Imagine bumping into an old friend on the street and when you ask where they’ve been, they reply by rattling off a list of places. “First I went to a coffee shop, then to work, then I took the subway, then I went to that new Italian place and now I’m here.” Would you be satisfied with that answer?
Hearing that list of places does give you some idea of what that person has been doing — but it doesn’t tell you anything interesting. Yet that’s just what several important location-based social networks do. They provide the bare bones of the narrative, but none of the details that make the story worth hearing. After all, when we ask someone where they have been, what we really want to know is, “What happened to you once you got there?”
One way people answer that question is with the things they buy. We show off new purchases, complain about poor service, rave about new favorites and compare rivals. That’s why we buy souvenir T-shirts when we go someplace interesting, why we display our book or DVD collections in our homes, why we drive around with our windows down and our speakers up, listening to our favorite songs. Commerce is a narrative art.
But when the topic of social-commerce networks comes up, it makes some people uncomfortable. Money isn’t a comfortable topic, especially in a recession. But (for the most part) these service aren’t about the money you’re spending, they’re about experiences that tell stories. Of course, there are lots and lots of noncommercial ways to tell your story — but those will have to wait for their own posts. And granted, you could share this information using any number of other social networks — many people do just that. But social-commerce networks add extra functionality that can enhance the experience. I’m not saying they’re right for everyone, but they’re interesting experiments and they’re worth keeping an eye on, especially if you care about the intersection of social media and business.
Here’s a rundown of some of the players in the social-commerce space. We’ll start off simple and get a little unusual as we go:
Social Currency: If you like the idea of social-commerce networks and you’re into Foursquare, Social Currency might be the network for you. It’s built with Foursquare technology and links to the main network. It has the same check-in functionality as Foursquare, complete with badges, but it’s got that extra social-commerce twist, combining where you’ve been with what you’ve been up to.
Blippy and Swipely: These are probably the best-known social-commerce networks. They allow you to link your account to a credit card or an account with an online retailer such as iTunes and then selectively tell your network about certain purchases — reviewing and commenting on them as you go. You never have to share anything — you could have an account and just watch or comment on friends’ posts. I’ve grouped them together here because they’re very similar services, but there are a handful of meaningful differences. Blippy posts the cost of items you chose to share; Swipely doesn’t. Blippy has had a pair of security scandals. Swipely hasn’t — but of course, past performance isn’t indicative of future results. While the two are quite similar now, they’re both worth watching. The fact that they’re vying for the same space may make them more innovative and lead to better user experiences for members of both sites.
SCVNGR: This is a location-based network that takes the game aspect of sites such as Foursquare in a different direction. Instead of just showing up and checking in, SCVNGR asks you to complete little tasks at your destinations. These aren’t necessarily tied to purchases, but many of them are, such as taking a picture of a meal you ordered. The emphasis is on what happens once you arrive at a place — whether that means spending money or not.
Barcode Hero: Members of Barcode Hero use their smartphones to scan bar codes and check in to products, the same way Foursquare users check in to places. You can leave reviews of products, compare prices and score points — eventually become the king or queen of a certain product category. I confess, I never would have found this one if I hadn’t heard David Berkowitz talk about becoming the King of Disinfectant at BlogWorld last month. If the idea of having a conversation around a product appeals to you, Stickybits is another network worth checking out — though its notes are tied to a physical world in more literal sense, so they can be a little harder to share.
Beerby: I love niche networks and Beerby (it rhymes with “nearby”) is all about conversations around beer. Users can share the kind of beer they’re having, as well as the place they’re imbibing, leaving comments as they go. The app’s functionality still has a ways to go, but if you’re the kind of person who orders something like a Wild Dog Barrel-Aged Gonzo Imperial Porter and wants the world to know about your esoteric taste in brews, I could see you getting a lot of use out of this.
Ravelry: If you really want to see the power of social-commerce networks at work, Ravelry — a network for people who love to knit or crochet — is one of the finest examples out there. It takes a high-tech approach to building a community around a low-tech hobby, by allowing users to photograph, catalog and share their yarn collections. Users can see what yarns their friends have on hand, as well as all the projects that have been made with that yarn. They can download the patterns for those projects and buy the yarn without ever leaving the site. The site doesn’t have an overtly commercial feel to it, however — it’s about crafting and the community that these crafts create. The fact that the design of the site leads to buying more yarn feels like a happy accident.
Of course, this isn’t the entire universe of social-commerce sites. What are your favorites? How do you feel about the idea of sharing selected purchases with your social network?
Image credit: sodafish, via iStock Photo