When I say Craigslist, what is the first thing that comes to your mind? I’m sure I’m not the only one that thinks, “creepy”, “a little sketchy”, and of course, the infamous “Craigslist killer”. My roommates and I are beginning the process of searching for an apartment in Boston this fall; and when one of them told us we should be looking on Craigslist, all of those thoughts above came to my mind. However, she insisted that it’s a legitimate place to look for an apartment.
After only a few minutes of searching, it was clear that my doubts were unfounded. The site is full of thousands of listings; and not just for apartments but for pretty much anything you could imagine.
My fascination with Craigslist has now become centered on how the site has been able to support itself both from a financial and user base standpoint. I also wonder if the longevity of Craigslist has been helped or hurt by the interface and user experience of the site being extremely basic and low-tech.
So to find out how Craigslist has been able to sustain itself, let’s go back to how the site began and how it did (or did not) evolve from then until now.
Craigslist began in 1995 as a “simple arts and technology mailing list” for Bay Area residents. Craig Newmark (surprise, the founder’s name is Craig), started sending an email distribution list to his friends and soliciting feedback on what more they wanted to receive. This eventually resulted in a website-based classifieds section in 1996, listing everything from job postings and apartments to furniture and as we all know, personals. In 2000, the website began expanding to cities other than San Francisco and has since had a marked effect on the classifieds section of newspapers.
A study by the Newspaper Association of America found [classified] revenues between 2000 and 2010 dropped from $19.6 billion to $6 billion. That represents a 70 percent decrease, and the trend does not appear to be slowing.
One of the main reasons for this is thought to be financial—while a post in the classifieds section costs money, posting on Craigslist costs nothing. Just to further investigate the cost differential here, I looked into the price of placing an advertisement for an apartment in the classifieds section of the Boston Globe. The cheapest option is the “Online only” package, where my ad would appear for one week online for $29. If I wanted it to be printed in the actual newspaper, pricing starts at $99. I can see why classifieds sections are suffering.
This brings me to my first question regarding the sustainability of Craigslist. At first glance, it appears that the site has no conventional sources of revenue—there are no advertisements from people other than the users posting on the site. However, contrary to popular belief, Craigslist does charge for a few select classifieds sections: $25 fee to post a job listing in six major U.S. cities; $75 for a job listing in the San Francisco area; a $10 fee to list an apartment rental in New York; and as of 2014, a $5 fee on car and truck ads.
Despite the fact that they do charge fees, Craigslist president Jim Buckmaster says “generating a profit is not the company’s goal”. As of 2014, the site generated $335 million in revenue.
Another way that Craigslist disrupted the classifieds industry, other than financially, was that it created a virtual space for communities to connect and interact with each other about anything they felt was fit to post on the site. This community has fostered an abundance of users and has resulted in Craigslist logging over 20 billion page views per month. This puts Craigslist 37th among websites globally and 10th among US-based sites. So contrary to my belief prior to this blog post, Craigslist is very much alive and dare I say, cool?
Finally, unlike Facebook, Snapchat and other social sites that seem to change just when you’re getting used to the latest update—Craigslist has not changed. Not once. The user experience and interface is almost refreshingly simple. No pop-ups to click away, no confusing drop-downs to navigate, just a white background, black text and pictures. In a digital world that is constantly bombarding us with the newest feature, product or update, it’s nice to have some consistency.
In the virtual classifieds/e-commerce space, Craigslist has long reigned. However, there are competitors that have entered the space and will continue to threaten the viability of the Craigslist community. But with so many apps attempting to individually do what Craigslist is able to aggregate into one place, will users continue to utilize Craigslist simply for the convenience?
In the face of competition from countless apps like Airbnb, Etsy, indeed and StubHub that continue to innovate and expand their reach, it will be interesting to see if and how the site responds. However, something tells me that in traditional Craigslist fashion, they will stay true to their low-tech, simplistically elegant roots.