When E-Commerce started to gain traction in 1995-96, many people thought that online sales would be cute to watch, but not substantial. After all, how could customers trust giving their personal information to a company online? How could they review a product as well as they could in a retail setting where they can touch, feel and discuss the product with a human being? I mean, come on, who would have been crazy enough back in 1995-96 to think this would really be a substantial source of revenue? Well, how about Amazon.com, iTunes, Dell and many others. E-Commerce is now mainstream. That game’s over.
And now, in 2009, we’re ready for another revolutionary change. One that will be met with equal skepticism. It’s the long overdue morphing of E-Commerce into E-Community. Think about how we make it hard for customers today. We ask people to visit us at our .com and at sites we build for specific brands, including social media sites – a proliferation of places that are often unconnected. We are too site focused. We are too transaction focused. Most companies are trying to get customers to visit and buy, hopefully in one visit. The customer doesn’t visit for long on a site, but we sure hope they buy when they are there.
There’s only one problem. Customers spend <1% of their time making purchases online in their entire lifetime. 99% of their time is spent browsing and socializing with peers. In other words, they have often made their decision before they visit. And they are not that likely to be talking with your company directly before they make this decision. Their peers are more likely to influence their future purchase once they leave your site than you are.
Imagine you are running a local camera store in a mall. What if your customers had to go to a different mall to find out about your cameras because you only provided pricing and content on your cameras, but they didn’t get enough context to help them decide? What if they spent most of their time asking their friends about your products before they came in to your store? And what if you realized that all of the advertising in the world didn’t help them make better decisions, since it really just increased awareness and they still had to answer their questions outside of your store. To cap it off, when customers visit your store, you are never really sure who they are or know what they want until they decide to buy or leave and then it is too late. You are really analyzing your customers habits after they leave, not before they arrive. If this was the case, you would realize you had a model in need of major improvement.
Online, this is basically what happens today. Customers ask peers 75%+ of the time for advice on what to buy. They go to different sites than your own to figure out what to buy. They are influenced far more by blogs and search and forums, e.g. valuable peer-driven content, than they are by ads. If they are convinced by an ad to visit your site, they often realize they don’t have enough information, which is why they most often leave to learn more before they come back, if they do. And since they are only visiting your site for a transaction, you know very little about them. If you have single sign on, you may know their purchase history, but you don’t know their passions, what they like to talk about online and how they want you to relate to them. You are not really partners. You don’t have a strong long-term relationship. You have a .com that may provide a wonderful transactional experience, which is great…..until the next purchase is ready to be made.
Customers want to visit less sites, engage in the conversations that matter to them and do it in an environment where they can gain their peer’s input and decide when they want to socialize or browse or buy. They want a community to be their community, not yours.
The future, I believe, will involve the convergence of E-Commerce sites into E-Community sites. Leaders will create communities that enable customers to gain the benefits of contextual browsing, so relevant content is at your finger tips (if you want it). Blogs and forums will be fully integrated. You will be able to co-shop and co-learn with your peers via remote access technology, so a fellow customer can walk you through the site in a live manner and answer your questions, whether they are on purchase or support. Ratings and reviews will be more personal, so you can ask the reviewer for more information or you can ask peers to help you do an instant review together on your own. You can save your content in a browsing cart for later use, if you want, since you might not want to buy something for months. And you could do all of this without ever seeing a single banner ad, pop-up or any other annoying reminder.
For customers, it would increase your knowledge. It would be peer-driven. For companies, your representatives who earn the trust of the community will be welcomed as peers, since you are there to help customers enjoy their long-term experience with your brand. The participation would be direct and personal and it might actually become your favorite place to learn, shop and hang out.
I believe it is the future. And years from now, it will seem rather obvious.
All the best, Bob