Blair Ethington

High Fashion meets Augmented Reality

Blair Ethington is a product manager turned game creator – with a passion for numbers and a knack for innovation. At Crowdstar, she’s VP of Covet Fashion – a innovative mobile game with over 3 million monthly players who like to dress-up in real-world designer fashions – and then purchase those clothes in real life. I worked on Covet Fashion under Blair’s leadership – I learned a lot from her, and admire her greatly. Listen in and discover what Blair has learned about bringing hit products to life.

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Blair’s Company: CrowdStar

Covet Fashion Website: Covet Fashion

Connect: LinkedIn

Episode Transcript

[Amy Jo Kim] Can you give us a whirlwind tour? How did you get started, what experiences led you to where you are?

[Blair Ethington] I started my career in product management, I worked for a financial services company first in New York, and then at eBay down in San Jose, focused on e-commerce both from the buying side and the selling side. I grew my product management skills within those two jobs, and then with that, the explosion of social gaming was starting to happen. You were reading more and more about Zynga and Playdom and CrowdStar, all the other companies out there, so I was very interested in the growth that these social media platforms were driving for other entertainment properties.

I went from eBay to Playdom, and headed up their viral marketing team, focused on how do we grow these games through continuing to understand user behavior and user psychology, which I learned at eBay through the buying process. In this case, instead of to buy more product, it was to tell your friends about your experience, so that the products could grow organically, without paid marketing efforts. Playdom was acquired by Disney shortly after I joined, and then I moved over to CrowdStar, where I’ve had various roles starting within viral marketing as well, and then taking over monetization.

In 2011, saw the opportunity of mobile growing. At the time, we had been 100% focused on Facebook, a little before that on MySpace. With the growth of mobile and wanting to build out some games and try out that space, we started a small team and launched Top Girl, which was the #1 top free and grossing game in all iTunes for multiple weeks within a couple days after launching. That was an amazing experience that just showed the power of the platform of mobile, and how those new devices really opened up the audience, in terms of who was interested in gaming, and that there was a massive opportunity to build games for women and girls, which is an audience that hadn’t been catered to before, so then we focused our strategy on that demographic since 2011, building multiple fashion-based games and then most recently we launched Covet Fashion, about two years ago, and I’m now the GM of that product, leading all aspects of the product. That’s the background.

You just never stopped learning.

Exactly, always taking on new challenges, that’s really what excites me and why I love working at CrowdStar. I’ve done everything from product management-based roles to doing business development, and marketing and user acquisition. Now, in overall strategy, management, P&L (profit & loss), all that stuff.

Wow. Let’s talk more about Covet Fashion which you’re now focused on and you’ve been growing. That was a visionary product, it’s a game that lets people play dress up with real world fashion, and they can even go ahead and buy that, in the real world. How did this game come about, and what do you think is the appeal at the core of the game that attracts such devoted players?

Our games leading up to Covet Fashion, Top Girl, Social Girl, Modern Girl, were much more targeted at teen audiences to early twenties. What we wanted to do with Top Stylist, which was the product actually right before Covet Fashion, was reach an older audience. We were successful in that through changes in game mechanics, but we wanted to take it one step farther and really attract an older audience. The average age of a user within Covet Fashion is 29 years old. Our sweet spot in terms of marketing is 25 to 55. It’s really in age, in this product we have three generations of women who will play together, from teenage, grand daughters, all the way up to their grandmothers in their 70’s.

To do that, and create a product that would work for such a wide span, but also really attract people in their 20’s, 30’s and 40’s, we completely revamped everything, looking at the look and feel of the experience, and knowing a lot of the audience that we wanted to attract actually doesn’t consider themselves gamers, so we needed to have the UI (user interface) and overall feel be more approachable for them. That was in terms of the UI, and also in terms of the avatar that we have, making that be much more realistic.

The other key thing was bringing on the real brands, because again, we were going for an audience that do like games, but others had not played a game before, we wanted to make sure that they were okay dedicating so much time within the app that we felt like we had to add value beyond just the entertainment experience that they would get within the app. To do that, we brought in all the real brands. What that enabled was a rationalization of the time spent in game, because not only I’m having fun playing with these clothes, but I know all these clothes are available for purchase in the real world right now, and can actually affect the way I get dressed every day.

The real world value that we’re able to drive for users, by having these partnerships and by having a very realistic display, I think was fundamental to the shift at how Covet was different from our other games and what’s made it so successful.

What are you noticing about play patterns? Are people using Covet to give them ideas for their everyday outfits?

Yes, we definitely have that, and that’s really one of the things that we’re proud of, and our mission is to make every woman feel beautiful, and that should be not just in an aspirational sense, but in the real world as well. We receive comments all the time of people who say “Before playing with Covet, I wasn’t extremely confident in the way I got dressed every day, I would wear a lot of solids, now I’m playing around with patterns and florals, and mixing & matching, and I get comments from my friends and I know it’s all because of the experience that I have in Covet.”

