Before launching Gilt , we’d agreed to put ourselves forward as the faces of the business. We’d noticed that [competitor] vente-privee ’s e-mails were sent by a fictitious character named Cecile de Rostand. How fortuitous that Gilt  had two very real women at the helm, who were relatable and accessible and who shared the tastes and passions of our customers. We could speak to our members and potential members directly and genuinely, without inventing characters. And in doing so, we hoped we could also forge a much more personal bond with our shoppers than other e-commerce sites--most of which were run by middle-aged men--had managed to forge with theirs.
We knew that putting ourselves “out there” in the press would have its downfalls--we’d have to undergo media training, and be subject to increased scrutiny. It would also be a huge time investment. But we knew that increasing our visibility would help us personalize and build trust in the brand. Gilt wouldn’t be a faceless corporate behemoth  like most online retailers. Instead, it would have a friendly human face, despite being a brand most customers interact with only via their computers.
After meeting one or both of us or attending an event we sponsored, members generally increased their activity on our site. Even if we didn’t immediately see a dramatic spike in spending, we noticed that these customers stayed with us longer, shopped more over time, and invited more of their friends to join. They became our loyal advocates--our team on the ground. We were easy for our members to relate to. Not unlike the instinct to “buy American,” our members seemed to like supporting a business helmed by approachable female entrepreneurs, and best friends to boot. They actively wanted us to succeed. After all, we weren’t that different from most of them.
Whenever and wherever we traveled, we invited loyal shoppers to join us for coffee or a meal. We were careful to follow up after each trip with personal e-mails or handwritten notes to many of the bloggers, tastemakers, members, and even potential local brand partners we’d met.
To introduce ourselves to our thousands (now millions) of members we’d never actually get the chance to meet in person, we also put ourselves “out there” on the Gilt site by making our bios and e-mails available. We personally answered as many e-mails as we possibly could. We began sending the daily e-mails alerting our members to sales from an account bearing our names, to create a sense of personal connection that is too often lost online. We wanted to personalize our business and to make customers feel that we were the ones curating the sales, just for them (and we often were!). We even started a blog  that highlighted our personal “picks” from the day’s sales. And we included in each Gilt package a note (written in gold script) thanking our member for his or her purchase and signed “Alexis & Alexandra, the Founders.”
We became almost proxies for the brand--two friends with insider access to deals and tips. We took pains to stay versed in other subjects of interest to our members, because they often asked us for restaurant recommendations, hotel ideas, and even reading suggestions. They looked to us to help sift through the overload of information, brands, and services out there. Becoming tastemakers ourselves was key not just to branding Gilt, but to helping us develop real authority in the marketplace and eventually expand into new categories. When we introduced a new brand members hadn’t yet encountered, they were more willing to give that brand a chance because we were suggesting it. They trusted not only our integrity, but our sense of style. Gilt sales that had an element of service or advice--for example, suggestions for layering pieces or weekend wear--were (and are) some of our most popular.
In late 2009 we even designed a special category for our most loyal customers: Gilt Noir. Constituting the top Gilt shoppers on the basis of dollars spent and duration of membership, Noir members receive special early access to preview our sales. While they can’t actually purchase anything before noon eastern time, they can troll the sale’s offerings fifteen minutes in advance and strategize to beat others to any marquee items likely to sell out fast. Noir members are also given access to special sales not available to other members (for example, an exclusive sale of pieces by the acclaimed brand Rodarte). If Gilt is an invite-only club, Noir is a doubly exclusive group: a secret, private back room. We regularly host intimate dinners all over the country for Noir members, which make them feel even more like valued friends to us and of the Gilt brand.
When we started meeting our Gilt Noir members, we were surprised that they would rarely ask about when we’d sell a certain brand. Instead, we’d find ourselves peppered with questions about who we were and how we had started Gilt. Our customers never ceased to amaze us: They were accomplished, intelligent, cultured men and women, often career professionals. They were lawyers on international tribunals in The Hague focusing on the genocide in Rwanda, the head of the SCUD missile program during the Reagan era, or the top defibrillator implant surgeon in Florida (yes, these are actual Gilt customers. The latter even inspired us to create our successful iPhone and iPad apps so that she could run out of the operating room during a break, add items to her cart, quickly press “buy,” then run back in--sterilized, of course).
Again, we noticed that after we directly interacted with these members, their spending increased over time, as they transitioned from fashionistas shopping their favorite designers’ collections to “friends” with a personal interest in our success. We were careful to provide these shoppers with even more meticulous and personal levels of customer service.
These tactics helped Gilt maintain its intimate, exclusive feel, even as the site grew exponentially.
Excerpted from By Invitation Only: How We Built Gilt and Changed the Way Millions Shop . Published by Portfolio/Penguin. Copyright A&A Productions, LLC, 2012.
[Image: Luba V Nel  via Shutterstock]