eBay & Zynga: Building Online Communities | In Practise

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eBay & Zynga: Building Online Communities

Former Manager, PowerSeller Program at eBay & Global Community Director at Zynga

Why is this interview interesting?

  • What makes a healthy online community
  • How eBay launched and scaled the PowerSeller program to drive retention and higher GMV
  • How marketplaces approach serving both B2C and B2B suppliers
  • Why gamification is not crucial for all online marketplaces
  • How to think about driving engagement and retention in online communities
  • Risks for supplier revolts due to marketplace imbalances
  • Online community comparison between eBay sellers and Farmville players

Executive Bio

Shira Levine

Former Manager, PowerSeller Program at eBay & Global Community Director at Zynga

Shira has spent the last two decades building online communities for leading global marketplaces. She joined eBay in 1998 and progressed to manage the PowerSeller Program, the community for the platform’s leading sellers, which involved 120,000 sellers generating $6bn of sales. Shira then joined Zynga in 2010 as the Global Community Director, tasked with managing and growing the online player communities of Farmville and other leading mobile games. In 2016, Shira led Sephora’s Community and Social Commerce and has experience consulting Uber, Pinterest, Afterpay and many other online businesses on building communities.Read more

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Interview Transcript

Can you start by setting some context to when you first joined eBay in 1999?

In 1999, I was an MBA candidate at the Kellogg School of Management, in Evanston Illinois. eBay had just had its IPO. They heard, through the MBA grapevine, that there was a candidate at a top school with collectable industry experience. I had come out of the comic book industry. They came and got me. I was from the American South. I had never lived west of the Mississippi. Never even really thought about it. They basically made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. I joined the company in 1999 and stayed in Silicon Valley for the next 19 years.

How did eBay originally engage with the sellers on the platform?

What I like to say about eBay is, it’s the first commercial community at scale. What I mean by that is, they built 130 old-fashioned desktop message board forums for customers of eBay. Long after the transaction was over, they could talk 24 hours a day about the thing that drove their passion. Whether that be comic books or classic cars or poodle skirts from the 1950s. They cultivated a community of interest around some of these key selling verticals. Simply by creating this space, they basically created online community, in my opinion.

What was key to driving engagement in those early days?

For the earliest days, they had to just let those communities alone and let them just develop relationships that kept people coming back and made it sticky. Then about five, seven years into my tenure at eBay, I ended up running the power seller program, which is the reward and retention program of people who make their living selling on eBay. I’ve been lurking in these other forums and saw the power of those relationships and how it impacted the business. When I took on the power seller program, the company viewed the power seller program as just another group of grandmas online, who wanted to share pictures of their cats. That couldn’t have been further from the truth. What I observed by eavesdropping on the power sellers, was that they were the story of small business in America. Coming from wherever you’re from, small business drives every economy, everybody knows that.

Once I grokked that that was the truth of this group, we re-engineered the entire company to enable these folks to be better sellers on eBay. We created a community of practice around the business of eBay for the people selling on eBay. That community of practice permeated through everything we did. You may remember, we had seven years of eBay live, which was a big gathering, a global gathering of all the people on eBay. We took that and made it totally seller focused. We created a seller diagnostic station, where they could come up and get tips on their business. We introduced sellers to each other. We figured out what they wanted, and we matched it to a company goal, and we created a program around win/win. It really advanced the business.

How do you look at the offline and online balance? I would have thought you focused a lot on the online community, in terms of the sellers engaged with each other, but it seems like you actually integrated that with eBay live, which was effectively an offline, face-to-face event.

We’re in this amazing digital age and this time of opportunity for incredible scaled connectivity; global scaled connectivity. Online, of course, has to be a huge part of it. We worked with the power sellers in whatever technology platform we had at the time. At the time, we basically had a desktop forum and we just engaged with them. We often had virtual town halls with them. I would bring an executive from the C-suite into that forum for an open Q&A. Then they would have discussions on their own that they would then bubble up and bring to me, of things that they wanted to talk to the company about. Our online tools for organizing community, the entire social media world is built on this connectivity at scale. You’d be crazy not to employ those tactics. As you and I both know, and especially now during Covid, nothing takes the place of in-person. Once you get that magical goop going between people’s relationships, then there’s nothing that can’t be done. For example, all of our sellers knew each other from the online world, but then when we got them together, there was a massive at scale women shoes wholesaler, who needed to pick pack warehouse system. They met their competitor from the middle of America, from Kentucky, and now suddenly they became cooperators. The New Jersey guy shipped all of his shoes and shipped them out of Kentucky, even though Kentucky had his own warehouse and his own sales. We forged incredible networks. As I said, once you have that foundation, everything is possible. It just raises the water level for everyone.

