In this interview, Ayush Agarwal talks about the insights that led to the launch of Seniority.in and the challenge of getting senior people to shop online and discover new products. Agarwal describes how Seniority makes use of advanced AI-driven tools to target specific ads to different buyers, and why personalization of the customer experience is key. We discuss how advanced analytics helps Seniority launch private label products as a key revenue strategy, and Agarwal also talks about their response to the COVID-19 disruption and its impact on the business.
To start with, we would love to know about your journey – how you started Seniority, what led to the venture, and what’s the business model?
Ayush: We started Seniority over four years ago now. To give you a little background, before that I was actually part of the RPG group. I was hired as part of the General Management Programme. A lot of large corporates in India have these programs, where they hire folks straight from B-school and give them these various combined challenges to solve across the Group in various companies in marketing and strategy roles trying to solve specific problems.
One of the things that I did was a part of the team handling the go-live of CEAT Specialty Tyres – to ensure a smooth launch of the new subsidiary focused only on off-road tires, with a specific focus on the US and the Europe markets. As part of the team that runs that company, we did a lot of extensive and exciting work in Europe and the US, trying to figure out where the demand pattern was going. So that was a very exciting time for me to be part of launching a new product and company.
In 2015, RPG announced the launch of RPG Ventures, wherein they were looking to invest in early-stage startups and also looking at incubating startup ideas. I was very intrigued, and that startup bug had bitten me during the launch of CSTL, so I really wanted to do something of my own, starting an idea from scratch. So we started trying to figure out what can be done, and what are the broad overarching trends in India.
One of the things that really stood out to me was how, while India is a young country, people keep forgetting that India is also a rapidly aging country. Like in the US, and Europe, where the population demographics shifted, even in India right now, seniors are growing at 4% year on year, whereas the overall population is only growing at 2%. These kinds of trends stood out – senior’s population going up, pensions going up, the nuclearization of families going up, combined with our own personal experiences.
At the time, I lived alone, and my parents were in Ghaziabad, and my colleagues as well had the same experience. All of our experiences were around how we want to do well for our parents, but there’s no way for us to do so. On Flipkart or Amazon, there are only so many smartphones or shawls that you could buy. If you wanted to discover something to buy for seniors, there was no platform.
At that time, FirstCry was doing well in the younger age group for toddlers and infants. Expecting mothers and families could go to a FirstCry to discover products, but I realized if I want to buy something for my mother’s birthday or my parent’s anniversary, there’s no place I could go and discover products. So that was the crux of the idea.
Over time, we defined it, and we figured out what good markets would be and what channels would be good, but the crux of the idea has been sort of a combination of the overarching trends that we saw in the country, combined with some very personal experiences of our own. The two things combined gave rise to Seniority in early 2016.
How do you define your target market, and what kind of segmentation do you work on from a marketing standpoint?
Ayush: When we looked at the senior market at that time, a few players were in the market with different slices towards capturing this market. Be it travel, for example, where a Thomas Cook would target seniors as the largest segment, or real estate developers might launch new properties that are seniors specific, but there was nothing in the eCommerce space.
We also realized that we would have an omnichannel strategy since we assumed youngsters would buy online for their parents, and seniors would want to buy offline. Because they want the relationship aspect of shopping – for them, shopping is not just a transaction. People talk about the relationship aspect and going beyond the transaction, so on the website, we added a lot of other features that went beyond the transaction. For example, we added a feature that lets people call or WhatsApp us, so there is an in-person interaction before making the purchase.
So to answer your question on targeting and segmentation with this context, what this led to was that our initial assumption that youngsters will buy online and seniors would buy offline actually got flipped. So through these innovative interventions, what we were able to do was convert tech-savvy seniors, seniors, who are on smartphones and Facebook or WhatsApp, but weren’t comfortable making eCommerce transactions.
We were able to convert these tech-savvy seniors into e-commerce savvy seniors as well. It made a huge impact in the way we targeted our various audiences. We realized that even in our online business, it’s not just youngsters who are buying.
