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Want to Keep Shoppers Coming Back? Here's What You Can Learn from Craigslist

The classifieds site of the '90s may be old-school, but what it lacks in aesthetic it makes up for in practical allure.

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Born in the late '90s, Craigslist's barebones interface doesn't meet today's sophisticated design standards — in fact, it's about as appealing as printed ink — but what the site lacks in aesthetic, it makes up for in practical charms.

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The classifieds service consistently ranks among the top 20 websites in the U.S., generating $660 million in annual revenue and serving 700 cities across 70 countries. Why? Its simplistic user experience forces sellers to get back to the basics and focus on what consumers really want.

Here are three lessons every retailer can learn from this relic of the internet's past.

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Let your story do the selling

One of my favorite things about browsing Craigslist is the storytelling. Even if you aren't buying what they're selling, the best (most entertaining) ads are memorable for the personalities they reveal. In other words, good storytelling is the best way to connect with shoppers' emotions.

Research shows shoppers buy based on emotions, but then rationalize their purchases with logic. On a predominantly text-based site like Craigslist, you can't hide behind the design. Instead, sellers have to provide meaningful descriptions of their items and the ones that stand out and tell a story.

The art of product storytelling goes back to the catalog sales days, but the principle of tapping into a buyer's emotions is as relevant as ever — particularly as more of our shopping experiences have moved online.

In brick-and-mortar stores retailers have the clear advantage of offering consumers a tangible experience where they can hold products in their own hands. What's even better is when that tangible experience is coupled with a knowledgeable product specialist adept at real-life storytelling one-on-one with customers.

As more of the retail experience has shifted online, the art of product storytelling can get lost, but it doesn't have to. Retailers who make the effort to craft compelling product descriptions that appeal to both a consumer's emotions and logical thinking can deliver a consistent customer experience every time, across the board.

Related: 7 Simple Steps to Writing Product Descriptions That Sell

Ditch the "go wide" mentality

For the most part, a Craigslist ad effectively focuses on one product: winter tires (set of four); a black leather couch; a $100 mini fridge. This highlights a common mistake retailers make: expanding a product line too soon or focusing on too many new customer experiences at once.

There's an assumption in retail that offering more variety increases the chances of selling products. In reality, I think it's more of a myth.

Instead take the approach of someone selling on Craigslist: know what you're selling and who you're selling to, then tailor your site for that purpose.

Personalization, making users feel like a product was made just for them, couldn't be more important in today's ecommerce market. Brands that implement large-scale personalization strategies have seen revenue increases of 6% to 10% –– but it's tricky to do online.

When a customer comes to a website, we can't profile them the way we could in-store. An ecommerce site needs to replace the salesperson with technology tools.

One way to do this is by having visitors identify themselves through surveys or volunteer information about what they're looking for in order to better understand their needs. It requires more forethought into the right types of questions to ask and how best to curate the right products, but the payoff is a loyal and engaged customer base.

Related: Personalization Is Giving Customers What They Want Before They Demand It

Agonize over your visuals

Although it lacks aesthetic appeal, Craigslist does offer a lesson about the importance of visuals. If you've ever looked for an apartment on the site, for example, you'll know no amount of compelling text — not even a below-market rent headline — can replace the power of an image.

Renters won't waste time setting up a viewing for a place without a photo. Not only could it be a scam, but they can't visualize themselves in the home. By the same token, poorly lit photos, bad angles and even a lack of staging can be the difference between a bidding war and an ad that gets no bites.

Visuals in e-comm are the next best thing to brick-and-mortar's product experience. It's why marketing that puts an emphasis on visuals is 94% more effective than marketing that doesn't.

Consider TikTok — aside from its addictive algorithm, its short-form, punchy visual format compels users to purchase. It's the reason 67% of users surveyed say TikTok inspired them to shop, even when they didn't intend to.

It may feel like customer retention is getting harder, but Craigslist is proof: Ecommerce doesn't need to be cutting-edge to keep shoppers coming back. As technology progresses, it's important to remember the basics of good commerce don't often change.

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