How did you focus and help sellers increase sales or profitability?

There’s an art and science to this community management. It’s not just straight marketing. You actually have to get to know what works for sellers. We undertook a process where we took the top percent, performing sellers and we really invested the time to get to know them and what was working for them, about eBay. We took their lessons and we distilled them down to seven things that everyone eBay business could do, to do better. We then syndicated that to all sellers. When I say then we re-engineered our live events, we just married it all up to those seven skills and really pushed everyone into doing better. After that, the product, eBay itself, started to match these tips for better selling. Then eBay took that data and was able to monetize that if you use more pictures, you’re more likely to sell. If you start your pricing at this level, you’re more likely to sell. Now, those are all algorithms. I invite you to sell an item on eBay today and you’ll see, basically, the result of that work that we did in 2003.

What exactly did the sellers say was most important to them?

It’s an art and a science. What’s most important to a seller is selling more. In some cases, we would visit their warehouse and have a look at their showroom or their customer support. Really, it boils down to: help me sit on my butt more comfortably for longer and sell more stuff. It just so happens that that is exactly what eBay wanted them to do; sit on their butt for more hours more comfortably and sell more stuff. You may know that in the United States there’s no standardized government supported healthcare. One thing we did was, we just did a deal with an insurance company to give our sellers a medical discount card, like discount on optical and discount on prescriptions, which is something they couldn’t provide because they were small businesses in America. We gave them enough of those cards. Up to 50 per seller, for the people with a big team. That changed everything for these people. It was a real value-added benefit. It didn’t cost us anything and really, depth-charged the comfort of our most important customer, in a B2B context.

It was really almost serving them, not even as a seller on eBay, but just their demands as a business owner.

That’s why I say it’s an art and a science. You really have to invest, and we really did, invest resources, in getting to know these businesses. The businesses and the people behind them and what was needed. Sometimes it’s not obvious. The numbers say one thing, the guy on the phone or on the forum says another thing. Then you walk into the warehouse and it’s like, wow. What they really need is a fulfillment center or whatever. What can we do, at scale, that can help everyone in this way?

You walked into the program and you literally went and met sellers.

Let me tell you about my favorite ones.

Was there any one moment or benefit or change in the program that really drove the growth or the value add for sellers?

Yes. I’ve mentioned all the education that we did and then how we changed the product. There’s one memory that really stands out more than any. Once I realized that this was the story of small business in America, it just so happened that the US Congress was going to try to pass a tax, internet tax on items on eBay. This is now ancient history. It came to be, but it was the first time it was on the table. I worked with eBay’s government relation’s department to take 50 sellers, one from every state, to go lobby on Capitol Hill in Washington, with one of the President Bushes and go represent the 50 states. Introduce congress to one seller from every state. Like I said before about being in person, nothing is more impactful than walking into the Georgia’s senator’s office, with the guy from rural Georgia, who has 50 employees in the middle of nowhere selling massive walk-in restaurant refrigeration, from a warehouse in his district. Nothing is more impactful.

This guy is employing 50 people. 50 people means 50 times five in the household. 250 people creating incredible economic bases for that small town and really driving the American dream. There he was, he showed up in Washington. That was in my long career, that is one of my favorite examples of what is a win/win? A win/win is John Stack from Georgia, with their walk-in refrigeration, not having to pay tax. People not having to pay tax, so he could keep his prices low, bringing him to Washington to advocate for his own business that was on my platform at the time. Nothing was more impactful. It was a wonderful experience. It proved me to that in every business there is a range of things that are win/win. Good for the company, good for the customer, that you can mine to create these everlasting engaging relationships. It was a total gamechanger.

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eBay & Zynga: Building Online Communities

June 9, 2020

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