Etsy changes things about their service all the time. Just about the only time they aren’t testing or introducing changes and new is the Christmas season. There’s nothing unusual about this—technology companies are always developing their products and services to improve them or keep them competitive. Shopify, for example, releases piles of new products at their annual Unite conference, and WooCommerce issues major updates at least once a year. But there is one way in which Etsy is different. When WooCommerce and Shopify make changes, it makes their users cheer. When Etsy makes changes, it makes their users furious.
Of course, Etsy isn’t the only company that’s the target of frustration when they release changes. Practically every time Apple releases something new there’s a period of time during which the world fumes that what Apple changed (or left out) will ruin the company and is a big middle finger to their users. But what strikes me about the typical reactions from sellers to Etsy changes is how the dominant emotion isn’t anger or frustration—it’s betrayal.
A Match Made in Marketing Heaven
I’m sure you’ve seen the bumper sticker that says “I wish I was the person my Dog thinks I am”, or some variation of that. Your dog, of course, thinks that you walk on water and can do no wrong. For most of us that stretches the truth just a tiny bit (but usually not as far as we think). Your dog feels intense love and loyalty to you because you give them so much: food, shelter, and love, to name a few things.
Some companies inspire similar feelings in their customers.
To their sellers, Etsy is more than a company. Etsy is where their business lives. Their Etsy Shop is what that allowed them to make their handmade hobby into a full-time job. Etsy Forums are their community where they get feedback, advice, and emotional support from other Etsy Sellers. The relationship between Etsy and their Sellers is much different than the relationship between a customer and a typical company. It’s more personal, and more intense, and as the engine that runs the Etsy machine Sellers see themselves as much more than faceless consumers of a product.
That is a customer relationship that most companies would walk over their own grandmother to get. But Etsy lives a complicated life, and it’s not just Etsy and their Sellers in the relationship—the Buyers are there, too. Etsy would be nowhere without its Sellers, but neither would get very far without Buyers. So there is a constant tension in whatever Etsy does between the interests of their Buyers and their Sellers. Much of the time those interests are compatible, but sometimes Etsy has to choose.
Actions Speak Louder than Words
Etsy doesn’t make life any easier for themselves with the way they make changes. From January through October, Etsy runs what they call “Experiments”. Experiments are changes that are rolled out a small portion of their Buyers and Sellers in order to test them. The subjects of these Experiments are understandably annoyed if anything affects their Buying experience, and Sellers are always concerned about decreases in sales due to half-baked features. Compounding that, Etsy has historically not gone out of its way to get the opinions of their Sellers on changes.
So when Etsy changes something officially, for all users, Sellers aren’t always happy. For them it’s as if their landlord changed the layout of the building overnight, switched out the cash registers, or reorganized their stock room without telling anyone. Sellers are then faced with learning the new way to do things while at the same time wondering what effect the new Etsy changes will have on their business.
Etsy can do whatever they want, technically. They own the platform and they decide who gets to do what with it. But when their public image of a champion for handmade and a partner for micro-businesses is been undermined by things that Etsy changes or does, its Sellers don’t feel frustrated, they feel hurt.
Etsy Changes are an Offer Sellers Can’t Refuse
There’s another reason why Etsy changes are welcomed so differently from changes made by Shopify or WooCommerce. Etsy changes, as I said above, are typically released with little or no advance notice, and opting-out of the new features has gotten harder and harder over the years.
Shopify operates much the same way, with new features being announced with a great flourish of surprise. Shopify, however, knows that the changes they make affect thousands of businesses, and up until now at least have made their changes and improvements additive, in that they add to and extend existing features without rewriting them wholesale or just removing them.
And with WooCommerce, the Open Source development model means that changes are discussed and tested at length and openly so that everyone with an interest has a chance to offer their input, or their code. This decentralized model of development makes it a little more likely that changes to WooCommerce (or WordPress) core will require updates to third-party plugins or themes, but unlike Shopify or Etsy, you are free to install updates at your own speed—or customize your site to ignore the new features altogether.
Be the Business Your Customers Think You Are
If you don’t use Etsy and sell on your own website, you might wonder what all of this has to do with you. The lessons in Sellers’ reactions to Etsy changes apply to any company with a devoted customer base (a fan club, if you will).
Every company wants to have customers who are passionate about their products. Indeed that’s why I place so much emphasis on branding and positioning with my own clients—to see the success they want and deserve, they need to identify and attract their dream customers who will become advocates and evangelists for their business.
This brings us back around to the dog bumper sticker. A legion of loyal customers will only stick around for the long term if your business consistently engages in behavior that represents the values that you attracted those customers with in the first place. Drifting from those values might bring you short-term growth, as it did for Etsy, but it will set you back as well when your original group of loyal customers drifts away and you need to find a new one, but this time with a confusing message regarding what your business stands for.
When you strike out on your own to set up a business, you are making a long-term commitment. Your business needs to be designed to be profitable, and sustainable. It needs to be sustainable to protect yourself from burnout, and it needs to be sustainable in the way it finds and retains customers—you can’t build a sustainable business on slash-and-burn or opportunistic marketing.
Etsy’s now in the midst of a lot of changes within their own company. What comes of those changes will make the difference between building on the foundation they laid over the past ten years, or starting over again and seeking profits from a different customer base. Either way, their Sellers are watching, waiting—and hoping.