More than 30% of our revenues come from seniors making the transactions themselves. Even amongst the youngsters, a good chunk of them could be where seniors were actually just sitting next to them, sharing links to them, and saying buy this product for me. So with this knowledge, the way we have always done our marketing is focused on where our target audience is present, as far as discovery-based products are concerned.
Because Seniority has a lot of extremely innovative products that you wouldn’t even know existed, let alone search for them or find them. One feedback that we keep on getting from people is: “This is such a good product, it solves this very specific problem that my household has, and I didn’t even know that such a solution existed.”
Products get discovered by people on Facebook and Instagram. Typically Instagram is a younger audience profile while Facebook has a very strong senior citizen base. More than 10 million monthly active users in India are over the age of 55 on Facebook. Because of how the advertising rules are structured, we are targeting very specific copy and imagery to particular audiences.
When we target seniors, the imagery would be involving sort of seniors and, you know if it’s about a gardening product and the imagery would be about some seniors going gardening, and the copy would be about how it’s time to relive your old hobbies. Whereas targeting youngsters, we talk about how this is a product that can make the life of your parents easier. So relatable imagery and relatable copy for the two distinct buyer sets that we have.
The tools that we use on Facebook, Instagram – the ads management tools make it very easy for us to segment our marketing communication to the exact audience we’re speaking to. Google is a completely different beast altogether because it’s more search led. It is more demand or pull led, but thankfully it’s not as complicated.
If someone is searching for a product, they already know about the product itself in all probability. At that point, you have to compete with other eCommerce portals to be seen as the most relevant one. On Google, our advertising strategy is based on just proving Seniority’s credentials i.e., we are the right place to buy, for example, wheelchairs, or walkers or walking sticks or adult diapers, or whatever it is.
So that’s how our different targeting and segmentation works across different audiences.
Social media is one of the primary channels through where you are doing targeted messaging, and you have a very large pool of prospects that you’re targeting there. What kind of technology stack are you utilizing at your end to ensure that you can manage personalization at this scale?
Ayush: So far, we’ve been using Unboxd, which was for our search and recommendation engine. We are now experimenting with a tool called boxx.ai, which coincidentally Netcore has recently acquired. As we speak it’s being implemented on our website, and we can do an apples to apple comparison between the two tools so we can make a decision
We have realized that because our audience personas of people landing on the website are so different, we can’t show the same plain vanilla website to everyone. Of course, it will take time. We are not at a stage where the entire website is personalized for every single user. It will happen in phases.
Right now, we’re implementing this on certain product showcases, but the banners and so on are still common across audiences. But over time, the aim is to make the website module by module completely personalized for any given product you are searching for.
Since you’re using tools that enable you to utilize AI, please share AI use cases for personalization that you are working on.
Ayush: At our size and scale, we are using the tools that are already out there in the market, we are not creating any new AI-based tools. But from a customer experience perspective, there are two places where we use AI quite extensively. One is on our advertising platform itself. Earlier on Facebook advertising, we used a tool called Nanigans, which could enable you to do a very quick multivariate testing across different copies and captions and creative ideas.
Now incidentally, Facebook itself has been able to implement those capabilities onto its base advertising tool. So we can leverage the power of AI quite extensively on Facebook itself. The way we can assign certain interest groups or look alike audiences for Facebook to be able to showcase that ad to very relevant people is quite phenomenal. That is one place where we see AI as a great enabler of Seniority’s business.
The other is on the website itself through the customized search implementation and the customized recommendation implementation. Again, a very strong use case of AI and ML wherein as a user keeps on coming back to the website, the tool keeps on learning more and more about that particular user. To be able to showcase relevant products to them is also something that’s been pretty interesting for us in terms of being able to drive incremental revenues.
So both on Facebook to drive down costs, and on our website to drive up revenues – on both of those key pillars, we’re seeing a great use case of AI and ML.
You’ve come up with your own branded products. What was the thought behind coming up with your products, and was this decision based on the data and pattern that you’re observing?
Ayush: Absolutely. There is extensive analytics that goes into the choice of products that we choose to launch on our private label. I won’t call it AI because that term gets thrown around quite a lot. In our case, when we decide on which products would work well as part of our private label strategy and then analyze whether our initial hypotheses of this product will do well post-launch.