So, people are, when an event comes into their life, they feel like they have a new approach to it?

What’s great about Covet is, when you are styling within Covet, you’re styling a virtual mannequin, all the clothes fit this virtual mannequin appropriately such that they layer, so you get a really good sense of how everything comes together. You then submit your look as do hundreds of thousands of other people, and then all of the community including yourself will vote on everyone’s looks. It’s all user generated content, the looks are generated by our users, and the scores are generated by our users, we don’t say what makes a good look or not. What that enables is (1) trust in the system, and (2) a safe environment for you to get feedback on a look without having to go through all the investments that are required in real life.

In real life you have to buy the clothes, and you’ve got to have the confidence to wear it out to dinner or wherever with your friends, or to work, or wherever it might be. We enable you to get that feedback of how does that outfit look, without having to make the purchase and without having to actually step outside. It creates a safe environment for users to get feedback, and that feedback is so important in terms of driving intent and final purchase. Friends, social media or the sales person in the dressing room are the sources of people who influence you to make a purchase and we’re able to do that through our community as well.

Wow, how many brands are you actually working with?

We have over 160 contemporary to high contemporary brands on board, brands that you would see at Nordstrom, Saks, Bloomingdale’s, Barneys, etc.

How do you work with those brands, do you actually bring in their newest clothes as they’re coming out?

Exactly. We work with the brands on a seasonal basis. We get their look books and line sheets for every season, and then are launching those clothes within the game as they’re available in-store. It’s a huge content pipeline, we launch about 4,000 – 5,000 garments every season, and it keeps it really fresh, so one of the reasons our users are coming back every day is there’s anywhere from 25 to 40 new garments in the game every day.

Lots of people are interested in augmented reality, and you are running an augmented reality game that’s blending the physical and the virtual worlds. What are you finding that is most challenging about that, and what also do you think is the most exciting opportunity there?

I think what’s really the most exciting opportunity is that we’re able to, through augmented reality, give people access to an experience that they feel like otherwise they couldn’t be able to experience within their own life, whether it’s because of location, money, desire, whatever it might be, but we are able to bring people closer to these clothes, closer to these events that they could experience if they didn’t have an app like Covet Fashion. It’s a great source of entertainment but it’s also a great tool as well in which people are developing the skills without necessarily having to have the means to have it in real life.

When you see cool outfits and rate them, does that earn you virtual currency?

When you vote on other peoples’ looks, you earn tickets and tickets are the currency that’s required to enter other style challenges. If you enter the daily style challenge, you have to use 15 tickets, or to enter any of the other style challenges you have to use 25 tickets. We give you an allowance of tickets, and then you can earn more through voting.

How do you earn the money needed to buy the virtual clothing, after the first initial bump?

By entering events or style challenges, I’m sorry, we use that term interchangeably. When you enter a style challenge, just for participating, you earn in game currency in the form of either cash or diamonds. Your entry into a style challenge then gives you more cash to buy clothes for other style challenges.

For me, I found that the through-line in translating the fundamentals of good game design to people that want to build game-like apps but aren’t game designers is skill-building. All the mechanics fall around that, but if you really focus on stage base skill-building, like what skill are you building, and how does that prepare you for the next more interesting thing you can do, a lot falls into place.

Right.

You’ve run so many different roles at CrowdStar and other studios, and you have this project management deep knowledge that informs everything you do. When you now start a new project, how do you approach testing an iteration? How do you decide which ideas to pursue, and which ones to filter out?

I think the first step is always really understanding the consumer or the user. You need to understand who are they, what do they want, why do they care, you have to be empathetic with the user. Then, from there, figure out what are the goals that I’m trying to achieve and how do they align with the user goals as well, and always being really grounded in that, and as the features develop, always revisiting what are the goals, what are we trying to achieve and how does that align with the user. As you test and iterate, making sure that your tests are setup so that you can actually learn about your success within hitting those goals.

You’ve had so much experience on different kinds of projects, what are some of the best practices that you’ve learned about how to not dig yourself into a hole, and really make something that your players are going to love?

I think one key thing is not narrowing down your definition of your customer base to one type of customer and being aware that there are lots of different types of customers out there. That can be customers that you have, have different segments and motivations, then there’s other customers that you don’t have yet. Needing to find a way of how do you talk to all those different types of customers and get the feedback of whether your next future product is going to satisfy their needs and help you meet your goals with them. More segmentation of your customers and an awareness that you also need to figure out how to talk to people who aren’t your customers yet, because if you want to grow, you have to appeal to a larger audience.

And you did a great job of that with Covet, because you told us a story about non-gamers playing this game.

Right, exactly. That’s always a key for us, and one of the things that we are always working towards is breaking down some of the stereotypes or questions that some people have about, or the audience has about games and whether they would play this or not.

