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Ecommerce Has Gone Too Far: It’s Time for Personal Commerce

Mitchell Harper is co-CEO of Bigcommerce. In today’s guest column, he provides tips on putting the human element back into online commerce, a strategy he calls Personal Commerce.

Has ecommerce gone too far in eliminating the middleman? The recent trend to elevate social media “likes” as a sales cure-all may be meaningless without putting the human element back somewhere in the online sales cycle. It’s time to reconnect ecommerce with personal interaction. It’s classic sales strategy, but in today’s economy, someone will eventually call it “Personal Commerce.” I’ll be that someone.

Bringing personal, human contact into a sales strategy is not a novel idea, of course. These days, though, businesses have stopped considering the value of personal interaction (think of it like the all-powerful handshake), as ecommerce transaction technology has become increasingly intuitive and easier for even companies of one to put to work.

Rather than focusing on the actual sales process, many Internet retailers are now feeding their sales pipeline with huge volumes of unqualified leads. They amass fans and put offers on their social media pages in the hopes of drawing people to their sites. This past February, in a Duke University survey, chief marketing officers said they planned to grow their social media spending by more than double over the next five years – up to 21.6 percent from the current 8.4 percent.

Unfortunately, sociology doesn’t necessarily back up this approach to ecommerce success. Why not? There may be a theoretical limit on the number of meaningful social interactions anyone can have. According to the British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, that number is surprisingly low – specifically, 150 discreet relationships. (That numerical theoretical limit subsequently was coined “Dunbar’s Number.”) And yet, social’s media role in marketing and sales hinges on the importance of a personal connection as a tool for persuasion and credibility.

Let’s face it: Social networks (especially very large ones) are not a real snapshot of friendly society. As they expand from a tight core of actual friends, each of our extended social spheres becomes a tenuous and loose grouping of shared pop culture interests. “I like Mad Men! You like Mad Men! We must be friends!” There is no true, meaningful connection there. And without that connection, social media’s ability to influence purchasing decisions is no better than any other means of mass advertising.

It’s not the social connection that’s important; it’s the personal connection.

In a 2003 study, Purdue University researchers determined that “most consumers prefer some form of human interaction with ecommerce.” They also found that people are likely to “shop online more frequently if they receive immediate responses to their questions.” Social media is just not enough to do the job. It’s a push mechanism – ultimately no different than conventional print advertising, just more high-tech. And it doesn’t perform much better than conventional means of promotion. An analysis by the firm Monetate this past May showed that social media accounts for only 1.55 percent of all ecommerce traffic.

Of course, that doesn’t mean social media can’t be useful in online marketing and sales, but it has to be acknowledged for what it is: one source of sales leads. The names amassed through social media aren’t qualified prospects. They are leads and an opportunity to cultivate a deeper, more meaningful relationship.

How do you turn this largely undifferentiated group into true prospects? That’s where “ecommerce” becomes “Personal Commerce,” bringing personal connection to what would otherwise be a faceless collection of screen names. Here are a few ideas:

Create customer support teams to develop personal relationships among your social media followers. Use Dunbar’s Number as a strategy. 150 actual customers are more valuable than the thousands of names that are following you. In order to make it easier to develop relationships out of the giant pool of social media followers you might have, make it a goal to create subsets of all your followers, in groups of 150. This allows you to focus more on the individuals that are following you, rather than the mass, which results in stronger relationships and more loyal customers.

Develop personalized outreach to the people in subgroups. Email is a proven, useful tool for building business. In a 2012 report by Forrester Research analyst Sucharita Mulpuru, email accounted for 13 percent of online retailers’ repeat business. Simple email services like Constant Contact or MailChimp can create a more personalized outreach to the subgroups of your social media contacts. Or simply use the functions already available in some social media platforms to create those subgroups, and work within the platforms themselves.

Create offers or coupons unique to your subgroups. Through personalized emails or social media direct messages, you can develop an understanding of what these subgroup members actually want or need, and track the success of these offers. Then you can test the offers laterally across subgroups to create an interested and motivated buying public. Tools like SocialShout! and Incetivibe are two tools to check out.

Everyone loves a good survey (and free stuff). Why not simply ask your social media followers to take a survey and enter to win a cool prize? It’s one of the easiest ways to learn more about their buying habits, interests and where they stand in the sales process. Using tools like PopSurvey and SurveyMonkey can help you develop a very targeted strategy on how to take them from browser to buyer.

Take the time to say “thank you.” Put yourself in your customer’s shoes. After doing some research online, you purchase a product from an ecommerce store. Soon, it arrives on your doorstep. When you open the box, imagine your surprise to not only find your product and a receipt of purchase, but a handwritten note from the store owner telling you how much they appreciate your business. Looking further into the envelope, you find his business card and a 15 percent off coupon for your next purchase. Not only would this impress you, but undoubtedly you would be more likely to come back and purchase again. In our increasingly “e” world, this strategy is just about as close to the handshake as one can get.

This notion of Personal Commerce is not only applicable to maximizing the usefulness of social media in business. The road to Internet hell is paved with companies following the “eyeballs first, revenues later” model.

While many Internet darlings like Instagram and Pinterest are still driving considerable financial and general media interest by the sheer number of users they are accumulating before even developing a revenue strategy, it’s not a business model most online companies can put to use by itself. Social media must be one part of a larger, interconnected marketing mix. Ultimately you have to find a way to turn those eyeballs into dollar signs.

Online retailing was born out of technology that allowed transactions to take place without human interaction. The pendulum on ecommerce has swung as far as it can in that direction. It’s time to swing back toward a more practical approach to building online business. The personal connection is, and always will be, an undeniable part of business success.

Ina Steiner on EmailIna Steiner on LinkedinIna Steiner on Twitter
Ina Steiner
Ina Steiner
Ina Steiner is co-founder and Editor of EcommerceBytes and has been reporting on ecommerce since 1999. She's a widely cited authority on marketplace selling and is author of "Turn eBay Data Into Dollars" (McGraw-Hill 2006). Her blog was featured in the book, "Blogging Heroes" (Wiley 2008). Follow her on Twitter at @ecommercebytes and send news tips to ina@ecommercebytes.com.