Today the Internet is fairly well organised. The Google index spans billions of web pages and enables users to search and find what they are looking for via a multitude of clever algorithms.
But what if users don’t really know what they’re looking for? They have an idea, but it’s not specific enough. Have you ever tried to do a search for gift ideas and wound up clicking on links for the next hour or so without actually achieving your end goal? Therein lies one of the biggest problems on the web today.
While the first wave of e-commerce involved selling high volume, commoditised products along with cut-throat price competition between the likes of Amazon and eBay, there’s a marked shift fast happening. There are a multitude of e-commerce sites opening up every month and many of them cater for long-tail categories, such as Fashion and Home Decor. The consumer suddenly has plenty to choose from – and in most cases, too much choice.
Essentially, the unlimited choice afforded by online stores means that consumers are not only able to explore what’s popular, but also niche categories and personal interests. This makes the web a potential shopping haven, but one that is not always completely understood. In fact when online shoppers were posed a simple question: ‘what percentage of the top 100,000 books on Amazon sell at least once a month?’ Most replied with something like 20%. They couldn’t have been more wrong. In actual fact 99% of the top 100,000 books sell in some volume; yet there’s someone, somewhere who reads and wants to read titles outside of this list. Welcome to the long-tail.
The point is that with long-tail content, there’s always the danger of customers feeling buried in a deluge of search responses and a high likelihood that they will be directed to what is the most popular or commonplace results, rather than what they might want. Too much choice becomes a problem in itself and there is a growing need to enable product discovery in a more meaningful and efficient fashion. Enter socialised and personalised e-commerce.
Shopping is an emotive experience and whilst people have their own specific interests they also tend to take factors such as their friends’ opinions about products into consideration when making a purchase. Therefore, the next wave of e-commerce sites will have to factor in many more elements of consumer behaviour to stay relevant.
Why More is less ?
Platforms like Facebook and Twitter (and more recently, Google) have begun to attack this problem by driving the social discovery and curation of news and information, focusing on filtering the web through the lens of friends and influencers. There has been much effort put into content curation, but e-commerce or product focused curation is much more than just content curation alone. It requires fundamental components such as purchase intent, structured data, time decay, filtering, and much, much more. Thus, existing social platforms can only ever provide a half-baked solution to an increasingly complex need for e-commerce discovery. For example, do you remember the last time you logged in to Facebook, Twitter or Pinterest to buy a product? Probably never. Users are in a different frame of mind when using these platforms and are simply looking to connect with those they care about without having their conversations interrupted by a brand trying to sell them something. Equally in the offline world, you wouldn’t buy a designer dress when you’re hanging out with friends and enjoying a drink in your local pub – it’s just not appropriate.
On today’s web, our friend lists are growing into the thousands and for many these lists include hundreds of brands. Anyone who frequents today’s Internet would certainly say that at times it feels as though there’s both an information and social overload. Add to this a deluge of product feeds on social platforms and this social overload is further amplified. Don’t get me wrong… I believe that social is important, but product discovery should not be driven at the cost of social overload.
Another growing concern for e-commerce today is the dramatic shift in the way users have started to leverage technology for information and distribution. Their information needs are more personalised than ever and for many users e-commerce is not only about shopping, but also promoting and selling their own products and services. These challenges when combined culminate in the need for an e-commerce focused community platform to drive personalised product discovery and distribution.
This is an exciting time for a fast maturing e-commerce market place and the above, if addressed properly, holds some of the answers for the serious contenders if they are going to have any chance of suceeding in this space. Ultimately, this strong mix of social discovery and interest based personalisation will enable shoppers to discover long-tail products and while there’s certainly a lot of growing and experimenting left to be done, it would seem that the major social sites are finally tapping into the powerful consumer information databases that they have been patiently building. These advances will inevitably change future consumer facing interfaces, and will also herald a significant change in market structure. Maybe this time, it will work!