Both pre-launch and post-launch, we do quite a lot of analysis to ensure that we are getting the right products. And then our initial hypotheses of the product selection is validated by the market, in actually seeing an uptick in sales or a downward trend in marketing costs for those set of products.
We use both Adobe analytics as well as Google Analytics to track these numbers. There have been quite a few examples of us being able to show that our product sourcing engine and the product analytics engine are both working very well in sync – to get the right kind of products on to our private label. So much, so that private label products are driving almost 20% of our revenues within a year.
Right now, we are at around 15%, but the trends show that over the next couple of months, we’ll be seeing almost 20% of our revenues being driven by private label products. So that’s quite phenomenal for us – to be able to go from zero to 20% within such a short span of time.
Well, that’s, phenomenal in terms of the growth you have realized, please share some success stories where these data-driven decisions worked for you.
Ayush: I would say that any product that you see on our private label portfolio would fall under that. For example, for a product like a Zero Block Syrup, A very interesting product that is great for cardiac health. We launched that product under the third party brand around 12 months ago, and then about eight months ago, we launched it under the private label brand name. For that product – pre private label and post private label – purchases went up by nearly 30%.
The fact that we were able to identify that product as a potential candidate for the private label strategy and then able to private label it in a manner where we showcase the benefit to the end-user. By being able to analyze the data as to what people are using it for and what kind of things people are looking for in a product. Combining the knowledge of these two things and showcasing it as our private label product – conversion rates went up by almost 30% for this product.
Across the board, across our private label products, we are seeing this sort of improvement in the add-to-cart rates as well as conversion rates – because of the way we’re able to get the right products into our private label product mix, as well as on the communication and the messaging side.
Every industry has got impacted by the COVID-19. There is a surge in online purchases, but on the other side, in terms of fulfillment, eCommerce companies have faced challenges. What’s been your experience during this time, and how do you see things changing post-COVID?
Ayush: As a matter of fact, we see far greater demand post-COVID than pre-COVID. Since the government announced the restriction of curbs starting mid-May, wherein eCommerce products could be delivered all over the country, what we’ve been seeing is almost a doubling of our daily run rates.
Compared to the pre-COVID era, you could put it as a doubling of run rate or the reduction of marketing spend by almost 40% to drive similar revenue numbers.
Because of third party logistics providers that we work with being able to deliver it to the end-user, our delivery rates have also been as good as they used to be pre-COVID.
Users are now much more willing to experiment on eCommerce than they used to be, maybe six months ago. People are forced to move out of the reticence to shop online, because their local shops haven’t opened, or the local supply chains are still disrupted. So they’re forced to experiment with eCommerce. The other thing is that people are a lot more flexible now, because they recognize that supply chains are disrupted. So if a product delivery is delayed by two days, while earlier we could maybe get punished by the user, in terms of a refund or a cancellation. Now I think people are taking it in their stride.
The impact is that our standard delivery rates have gone up by maybe two or three days. Whereas, earlier, we used to be able to deliver products in four to five working days now it may be taking a sort of seven to eight working days across the country. But people recognize that yes, it is a challenging time for everyone – and it’s not like this product is available elsewhere anyway, so I might as well wait for a couple of days.
So in that sense, it’s actually not been too shabby a time for us, purely from a business perspective.
What we were also able to do immediately as the lockdown was announced, is we were able to pivot our product portfolio. Because we’ve always had essentials and non-essentials on the platform. Essentials like sanitizers, ayurvedic products, and immunity-boosting products – we’ve had those products forever on our website. These products are something that people do consume, but it wasn’t as much in the common person’s top of mind as it has become now.
Because the consumer demand shifted in a certain direction, we were able to showcase certain flexibility in pivoting our product portfolio to showcase those products front and center.
We were able to incorporate masks and PPE kits onto the product portfolio and showcase sanitizers, adult diapers, etc., as hero products – that we are still selling these products while your local shops may not be. Also, be there first, before even any of the other larger eCommerce players, to get our supply chains, both in terms of first-mile sourcing and last-mile delivery to the end-user.
We were able to reselect our supply chain ASAP and deliver it to the end-user, very quickly. So that’s something that’s worked out very well for us.