Amazon Didn't Miss the Boat on Social Commerce, It Built It

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On the back of social commerce conversations at the recent New York TechCrunch Disrupt event, Leena Rao asks over at TechCrunch whether Amazon missed the boat on social commerce.

Leena agrees with Etsy’s Rob Kalin that whilst Amazon regins supreme in commodity commerce, it’s a laggard in social commerce.

On Leena’s social commerce boat you’ll find companies such as Gilt, Vente-Privée, Groupon, Etsy, OpenSky, multiplayer gaming site OMGPOP, and even Ebay with its Fashion Vault flash sales feature – but no Amazon.

Poppycock!  Amazon didn’t miss the social commerce boat, it built it! Amazon has been at the forefront of social commerce, the subset of electronic commerce that involves using social media, online media that supports social interaction and user contributions, to assist in the online buying and selling of products and services, since its very inception.

Ratings and reviews?  Check.  Recommendations and referrals? Check.  Forums and communities? Check. Social Media Optimization? Check (Deal Feeds). Social Ads & Apps? Check (Associate Widgets).

Indeed, when we run social commerce workshops, we warmup with a ‘count the number of social features on Amazon’ game.  We challenge you to find a more social e-commerce site! Here’s a list of social features apparent from a cursory glance at Amazon

  • Ratings and Reviews
  • Discussion Boards
  • Popularity Lists
  • Public Profiles
  • Follow Lists
  • Share to Twitter
  • Amazon Associates Widgets
  • Personal Recommendations
  • Listmania Lists (User Generated Best of..)
  • Gift Registry
  • Wish List
  • Communities
  • RSS feeds

To name but a few.  Sure, Amazon has not been hot on social shopping (shop together features – although its Zappos subsidiary, with MyZappos is doing groundbreaking stuff here), nor has it integrated fully with Facebook, and the company has only flirted with flash sales whether of the national (Woot/Gilt) or local (Groupon) variety.

Whilst f-commerce and flash sale sites with their member-get-member referral programs are hot right now, there’s more to social commerce than f-commerce and flash sales. If you’re looking to deploy social commerce, you could do far worse than learn from the company that built the social commerce boat.

About the author

Paul Marsden

Chartered psychologist specialising in consumer behaviour and technology. Certified CX professional experienced in Design Thinking. A researcher, writer and speaker, Paul is head of Digital Insight at SYZYGY.

28 comments

  • Dear Paul,

    I had always great respect for your professional work with Martin Oetting in the viral marketing and user engagement space, but these are the kind of posts that make me really mad.

    Amazon is a great company, but to consider Amazon a player in Social Commerce shows a very limited understanding of what’s really new and unique about the social space.

    Was Amazon the company to allow and foster personal relations between their users/customers? Or is Amazon the company that still relies heavily on automized algorithms for their “personal” recommendations? Etsy’s Rob Kalin was so right at the TC Disrupt panel.

    I really hope that this blog will become more serious about the topic and wouldn’t use each and everything for a sales pitch. Despite of the buzz not everything is social where users are involved.

    Sinc 2005 social shopping has come a long way with lots of ups and downs. It’s an exciting topic and I really hope that you can be a (more) serious part of the conversation about the future of Social Commerce.

    Best Regards,
    Jochen.

  • Hi Jochen,

    Jochen, thanks for the message – I'm sorry if you miss the social dimensions of what Amazon does, and I strongly beg to differ. Look at the proof and the money. Ratings and reviews may not be new but there is more evidence that they drive sales than any other technique. Amazon-style ratings and reviews are what the social commerce industry is built on – look at Bazzarvoice and Powerreviews, two leading social commerce companies that sell Amazon style ratings and reviews. Sure there are newer ways of using social media in e-commerce, but it doesn't make the older ones redundant. Just because stuff is new, doesn't make it better.

  • Hi Jochen,

    Jochen, thanks for the message – I'm sorry if you miss the social dimensions of what Amazon does, and I strongly beg to differ.

    Look at the proof and the money. Ratings and reviews may not be new but there is more evidence that they drive sales than any other technique. Amazon-style ratings and reviews are what the social commerce industry is built on – look at Bazzarvoice and Powerreviews, two leading social commerce companies that sell Amazon style ratings and reviews.

    Sure there are newer ways of using social media in e-commerce, but it doesn't make the older ones redundant. Just because stuff is new, doesn't make it better.

    Best, Paul

    • Social Commerce as a business model is more about a constant dialog with customers and between customers. The things you are listing are more about generating leads and content (SEO) for amazon. There is not one element aiming for communication with amazon.

      • Thanks Alex, good point – social commerce as a constant dialogue with customers and between customers is a nice alternative customer-focused definition. Not sure, we'd want to exclude the other techniques for selling with social media though.

  • I don't miss the "social" dimension of what Amazon does. I just wouldn't call it social. Amazon is a great company and it does a great job offering customers a perfect shopping environment.

    And Bazaarvoice and Powerreviews are great for companies striving to become Amazon Lookalikes, but ratings and reviews are surely not what I would consider the social dimension of ecommerce.

