NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Ad-emaciated fashion magazines are hitting newsstands this month, but in the online space a Mountain View, Calif.-based startup is gaining momentum with a user-generated-content play targeting fashionistas.
In the last few weeks, the social-media fashion site Polyvore has hosted digital campaigns for Nike and Gap -- which have given the website its two biggest ad commitments since it launched in 2007 -- and acquired $5.6 million in new capital. Its more than a million monthly visitors create collages of click-to-buy fashion products, turning Polyvore into a blend of user-created content, digital advertising, viral pass-along and e-commerce.
For retail chain Gap's denim relaunch, Born to Fit, Polyvore is hosting a sponsored design competition surrounding the product line. Mixing digital images of the jeans with other images of their choosing, users create what look like fashion magazine cut-and-paste collages to compete for $100 Gap gift cards. To connect the patchwork products to Gap's e-commerce site, a list of price points and "buy" links accompany each user-generated design. In 11 days, Polyvore users have submitted more than 1,500 "sets," the site's name for the collages. Sets submitted for the Born to Fit competition also feed into the Born to Fit Facebook page, crafted with digital agency AKQA.
Last week Nike also launched a Polyvore competition for its women's training gear, which has received almost 800 entries.
Founded by former Yahoo engineers Pasha Sadri, Jianing Hu and Guangwei Yuan, the Polyvore concept hinges on what product manager Jess Lee calls "user-generated ads." (Ms. Lee had led Polyvore's ad sales until recently, when it added VP-Sales Lisa Gevelber from personal-finance-software company Intuit.)
Outside of ad programs, users visit Polyvore to create fashion collages with products that it includes in its library at no cost to brands. Users gather the product images from across the web using Polyvore's bookmarking tool. The tool clips items from brand sites so the images also include the products' e-commerce links and price points; photo sites that don't contain product info, for example, are blocked from the clipping tool.
Users search the entire community's clipped images and drag them into Polyvore's styling tool to create sets. They can then comment on the sets or embed them elsewhere on the web. The site currently hosts 11.5 million sets and about 30,000 are added a day. In July, Polyvore attracted 1.4 million unique visitors, which is more than double from the same period last year, according to Comscore.
In the past month, Polyvore has "reached the critical mass," said Rei Inamoto, AKQA's global creative officer based in San Francisco. "It gives control to consumers. ... It's one thing to create a site where people come to comment, and another for people to have to do work to submit."
In addition to competitions, advertisers can pay for prominent placement in the Polyvore styling tool or target their products to pages featuring competitors' products or similar products. Recent campaigns include Bloomingdale's and fashion brands Tory Burch and James Perse. In September there are programs slated for Marc By Marc Jacobs, Interscope musician Lady Gaga and fashion retail site Moxsie.com. Another Gap Inc. retail brand, the 3-year-old online shop Piperlime, will soon return to Polyvore for a second program, following a campaign this spring.
Evolving online shopping
"After the campaign, we saw an increase in the Polyvore community using Piperlime products in their sets, and that has sustained until now," said Melissa Lau, director of marketing at Piperlime. "We also saw that people would use the sets they created in blogs, which gains awareness for us." She said Polyvore drove traffic to Piperlime.com, but declined to share specific metrics.
One of Polyvore's strengths is that it has evolved the online shopping experience, giving it some of the benefits of offline shopping, said Chris Boothe, president and chief activation officer of Starcom USA, which handles media for eyewear accessory brand Luxottica and outdoor buying for Gap. "When you go to a mall you go into eight or nine stores to mix and match a customizable look. It's more in line with how a person really shops."
Polyvore reports that it drives more than 1.3 million clicks to e-commerce sites per month, or less than 1% of its monthly page views. The site works with affiliate marketing networks such as LinkShare and Google's ConnectCommerce to make revenue from sales.
But marketers such as Gap and Nike aren't intended to be purely e-commerce drivers, said Polyvore's Ms. Lee, but to drive word-of-mouth vehicles.
Drive for relevance
"Our intent is not to drive traffic, it's to make the brand relevant," said Ivy Ross, Gap's exec VP-marketing. "It might drive online sales, but we're more interested in the creative community and to make sure we're represented and let the community create content for us."
Brand advocacy aside, do sites like Polyvore have the potential to grab dollars that might otherwise go to fashion magazine websites? Grace Wong, senior director brand communications at Gap and digital lead on Born to Fit, said she can't compare the Polyvore campaign to programs with fashion magazine sites, because those digital campaigns are usually sold with print.
"The thing that would be threatening to an Elle or a Vogue or a print site is that [Polyvore] is way more interactive," said Ms. Wong. "Polyvore users can create. On Vogue or Elle it's less participatory, more just viewing videos or content."