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Building A Shopify App That Makes A Positive Difference In The World (And Makes A Profit)


Do you wake up every morning thinking about how to grow your Shopify-connected business? And also how to make the world a slightly better place each day? 

I do. If the headline of this article inspired you to read on, I bet you do too. 

Together we can make ecommerce better for people and the planet, while boosting profits at the same time. 

The statistics bear this out: Purpose-driven brands and sustainable products are on the rise. Sustainably marketed products are powering seven times the growth over traditional consumer products. What’s more, in 2021 nearly half of customers chose to buy from brands that have a clear commitment to sustainability, and 52 percent of shoppers are more likely to purchase from a company with shared values. Sustainability is a high priority for consumers today, and many will actively avoid a brand that doesn’t give something back to the planet in some way. 

These stats show why social impact apps are important today. In this piece, we’ll dig deeper into what exactly a social impact app is, why Shopify is the perfect place to launch one, and how you can get started building your own. 

You’re busy, so here are the main points:

  • Profit with purpose: The future of business growth is purpose.
  • Shopify’s impact foundation: Shopify’s commitment to sustainability, impact, and empowering small to large merchants provides a dynamic foundation.
  • Tiny steps aren’t enough, it’s time for us all to innovate: Shopify app developers and partner agencies can and should innovate on top of that foundation with solutions that are additive and impactful.
  • How to launch a purpose-driven Shopify app: Tips and lessons abound and collaboration is key as we collectively compete with the broader bottom-line ecommerce world.

Shopify’s impact foundation

Here’s what I love about Shopify: They are building an ecommerce ecosystem passionate about empowering brands and their direct connections with customers. At the same time, they’re boosting social impact and environmental responsibility.

Many of the world’s most purpose-driven brands choose Shopify as their trusted ecommerce partner. 

Now it’s our chance as Shopify Partners to amplify the impact potential and innovate upon that foundation with our apps, agencies, and merchant services. 

What is a social impact app, and why should Shopify developers build one? 

The Shopify App Store’s library of “social impact” and “sustainable” apps is one of its biggest selling points. The catalog of integrations allows merchants to do everything needed to do well by doing good—from managing email marketing and running a tight customer support ship to planting trees and converting site visitors to real sales inspired by charitable donation options. 

While it can feel like there’s a new Shopify app popping up every day, there are always new opportunities to join impact entrepreneurs with your Shopify app innovations. Social impact ecommerce apps are one of the most prominent ways to enact positive change in the tech industry. Apps facilitate so many connections between people, brands, nonprofits, and developers. They are widely available around the world and create an easy way for both consumers and merchants to make a difference.

Social impact apps drive change across causes and communities. As well as serving a practical purpose, they allow users to do good things. The growth of the impact economy has had a powerful effect on the tech world, as many founders and developers have quickly realized they have the ability to promote change while making a profit. This is evident in the rise of impact investors who are keen to put their money into good causes that generate reasonable returns. In the space of three years, impact investors have invested five times as much money into purpose-driven brands, and this will continue to increase. 

On top of this, people today are actively seeking out brands that share their same values. Showing that you care about the environment and the communities that inhabit it builds trust, brand awareness, and makes a difference all at the same time.

Why Shopify is the perfect place to launch a social impact app 

Purpose-driven apps are very much welcomed by Shopify. It’s not just that the platform is on a mission to make the planet better, it’s actively committed to activities that drive change. Shopify is on the ground supporting small businesses and makers. It “democratizes” business and empowers anyone to set up and run an online store. 

A keen activist fighting climate change, Shopify makes an effort to do its own part for the environment with its Sustainability Fund, carbon-negative commitment, and carbon-neutral operations. It also makes a huge effort to support underrepresented communities as an advocate for Black-owned and Indigenous businesses through initiatives like Operation Hope and PowWow Pitch

Social impact apps are right at home on Shopify among its positive suite of sustainable initiatives and activities.

The GoodCarts story: creating a “micro-deals” platform for impact entrepreneurs

The idea behind GoodCarts (an ecommerce startup which I am the CEO of that empowers people to have impact by discovering new sustainable and ethical brands) started brewing in founder Chris Dykstra’s mind in the early ‘90s. At the time, he was sourcing Native American artwork via families of inmates in South Dakota prisons, printing it onto t-shirts, selling them, and saving profits to support those same incarcerated artists upon release. 

With big name sustainable companies like Patagonia and Ben and Jerry’s infusing their companies with purpose, Dykstra saw the need to connect many thousands of impact businesses using what he dubbed a “micro-deals” platform for cross-promotion. When the time was right, GoodCarts was born. 

Like Shopify, GoodCarts is on a mission to make a difference. The end goal is to create a community of sustainable product and social impact ecommerce retailers who are empowering people to shop their values. 

GoodCarts uniquely “recycles” post-purchase traffic and turns that into new customers for member stores across the network. It’s easy for consumers to participate—after checking out from a favorite sustainable or social impact brand, they are offered an exclusive discount and an opportunity to discover (and shop) a new brand that gives back. 

We take a grow together, win together approach. While purpose-driven ecommerce brands can certainly continue to bid against each other and spend more of their margins on digital ads, we see a new path. This shared path encourages more impact-loving apps to embrace additive rather than extractive models. 

