Our world is full of fundamental assumptions: the sky is blue, houses have doors and windows and cars drive on the right side of the road (in America). These assumptions help us get on with our lives efficiently and allow us to focus on unsolved problems. In software engineering, these assumptions are called design patterns—tried and true solutions to problems that come up again and again. 

But in the past two decades we’ve learned that there is big money in challenging these common assumptions: 

  • For a long time, we assumed that phones were for phone calls, and needed a keypad. The iPhone reframed the phone as a mini-computer with a touchscreen. Since its launch, more than 2 billion iPhones have been sold.
  • The defining principle of soft drinks has always been taste—Coke and Pepsi battled it out for decades over who tasted better. Red Bull bypassed that entirely and focused on the function of the drink (energy). In doing so, the company invented a new category and sold almost 7 billion cans in 2018.
  • More recently, coffee connoisseurs have been obsessed with freshness—freshly ground beans brewed same-day. Cometeer reinvented frozen coffee for connoisseurs by flash-freezing the good stuff to maintain the flavor, and the brand has raised close to $100 million in funding despite operating in a crowded category.

Note: if you think these stories are interesting, you can find 50+ additional examples in this thread.

Given all of these success stories, and given the “disruptive” impulses of the tech industry, it’s surprising that the fundamental assumptions of eCommerce have remained the same for so long.

Why Do All Big Websites Look The Same?

Almost every eCommerce site follows the same fundamental “path to purchase”: homepage, product listing page, product detail page, checkout.

And most eCommerce websites of a certain scale apply this pattern in the same way, no matter the brand’s customer base or positioning. Compare the product listing pages of Target, Amazon and Net-A-Porter:

Side by side of the product listing pages of Target, Amazon and Net-A-Porter, respectively.

If you hid the header bar containing the brand’s logo and applied the same font treatment across all three sites, it would be nearly impossible to tell them apart. 

Insiders #080 dug into how we got here, and the potential downsides of slavish devotion to design patterns:

“Best practice thinking today for customer purchasing paths follows an Aristotelian Philosophy - in terms of what is natural to the human being i.e. what is intuitive. It is intuitive - natural - for us to use the search bar to find what we want. It is natural for us to have visual and color cues for actions such as add to cart. It is natural for us to use broadly recognized symbols and words to represent navigational features and elements.”

The result of this Aristotelian, optimization-focused approach is that most eCommerce experiences have regressed to the mean. This school of thought is obsessed with “reducing friction” to the point that anything brand-specific fades into the background. 

Reducing friction is great for scraping incremental conversions off the floor—winning over shoppers who are on a mission to find “product x”, but have little to no relationship with your brand. And in the realm of enterprise eCommerce, battles over market share are often won or lost through these incremental conversions. 

But this approach prioritizes quarterly KPIs over long-term viability. It treats your customer base as a monolith, assuming that your best customers want the same frictionless experience as casual browsers. And ironically, it completely ignores two other popular industry talk tracks: personalization and customer journey mapping. 

We want to propose an alternative to the status quo. Enter: Dork Mode.

The Dork Mode Manifesto

A relentless focus on sitewide KPIs and marketing channel performance distracts us from an essential truth: our traffic and our sales are made up of customers. 

  • Of every 100 new customers an average eCommerce site converts, between 25 and 35 will ever make a second purchase. 
  • It will take an average of four to five purchases for a customer to become loyal—to arrive at the point where they have a higher probability of returning than lapsing.
  • An average of 5-9% of new customers will ever reach “loyal” status, but this group will contribute disproportionately to the bottom line, sometimes driving 20-30% of annual sales.

Other industries have identified creative ways to reward VIPs and big spenders. Airlines have “status”, which impacts your boarding order and access to other perks that make air travel more bearable. Restaurants and clubs let VIPs skip the line and seat them at special tables. And eCommerce retail has...points programs and “exclusive discounts” that rarely stand apart from all the other discounts. What a letdown.

We’re proposing a better path forward. If the average site user can flip a switch to activate “dark mode”, then a brand can identify its most loyal, engaged users and provide them with a “dork mode” experience — particularly if they’re willing to wade through a host of eCommerce and business acronyms (like: VIP, CLTV, CX, CS, etc.).