    Ratings and reviews are the 101 of ecommerce. These elements have been here forever and they are absolutely necessary for almost any online shop ot attract customers, I agree. But these elements are product oriented (not people oriented).

    But social (or the new thing about social) is about customer interaction, people can connect directly with eachother. This is where Amazon was never good at and is still very bad (although you can find user profiles now on Amazon), and this is what the Techcrunch panel was about.

    There are newer, fast growing companies that do a much better job connecting customers. And Amazon is definitely not their role model.

  • Good debate Jochen; I do understand where you are coming from – and your view is shared by many others. For some, it's crazy to talk about Groupon, Gilt, Vente-Privée etc as social commerce; since apart from member-get-member recruitment – what's social about it? And it's likewise for Amazon; there's little social networking or selling on social network platforms; can shared user profiles, shared wish lists, shared reviews, gift registries, forums and communities, really be called 'social'?

    We still think there is a case for inclusive view of social commerce, taking it as any use of social media – online media that supports social interaction and user contributions – in the context of e-commerce. Or are we trying to have our cake and eat it?

    • I think there's no need to put all these marketing elements into the definition of Social Commerce.

      If we talk about Social Marketing, then I am fine with the definition. But ecommerce is not primarily about marketing but about selling (from the merchant's perspective) and shopping (from the buyer's perspektive), and Wikipedia had a much better definition of Social Commerce until you replaced it by your own:

      "Social commerce: Subset of e-commerce in which the active participation of customers and their personal relationships are at the forefront."

      • Get where you are coming from – there is no "need" as you put it to label any use of social media in the context of e-commerce as social commerce – you could restrict it to a number of other definitions – for example, the only academic publication on social commerce suggests that social commerce is restricted to

        "Social commerce is an emerging trend in which sellers are connected in online social networks, and where sellers are individuals instead of firms"

        I assume you disagree with this as well. So my point is, it all depends on definitions you use – the AMA defines marketing as

        "Marketing is the activity, set of institutions, and processes for creating, communicating, delivering, and exchanging offerings that have value for customers, clients, partners, and society at large".

        You'll notice that this includes selling. So social media marketing can be said to include social commerce – but from the above, I suspect you disagree with this as well.

        Wikipedia defines e-commerce: electronic commerce, commonly known as e-commerce or eCommerce, or e-business consists of the buying and selling of products or services over electronic systems such as the Internet and other computer networks.

        That bit is at least is clear ;-) But you'll see the logic of the updated definition of social commerce; the choice of language has been taken to be consistent with definition of e-commerce.

        But we wouldn't want to take credit for Wikipedia definition of social commerce, it's the result of a content analysis of 20 definitions used. The previous suggested definition needed correcting because it wasn't written in English (you have to have at the forefront of something); grammatically incorrect and substantively vague – not too useful for organizing a debate about.

        But *this* is useful debate – to understand something, you have to understand what it is not. I suspect we are closer in our opinions than it may seem. And for us, as long as people define the terms they use, then there is room for various understandings and usage of a term. We're Wittgenstein-ian like that ;-).

        One problem, in our view, with some social media marketing, social commerce and "social" in general – is that terms are used as woolly non-specific terms to hide woolly, loose thinking in favor of marketing hype and spin.

        I think that is something we can both agree on!

        • This debate could be so easy, if we put the focus on commerce instead of marketing. Social commerce models are ecommerce models that focus on people instead of products.

          At http://www.excitingcommerce.com we focus on pure ecommerce. Social commerce is one of many new ecommerce models/categories that strive through the social web – social commerce, live shopping, event shopping, entertainment shopping, group buying models, penny auctions models, crowdsourcing models, mass customization models, open innovation models and so on.

          No marketing, no social media bs, just pure commerce. Life could be so simple and easy when no marketing is involved :-)

  • I agree with the post, a lot of people overlook amazon’s “social” aspect but IMO there is nothing else like it. It’s large database or reviews alone have such a huge social footprint on e-commerce, even for purchases outside of amazon’s marketplace.

  • In my opinion Amazon is to much of an commerce sales giant to be to sensible with details. They can be compared with the Google of internet search engine. They really need to mess it up hugely in order to lose their dominance and that’s why they will never be to sensible in talking the social commerce issue. Smaller websites on their niche will try to invent different things to catch up with Amazon, however their struggle is in vain. That’s just my opinion.

  • […] Take venture capitalist Sarah Tavel with Bessemer Venture Partners, who is calling for everyone to ‘stop calling Groupon “social commerce”‘ already. Just because Groupon is hot, and social commerce is hot, does not make Groupon social commerce. What’s social about a couponing site?  In terms of social, Amazon out-socialed Groupon years ago with its social recommendations, recently (and amusingly) culture-jammed by Harvey Nichols.  And we know what people think of Amazon and social (although we politely disagree – Amazon did’t miss the social boat, it built it). […]

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Paul Marsden

Chartered psychologist specialising in consumer behaviour and technology. Certified CX professional experienced in Design Thinking. A researcher, writer and speaker, Paul is head of Digital Insight at SYZYGY.