As a product leader, you’ve had a lot of experience with team collaborations. Are there any practices and tools that you’ve tried, that you found worked well, both for distributed teams and for in-office, in-person teams?

We haven’t actually focused too much on any tools, but I think communication is #1. Being as transparent as possible at all levels of the company, and about all different parts. Whether it’s transparency in just what we’re hearing from users, transparency in the data that we get back from users, getting everyone grounded on what are we seeing, what are we experiencing allows everyone to start from the same place, so then the ideas going forward are all aligned and everyone’s able to work more productively, because we have a great baseline understanding.

Awesome. As a creative leader, what do you feel is your sweet spot, what kind of projects really light you up?

I would say almost everything that we do at CrowdStar lights me up because what we’re doing is very different than any other game out there. It’s so different for lots of different customer segments that can’t even call it a game, and we’ll call it interactive entertainment. I love every challenge, whether it’s figuring out how to handle conflicting consumer segments, for example. One thing that is unique about Covet Fashion is we have players, that’s one constituent, but then we also have all of our brand partners that’s another constituent. Even though the goal is to bring them together, they can often have very different views of each other. Trying to be the middle man to bring them together and see the presentation of the app in a way that supports both needs. The balancing act of working with different constituents I think is very interesting and keeps me on my toes, and I’m also just a numbers person. I love numbers, I love getting into the nitty gritty of what are we seeing, understanding what’s driving behavior so that we can see measurable results.

Speaking of numbers, I recently saw an interesting press announcement.

Yes, we’re up to 3 million monthly active users which has been a great growth for us, and continue to see that on a daily basis, so I’m very excited about Covet’s future.

What are you seeing on the gaming landscape, or on the social media landscape, because you’re straddling the two, that’s new and exciting to you, that you’re keeping an eye on?

I think the model that we’ve proven has worked, of bringing in real brands and/or just real products in a broader sense, anything from the real life into this interactive entertainment space is a very interesting trend, and one that’s going to continue. Augment reality, that’s the next step, we’re much to that than full acceptance of virtual reality, so I think we’ll continue to see a lot of different applications and experiences that play around in this space of giving people access to items, products, experiences that are real, but in a virtual sense.

It makes me tremendously excited. That’s a world that I can’t just wait for it to blossom and happen. I think its, for me personally, much more interesting than VR (virtual reality), because it’s embracing reality, not shutting yourself off from it.

Right, and I think it has a unique element of entertainment value as well, and I think it also allows, one thing that we’ve seen that’s important within Covet fashion is, we actually stay away from story lines of saying who you are within this experience, and it enables the user to decide on their own. When you’re creating a look for a style challenge, it’s totally up to you to decide “Am I creating this look because it’s something that I would wear, or am I taking it as I’m a stylist and this is my client and this is how I would dress them.” Giving that power of decision to the consumer I think is really important too.

You’re really walking that fine line between something that has almost sandbox feel, and something that’s structured like a game.

Yes, and I think the other trend too is just putting the power into the consumer’s hands and letting them decide. You’re seeing that within gaming, but also within retail and a lot of other industries within retail. Users are now able to design their own shoes and then have them made, and 3D printing and things like that, so the power of the consumer I think is going to continue to change lots of industries.

You also see that, a few years ago and now continuing, with the power and rise of Minecraft, which is very un-game like and sandbox-y, but incredibly customizable and moddable.

Right, exactly, that’s another great example.

That’s fantastic. Blair, we haven’t talked about the “K issue”, the Kardashians. Covet Fashion pre-dated all the Kardashian app madness by several years, correct?

Not by several years.

By one year.

It might even be months, we’d have to check on that.

Okay, so that’s good to know. You were before them, but one question is, do you think that that arising title and that actually helped people discover Covet Fashion?

Yes, I think that the success of Kim Kardashian’s game has been a success for us as well, in terms of bringing more women to the gaming world and opening their eyes up to the different types of entertainment that are available through their phones and iPads. Kim Kardashian’s game, and the success of other games has been great for us, and I think we’re still able to succeed because we have such a distinct product.

In many ways, your product sounds like Vogue 3.0.

I’ll take that as a compliment.

It’s a huge compliment, but I’m thinking of all the women styling themselves when otherwise they might be flipping through Vogue.

Exactly.

And getting up to speed on fashion trends through your game, and I know that’s what you set out to build and huge congratulations to pulling it off. It’s an amazingly innovative game, and its success is just very prescient on your part, no doubt due to a lot of talent and hard work.

Thank you.

Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom and perspective, and are there any particular URLs that you would like to send people to, if they would like to learn more about what you’ve talked about here?

Sure, just CovetFashion.com is the best place to go.

Awesome, check it out ladies. And gentlemen too, if you want to know something about the future of augmented reality!