scientists. People all over the world depend on us every day for images, videos, and instruction, or as a source of income for licensing their own creative work. Essentially, we’re in the business of building two-sided marketplaces driven by network effects.

Our business leverages data and network-effect mechanics to disrupt and grow. We use them as a feedback loop to iteratively improve our customer and contributor experiences, and to increase the velocity at which data moves between the two sides of our marketplaces.

Living and breathing data every day makes Shutterstock employees in every department — from content and business intelligence to PR and human resources — more effective in their roles. We collect everything we can, and we use data for every decision we make.

As a result, we’ve identified three ways data drives digital businesses today:

1. Data is your product, regardless of what you sell.

Smart businesses drive their core interfaces and decision-making based on user data. The more data you have, the better your position, and the bigger your competitive edge.

Many internet-oriented companies collect and use large amounts of information to automatically optimize and personalize their customer experiences. Netflix recommends what you should watch. Spotify tries to figure out what song you’ll want to listen to next. Amazon aims to predict what you’ll buy. Foursquare tells you where to meet your friends for a beer.

These businesses collect all the information available to them because they know consumers increasingly expect companies to read their minds and improve their experiences. Enabling customers to search a bit faster or knowing a little more about them than the competitor creates an advantage.

The terabyte of user-behavior data Shutterstock collects every day includes what our visitors click on, how they search in 20 different languages, and the hundreds of thousands of images and videos they download daily. We look at how many pages they view and what they did to reach the image they downloaded. We store all of this because it holds clues to what people want out of our website.

The more we store, the better we get. I believe all companies must track and keep behavioral data that can drive their user interface and product if they want to succeed in the coming years.

2. Data is your lens into your business.

Invest in data access

Allowing access to data will change how your team thinks and approaches challenging problems. We empower our employees with data so that everyone at Shutterstock can be productively disruptive.

Experiment with visualization and interpretation

Raw data needs to be interpreted with visualization tools. It’s not helpful unless people can quickly read and understand it. For the past 10 years, we’ve been building visualization tools such as Rickshaw, an open-source JavaScript toolkit for creating interactive time-series graphs and charts to help interpret data. These tools are the real enablers of disruption in our industry, because they allow us to give our contributors — the people who create our images and upload them to our site — the tools they need to make more money.

Test, Test, Test

Nothing goes live on Shutterstock without A/B testing. We built our own internal testing system called Absinthe, and we always have several experiments running. Whether it’s a button color, the text on a link, a page layout, or a banner image, every detail is tested. Rather than debating personal opinions, we allow data to guide us to the best possible decision. If you’re not testing, you’re missing out on valuable information.

Use resources wisely

It’s important to know when to buy pre-packaged tools instead of building customized ones in-house. Look at your resources, decide what your team and customers need, and when you can, try tools that are already available.

Feel the pulse of the business and iterate

I get an email every few hours right to my phone with key business-health metrics. I can feel the pulse of the business from anywhere, and can make tiny changes throughout the day that help push us forward.

3. Data creates your growth.

Most successful businesses make a data-driven science of attracting and keeping users. If you pay to bring users to your site and aren’t utilizing data, you’re missing an opportunity to master a virtuous cycle that will be difficult for competitors to match.

This is how we look at the data-driven growth cycle at Shutterstock:

1. Attract traffic to your website (typically via SEO, SEM, or other marketing)

2. Test what you do with that traffic (create different checkout flows, vary messaging)

3. Select the best approach based on the results of testing tools such as Optimizely, or your own

4. Convert user traffic to sales based on what you’ve learned

5. Invest more in attracting traffic

6. Outbid your competitors when the cycle begins again by attracting even more visitors

While you’re doing  all this, collect everything. Every single raw request to your website includes a lot of information. Every visitor who comes to your site provides an opportunity to learn and build your growth cycle. Taking advantage of traffic to test and improve is critical to success. Each cycle gets more and more efficient, leading to a better ROI.

Constant learning and improvement allow us to keep attracting loyal customers and contributors and delighting them with an experience that keeps getting better. We sincerely believe that the responsible and intelligent use of data provides a competitive edge, and is the key to success by disruption in today’s digital economy.

Would love to hear any thoughts you have by providing comments below.

2 comments

  1. Mesh Lakhani (@Meshlakhani)

    Enjoyed this post. For early age startups, I would assume it’s hard to predict all different bits of data that are collected. What are your thoughts on being able to adapt to data that becomes more relevant as your company grows? Is it for your team (talent) to identify? Or is it more of a quick to adapt to things that you didn’t consider before?

  2. Giang Nguyen

    I was in the audience at Tech and the City last week, and enjoyed very much the insights you shared with us. Unfortunately, did not have a chance to speak with you personally …

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