How to develop a Shopify app with a positive impact

Positive impact apps are slightly different to develop than everyday ecommerce apps as they require three lines of thought: 

  1. The app’s main purpose or solution
  2. How the app is engineering social change
  3. How to collaborate (yet still compete) toward greater app adoption

It’s important to keep these things in mind when developing and launching any social impact app. 

Here’s a step-by-step guide that takes you from conception to release.

1. Create an impact-focused strategy

If you’re not solving a real problem that merchants have, no amount of social goodness will keep your app from flopping. Instead, consider the app’s main purpose from the very start—what will it help merchants do better? How will their business be different once they start using your app? 

Be intentional about impact at every step of the journey. Impact is not a last minute add-on.

Be thoughtful about every feature while still ensuring that your app grows something for merchants (new customers, repeat sales, customer satisfaction, etc.). At the same time, consider how impact is created through your app. Will people be able to do or buy something good? Does your app help a store source more sustainable products or offer greener shipping?

The possibilities are endless, but it ultimately comes down to who you’re targeting and what their biggest concerns are about the world. 

Listen to their conversations online, talk to them, attend and organize virtual events and meetups, etc. to identify what they believe in, determine what causes they are most passionate about, and come up with ways you can meet them in the initiatives of which they are a part. 

Finally, think about how you’ll measure your impact. What does success look like? Being able to quantify this will help you track your efforts and give you legitimate content for your about/sustainability page and social media.

2. Develop a talented and passionate team 

As well as a talented software development team who can create a user-friendly, intuitive interface, you also need to know about the social impact area on which you are focused. As such, it’s important to assemble a team of talented people who are passionate about both ecommerce and social impact. At GoodCarts, we’ve had great luck finding talented, motivated paid interns who collaborate with our local Impact Hub to boost our marketing and social media engagement with prospective members.

Transferring ideas and insights from the field into a digital setting is a difficult task, and you need to collaborate with people who know what they’re doing. Look for people who are active in the social impact area you’re interested in, bring them on board to offer advice, and give them space to work alongside your talented software developers to make sure the app both delivers on its main purpose and drives social change. 

3. Launch with purpose 

Your app needs to end up in the hands of the right users, which means you need a dedicated and focused launch plan, so it doesn’t gather dust in the depths of the Shopify app library. 

Creating and implementing launch strategies and marketing activities will also help you reach your impact goals. Reviewing Shopify’s advice on app marketing is a must. Our advice builds on top of that. Here are some key tactics:

  • Develop strong brand positioning—look good with authenticity.
  • Create a compelling Shopify App Store listing.
  • Establish a content and resource library to attract search engine users—this is the “honey” to attract the bees with content marketing.
  • Build and execute a plan to reach your first 20 merchant users, then your first 100 and beyond—without passionate outreach, you can build it and they will never come.
  • Develop a pipeline and track opt-in warm leads while carefully following Shopify terms for app developers on unsolicited email and communication (merchants are blasted by spam and will ignore you anyway).
  • Follow your ecommerce allies and prospective stores on social media, particularly Instagram where purpose-driven retailers and LinkedIn where ecommerce leaders seem to hang out the most. Give them authentic public love and engagement.
  • Partner with like-minded allies in the purpose-driven business and social enterprise space. We’ve invested time and energy building relationships with purpose-driven business networks and associations and hosted virtual events with the American Sustainable Business Network which is led by Seventh Generation co-founder Jeffrey Hollender. We joined Operation Hope’s 1 Million Black Businesses effort to guide GoodCarts Black-owned member stores to valuable free training resources.
  • Celebrate your wins and app install growth—show your momentum and create social proof by showcasing (with permission) some of the stores that use your app.
  • Give a shout-out about your social impact goals on your website, social media, email marketing initiatives, andonline groups with your peers.
  • Listen to your users and build community engagement. Channel that engagement and trust into new features they value and that generate further impact. At GoodCarts, our users have become our advocates—they literally benefit from our post-purchase traffic sharing model when more stores join. Our virtual meetups, connecting at conferences they attend, our member newsletter, etc. give us a compelling chance to encourage them to invite others and make warm introductions to prospective stores.
  • Run paid marketing initiatives, including sponsoring your “allies’” newsletters that reach target audiences, Shopify app install ads (where app seeking intent is at its highest), social media ads, and PPC campaigns. Increase brand awareness before expecting ads to convert into app installs. We’ve advertised our how-to content about reaching conscious consumers and then followed up with ads for retargeting about our ecommerce app.

We don’t suggest using all of these tactics at once. Instead, see what works with your target audience. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket, nor underestimate the effort required to reach a critical mass of app users. As with anything, measure the results, tweak based on the data, and optimize your marketing efforts moving forward. 

4. Focus on continuous development

Launching your social impact app is just the first step in a much longer journey. Once the word has started to spread, it’s up to you to continue to create a buzz around the app. Do this by understanding your runway and seeking capital to develop and expand your model. It’s important to know exactly how you’re going to drive continuous development and growth to support your long-term go-to-market strategies. 

Join the Shopify app ecosystem for impact

Social impact apps built into ecommerce are on the rise as more and more consumers vow to do their part for people and the planet. Shopify has created the perfect ecosystem for creating and launching an app that drives social change in communities and the world, but developing an app like this requires a commitment to purpose and a unique set of skills. Use the tips laid out here to get started, keeping in mind the four-point checklist your app needs to cover and the tactics you can use to go to market in the most successful way possible. 

This article originally appeared on the Shopify Web Design and Development blog and is made available here to educate and cast a wider net of discovery.
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