If you live on the Internet, you may have heard of Ello, a nascent, invite-only social network that threw the Twitterverse into a tizzy in September. There are a few notable things about the site. It was created by visual artists, meaning the design is both minimal and closely considered. Much of its user base consists of graphic designers, photographers and fashion students, although it's a mixed bag. According to co-founder Paul Budnitz, the goth community of Boston is really into Ello.
The network is also ad-free, and staunchly so. Which puts brands — and particularly businesses like fashion labels, which share interests with creative types but doggedly chase sales growth — in an interesting position. To Ello or not to Ello, and if so, how to Ello?
At least one clothing company has already taken notice of the network's potential. On Tuesday, Ello and Threadless announced that they have paired up to create limited edition t-shirts branded with Ello's minimalist smiley face logo and designed by different artists. While that's one very specific way to market through the site — and as Budnitz points out, the two teams were already good friends before coming up with the concept for the collaboration — it does beg the question of how other brands might try to capitalize on the site's buzz.
Despite its anti-ad stance, Ello isn't blocking companies from joining its platform; if you ask Budnitz, brands are "totally welcome." The site just doesn't permit paid advertising or promoted posts, and its users only see content from accounts that they've opted to follow.
Greg Foley, the creative director and designer for V, VMan, VFiles and Visionaire, joined Ello about two months ago at Budnitz's suggestion. He's been using the platform to show his color studies, something he says he felt would "be beautiful on the platform." To Foley, Ello is a place to post personal work and have fun. None of the publications he works for have active accounts.
“It's so personal that I've got to wonder, if I were a brand and I wanted to engage on this, it'd have to be in a really unique and personal and ultimately fun way, and not selling at all," Foley says. "If they're not doing something that's a really nice creative expression, I don't think anyone's going to be interested in engaging with that account."
Budnitz takes a similar view. He says he would recommend that brands eschew posts featuring their names writ large and instead make use of the site's full-screen images by posting photography, video or writing. His theory is that people genuinely want to get a behind-the-scenes look at the creative process, and they'll engage in the comments accordingly.
"A friend of mine who's really deep into social media says the worst way to use it is to play for ads," Budnitz says. "You're paying for people to see things they wouldn't organically want to see, so their interest level is fairly low... If you put up stuff that people are really interested in, you can gain a relatively large following fairly fast."
So with that creative caveat in mind, is it even worthwhile for a brand to join Ello right now?
Rachel Tipograph, the CEO of TIPO Entertainment and the former global director of digital and social media at Gap, believes that at scale the platform could occupy a position similar to Tumblr. Ello won't release numbers on how many active users it has, but it's safe to say it's significantly smaller than most well-known social networks. So with the site's current reach, the question brands face is whether engaging this specific community is a good investment. It might be if they find that the platform serves potential customers they're not reaching, Tipograph says, or if existing customers are using it.
The obvious reason to get on a buzzy social network like Ello is to make a PR play. The electronics company Sonos got press for joining early and promptly failing to create a single post. But as Tipograph points out, it could also be a good way to connect with creatives, hear their ideas and put new products in their hands.
Lest we forget that there are some in the industry who care more about design than they do the pursuit of sales figures, Ello could very well be a space for fashion creatives to meet potential collaborators, even across disciplines. Foley's experience on the site would suggest that it can be a fruitful outlet for artists. The trouble is that when you get to the corporate side of things, Ello's policy of not selling ads or consumer data makes measuring return on investment difficult. And that's something companies need to see.
"Brands and community managers have jumped around to the places where their fans are, but beyond a loose gauge of impressions and any sort of tracking you'd be able to bring to the table via tools like Omniture or Google Analytics, I don't think there's much on Ello that gives brand managers a way to calculate ROI to justify spending time on the platform, or tools to assess whether or not its audience is there," says Ben Breier, a social media consultant who recently authored a popular Medium post on Ello's relationship to brands.
According to Danielle Bailey, a researcher at L2 Inc focusing on luxury labels' use of social media, brands are engaged on an average of 7.5 social platforms. But thanks to fixed resources and diminishing returns, they may have to winnow their selections of social outlets in the near future.
"Brands are no longer interested in social as spaces for community building and engagement. The shakeout in social is happening, brands and investors are starting to demand real returns," Bailey wrote in an email to Fashionista.
So while some brands will of course chase marketing on Ello — and remember, even the least overtly promotional post is an advertisement — perhaps many of them will elect not to push too hard onto Ello. We'll be waiting to see. The platform is, after all, still in beta.
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