How PopSugar built an Instagram tool that helps retailers with their e-commerce

Last fall, PopSugar started building a tool designed to increase referral traffic from Instagram Stories. Later this month, that same tool will hit the market as a subscription product meant to help retailers and brands with their e-commerce efforts.

For the past several months, the lifestyle publisher has been fine-tuning a digital product called Sparkle, a fast-loading web page format designed to facilitate e-commerce transactions. Thanks to API connections with digital retailers including Amazon and Walmart, a marketer can use Sparkle to easily build pages filled with curated collections of items for sale. Brands or retailers simply have to upload a background image, add links and marketing language to a page builder, and Sparkle will build a page that can be used in any mobile environment.

Though it was originally developed for Instagram Stories, PopSugar’s evp of product marketing and sales strategy, Chris George, said that he sees opportunities to use Sparkle to build pages that brands can drive people to from mobile search results, mobile sites or other platforms.

Though PopSugar began by offering the product to large retailers it already works with, it expects to begin offering a lighter version to smaller retailers through Shopify’s app ecosystem. It is toying with the idea of including a small amount of media to entice smaller retailers to use Sparkle. The full-service version of the product, which will include full analytics and account support from PopSugar, will carry a monthly price tag in the five figures, George said, with the lighter version costing quite a bit less.

“As we started bringing it to brand partners, we realized there was a bigger opportunity,” George said.

As Stories have turned into a pivotal feature in Instagram, they have become an important source of referral traffic for publishers, who use Stories to drive everything from branded content views to e-commerce.

But pages that users access by swiping up tend to load slowly. After noticing that PopSugar was losing out on traffic because users were abandoning Stories before their content loaded, the publisher’s six-person product research and development team, PopSugar Labs, started building a page format that would load more quickly.

After initially using it to capture more email addresses and drive long-form video views, PopSugar began using it in the beginning of 2019 to drive e-commerce on its own properties. It tapped into the APIs at Amazon and Walmart so that any person who clicked on a buy link for a product in the page would be automatically directed to a new checkout page with that product in their carts.

That version of Sparkle was included in a presentation that several PopSugar executives, including George, made this spring as part of an annual road show it makes to advertisers. After getting some feedback from brands and retailers, it began optimizing the product for use among retailers and brands.

Sparkle currently has five retailers integrated and expects to add more. “Some retailers are very easy,” George said. “Others are more protective and there’s more of a vetting process.”

Though publishers have long tried to position themselves as middlemen or gatekeepers for brands looking for audiences online, their continued investments in digital products that drive e-commerce on platforms could lead to more hacks and evolutions like this one, said Gretchen Grant, a senior consultant at Quantum Media.

“Many of the things that publishers discover they do well, either opportunistically or over time, do end up being of use to advertisers,” Grant said. “Publishers are always trying to figure out ways to add value to advertisers in direct deals.”

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