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eCommerce Marketing

The Rejection of Social Media: A Grand Experiment

The Rejection of Social Media: A Grand Experiment

by John Larkin

John runs the blog here at eCommerceLift and is a verified Shopify Expert. Interested in an initial growth consultation? Click here

8 years ago

The Rejection of Social Media: A Grand Experiment

Mark Twain once said “What gets us into trouble is not what we don't know. It's what we know for sure that just ain't so.”

Obviously here at PropelAd, we are big proponents of Facebook advertising. And we always advise eCommerce retailers that they have to experiment when they start to advertise. Start with a small group and scale it out when you find out what works. You don’t need to target everyone.

If you can target 5000 people with an ad you can get a fairly good idea of how effective the campaign is for a fairly low investment. But there is no point in just thinking about it - the best way to define who best to advertise your business is to start advertising - even if you spend as little as $50, you can find out a hell of a lot. Experiments are key.

And right now, one of the most fascinating experiments in eCommerce is just about to start, with one of the most interesting men in tech at its helm. Nobody knows yet if it will succeed or fail, but either way, it’s going to make a splash.

Matt Rutledge is the man in question and his company, called The Mediocre Company, is about to launch, a daily deals site (which seems like a good idea… five years ago).

But more on that later - first off - let’s talk a bit more about Rutledge himself. Rutledge started an eCommerce store in 2004 called but in doing so, he broke just about every rule you could imagine in online retailing.

Woot offered one item for sale every day. Just one. And the product went online at midnight every night. These items were completely random, though there was a bias towards electronic goods. But the items could (and did) include anything from a handgun to a wheel of cheese.

It didn’t matter much though - most items were sold out within a couple of hours. And those items that somehow didn’t sell - ended up back on sale as part of a mystery lot, or ‘bag of crap’ as they were called on Woot, and these were even more popular than the named items.

Customers were crazy for the products but Woot developed a following for their witty descriptions and irreverent style. They even described themselves as being “like the home shopping network but in slow motion”. Regardless of how they did it, Rutledge and his team were a success. (In truth, Rutledge was a bit baffled by his success. He was quoted as saying “It was so bizarre to me to have so much fanfare. I wasn’t trying to be innovative in eCommerce in the least bit. I was just selling stuff cheap.”

By 2008, they were getting one million page views a day and averaging over $100 million in sales. Around this time, Amazon stepped in to buy them, for an estimated $110 million in cash. (The first two words in Woot’s press release to announce the sale, were typically… “Holy Crap”.)

And though he can’t say it explicitly, that’s where it all started to go wrong for Rutledge. The witty descriptions, the couldn’t-care-less attitude… That was all swept to the side. Speaking to D Magazine, a magazine based in Dallas, Rutledge said.

“On the creative side… the pressure to sell killed the writing. There was such a huge emphasis on growth. If you have a day when something doesn’t sell great, someone says, ‘What the hell happened?’ Well, it’s the easiest thing in the world for a buyer or manager of buyers to point to the write-up. So people were saying, ‘Hey, I’m told I have to sell every single one of these things, and I really need you guys to write a more glowing write-up for this thing that you know is a piece of sh*t.”

So now, he’s back, starting a site called (which was partly a reaction to people becoming tired by deal sites like Groupon and DailySocial and the likes and, people are guessing, partly based on Rutledge’s reaction to the time he spent at Amazon).

It’s not that different from really (except Rutledge now has more money - it’s estimated that he spent over $100,000 buying the domain name) but what is different, and fascinating from an eCommerce background, is that he plans to do without many of the ideas that are normally considered as standard.

“There will be no social media, no liking, no sharing, no email sign-up,” says Tim Rodgers (writer of the article in D Magazine). [Rutledge] thinks email is a brand-damaging annoyance. 

The site should be compelling enough that people won’t need to be reminded to go to it. Repeat visitors who don’t buy stuff can click a “meh” button that will increase their prestige in the Meh community. [Rutledge] says, “Many people will be like, ‘But it’s a store. Why would you do that?’ That’s the fun part.”

Not using social media at all seems like a gamble. Things were different on the internet in 2004 - Facebook was only a few months old and was barely known about in Harvard, let alone in the wider world, Twitter was two years away from being created (and about five years away from being accepted) and the dominant force in mobile technology was the Motorola Razr flip-phone. 
But distain for the way people use the internet now is becoming something of a chorus by people who made their names in the first era of the internet.

Rutledge’s dismissal of social media was echoed just a few days later by Charlie Brooker in The Guardian

“We don't use the internet,” he said. “It uses us, and the more personalized any online service appears to be, the less it thinks of you as a person. The experiment is evidence that you and your hopes and dreams are nothing but a miniscule, malleable blip as far as Facebook is concerned: a pocket-sized data mine with functioning nostrils.

“They're all at it. Google tracks your every move, knows where you live, and is probably about to send a driverless van round to take you to work in its silicon mine. Amazon plans to launch drones that'll fly over your garden dropping packages containing algorithmically-selected items you haven't even ordered yet onto the heads of your children. Netflix knows damn well you rewound the film to look at that actor's bum, and it'll email your parents right now to tell them unless you agree to a 40% price hike.

“I jest. Just. But such a world is clearly inbound, even if it's not always clear whether the mass manipulation is deliberate or not.”

There is more than a little irony in the fact that Brooker (a fantastic writer, but one who made his name as a video-game reviewer around the same time as was taking off) and Rutledge are railing against the use of social media considering how they made their money. 

The simple fact of the matter is that social media doesn’t much matter to people like Rutledge or Brooker - they’ve already made their names. What would be the chances that D Magazine, the Guardian or even this blog would be covering if it was ran by some anonymous guy from his mother’s house? Fairly slim.

The fact is, will probably work just because people already like Rutledge. He’s funny and irreverent and the site will almost certainly be hilarious (it’s worth noting that when asked what site or business was his main inspiration for the new site - he answered South Park). So people will flock to it. 

And even while themselves might not be active on social media, their fans will be. In fact, it would be amazing if the overwhelming majority of their traffic wasn’t driven by social media.

It’s all part of Rutledge’s modus operandi. He’s the guy (with $20 million in his pocket) sticking it to the man. He’s not desperate enough to use social media. (But he’s not going to discourage his customers from using it.) Truth is, you probably don’t need social media when you are as good at attracting media attention as Rutledge is. Even his next idea sounds fascinating. 

It’s going to be called Each visitor buys an item for the next visitor, thereby receiving a surprise item from the previous visitor. will probably work. But that’s based on Rutledge’s record and reputation more than his stance against social media as a useful tool.


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