Photo by William Hereford
Photo by William Hereford

At its core, our stock photography agency, Shutterstock, is a technology company. Forty percent of our nearly 300 employees are technologists—programmers, product specialists, and data scientists. People all over the world depend on us every day for images, videos, and instruction, or as a source of income for licensing their own creative work. But we’re essentially in the business of building two-sided marketplaces that are driven by network effects.
Our business leverages data and network-effect mechanics to disrupt and grow. We use data as a feedback loop to iteratively improve the customer and contributor experience and to increase the velocity at which data moves between the two sides of our marketplace.
Living and breathing data every day makes Shutterstock employees in every department—from content to business intelligence to PR to human resources—more effective in their roles. We push data to our employees periodically, and allow different groups to pull data depending on what they need. We collect everything we can and we use data for every decision we make.
We see three ways data drives digital businesses today:
1. Data is your product, regardless of what you sell.
Smart businesses must drive their core interfaces and decisionmaking based on user data. The more data you have, the better your position and the bigger your competitive edge.
Many Internet-oriented companies collect and use large amounts of information to automatically optimize and personalize the customer experience. Netflix recommends what you should watch. Spotify tries to figure out what song you want to listen to next. Amazon aims to predict what you’ll buy next. Foursquare tells you where to get a beer tonight.
These companies collect everything because they know consumers increasingly expect companies to read their minds and improve their experiences. Enabling customers to search a bit faster or knowing a little more about them than the competitor creates an advantage.
The terabyte of user behavior data Shutterstock collects every day includes what our users click on, how they search in 20 different languages, and the hundreds of thousands of images and videos they download daily. We look at how many pages they view and what they did to reach the image they downloaded. We store all of this because it holds clues to what users want out of our website.
The more we store, the better we get. I believe all companies must track and keep behavioral data that can drive their user interface and product, even if they don’t use it today.
2. Data is your lens into your business.
Invest in data access
Allowing access to data will change how your team thinks and approaches challenging problems. We empower our employees with data so that everybody at Shutterstock can be productively disruptive.
Experiment with visualization and interpretation
Raw data needs to be interpreted with visualization tools. It’s not helpful unless people can quickly read and understand it. For the past 10 years we’ve been building visualization tools such as Rickshaw, an open-source JavaScript toolkit for creating interactive time-series graphs and charts to help interpret data. These tools are the real enablers of disruption in our industry because they enable us to give our contributors–the people who create the images and upload them to our site–the tools they need to make more money.
Test, Test
Nothing goes live on Shutterstock without A/B testing. We built our own internal testing system called Absinthe and always have several experiments running. Whether it’s a button color, the text on a link, a page layout, or a banner image, every decision is tested. Rather than debating personal opinions, we allow data to guide us to the best possible decision. We push code into production every week based on these experiments. Each one of our employees can see the experiments that have been tested before and has the power to create new experiments. If you’re not testing, you’re missing out on valuable information.
Use resources wisely
It is important to know when to buy pre-packaged tools instead of building customized tools in-house. Look at your resources, decide what your team and customers need, and when you can, try tools that are already available.
Feel the pulse of the business and iterate
I get an email every few hours right to my phone with key business health metrics. If one segment of our business isn’t performing the way it should, I know right away. I can feel the pulse of the business from anywhere and can make tiny changes throughout the day that help push us forward.
3. Data creates your growth.
Most successful businesses make a data-driven science of attracting and keeping users. If you pay to bring users to your site and yet aren’t using data, you are missing an opportunity to master a virtuous cycle that will be difficult for competitors to match.
This is how we look at the data-driven growth cycle at Shutterstock.
1. Attract traffic to your website (typically via SEO, SEM, or other marketing).
2. Test what you do with that traffic (create different landing pages, different checkout flows, different messaging).
3. Select the best approach generated by results of testing tools such as Optimizely or your own tools.
4. Convert user traffic to sales based on what you’ve learned.
5. Invest more in attracting traffic.
6. Outbid your competitors when the cycle begins again by attracting ever more visitors.
While you are doing this, collect everything. Every single raw request to your website includes a lot of information. Every visitor who comes to your site is an opportunity to learn and build your own growth cycle. Taking advantage of traffic to test and improve is critical to success. Each cycle gets more and more efficient leading to a better ROI.
Constant learning and improvement allows us to keep attracting loyal customers and contributors and delighting them with an experience that keeps getting better. At Shutterstock we believe that the responsible and intelligent use of data gives you a competitive edge to win and is the key to success by disruption in today’s digital economy.
Jon Oringer is the Founder and CEO of Shutterstock, a Global stock photo and stock video marketplace. He founded the company 10 years ago with 30,000 of his own images. Today the two-sided marketplace offers 30 million images, selling more than 3 images every second. He is a participant at the Techonomy 2013 conference, Nov. 11-13. Follow conversations about the event @Techonomy and #Techonomy13.