If you’ve made five or more purchases with a brand, there must be something about that brand that resonates with you on a deeper level. It may start to become a part of your personal identity. Dork Mode is a way for the brand to celebrate and amplify that relationship. Dork Mode acknowledges that the connection between a brand and its superfans is deeper than “frictionless commerce”.

Episode 195 of the Future Commerce podcast with Ben Schott covers “Adorkable” brands. These are new brands that launch with a clear, differentiated aesthetic and apply it across every touchpoint in a way that might alienate those outside the core.

As Ben said on the pod:

“I'm not meant to enjoy it. I'm not even meant to see it….Adorkables do not care whether I like them or not."

Dork Mode is the grown-up manifestation of Adorkables. We acknowledge that a Fortune 500 company can’t trick out their site in a way that would thrill 10% of their audience and alienate the rest. But that doesn’t mean the brand’s most engaged fans should receive the same hyper-optimized experience as everyone else. Sometimes a little friction can produce brand heat.

Principles of the Dork Mode experience:

  • It should target your biggest fans. Dork Mode should feel like the special table in the primo location that a restaurant reserves for frequent patrons. Your dork mode audience shouldn’t just be your biggest spenders. It should be the subsegment of those VIPs who are most likely to tag you in social posts and gift your product to friends.
  • It should feel like an “easter egg”. Dork Mode is not a loyalty program that you flog tirelessly through marketing. Members of the target audience log into your site and they get Dork Mode. Surprise! (and delight)
  • It should reflect and amplify the ways your VIPs already celebrate the brand. Get thee to Instagram or Tiktok (or wherever your super-fans hang out online) and dig into the most popular posts and hashtags related to your brand. Reflect on how your VIPs incorporate you into their self-concept and build from there.
  • It should throw “best practices” out the window. Best practices create functional websites, but they also create boring websites. You want to create an experience that encourages the VIP to linger, browse and discover. This might involve exclusive products, gifts with purchase or digital assets like NFTs, voice memos from the founder, tutorials, etc.

Dork Mode In Practice

Future Commerce’s idea of what a Home Depot Dork Mode should look like.

Home Depot found success on Wall Street by catering to professional contractors while its competitors focused on the DIY segment. But more recently the Home Depot found a different kind of success. The brand has been the focus of several recent memes and TikTok trends:

Home Depot can use Dork Mode principles to transform awareness into sales. What if word got out that there was a secret area of the Home Depot website “designed” by the twelve-foot skeleton? Or even a hidden portal to the “Gen Z version” of the Home Depot website, a “How do you do, fellow kids?” version of the boomer staple?

There would be several ways to access this version of the site. Each access point would reveal a different part of the experience, which might include new versions of the twelve-foot skeleton or other exclusive products with meme potential.

This version of the Home Depot site would feel like discovering a random website in the early 2000s: unpredictable architecture, random content, and feeling like you were never 100% certain what the next click would reveal.

If the experience was compelling enough, it would become the next thread in Gen Z’s cultural dialogue about Home Depot. If the merchandise was compelling enough it could spawn more memes and even more Home Depot customers. And all of this would happen without confusing or alienating the core Home Depot customer. That’s the power of Dork Mode.

So You Want To Enter Dork Mode

The best part about Dork Mode? Much of the technology needed to make this strategy a reality already exists. The eCommerce community (especially the enterprise community) has been obsessed with personalization technology over the past decade. A lot of this technology does a really good job of identifying different customer segments and enabling teams to serve them unique web or marketing experiences.

Here is a short list of the capabilities you’ll need to enable Dork Mode:

  • A clear idea of the customer profile you’re trying to target
  • The ability to analyze your customer data to identify that profile. Depending on the complexity of the ask, this can range from an ESP to a CDP.
  • The ability to identify those customers on your website. This can be as simple as targeting a list of logged-in accounts, or as complex as integrating a CDP with web personalization tech like Optimizely.
  • The resources to bring your desired experience to life. You’ll probably need some kind of web development resource for this.

Most mature eCommerce businesses already have these four tools at their disposal. But in an ironic twist, access to tools has led to analysis paralysis and a sea of sameness among major eCommerce sites. Let’s change that. Let’s embrace Dork Mode.