In our search for a better use of the web we can fall for the usual obstacles of fancy technology, nice design or popularity; but real solutions with an impact on our bottom line need a business anchor like the one illustrated by the case of the golden converter.
While looking for his next fountain pen, our consumer stumbles upon the Platinum Cool, a clear or “demonstrator” fountain pen made by Platinum of Japan. While researching other consumers’ experience with this pen he forms an opinion on its performance (nib, flow, ergonomics), design, desirability and accessibility (price).
He uses his pens with converters, as opposed to cartridges, but then finds a problem: the only converter Platinum apparently sells has a golden part which he intensely dislikes, and would show through the transparent pen. In the old economy, this would be the end of the story, our consumer loses interest and Platinum loses a sale.
In the new economy our customer searches for “platinum converter silver” and lo and behold, finds an answer from a Platinum distributor (with whom TheGreatVine has no relation), in the form of a web page with a video and text which explains how the converter can be disassembled and the annoying golden bit sanded; he even mentions the material that can be used.
The result is that the brand recovers potential sales, the distributor earns the gratitude of potential customers and thus potential sales, even if the price elsewhere is lower.
The lessons from this case are:
Breadth of the experience: Our consumer’s experience begins way before he sets foot in a physical pen shop (if he ever does), and ends much later (all those who have the pen but were unhappy about the golden converter and ask related questions, all those who try the solution and say whether it works or not).
Depth of the experience: our consumer now knows that the product can be customized to his needs.
Someone from the brand or distribution channels must know enough about consumers and their tribulations, about the product, and have the right incentives to be able to offer a solution.
The web solution itself has two parts: (a) it needs to be found, in this case through the keywords consumers are using (platinum converter silver), and (b) it needs to be easy to understand (both in text and during the video), in other words we value ease of use much higher than fancy technology. The solution proposed (website and video) must also be easy and cheap to produce.
In this case the brand is out of the loop, while it should be giving its distributors the incentives to generate this type of solution.
Are web solutions about technology, about people or about money? The answer depends on who you ask but the case of Blablacar (formerly covoiturage.fr) can help us understand them better.
Carpooling allows people to share car rides and split the costs. The car owner pays less for fuel and tolls, the rider avoids other more expensive and cumbersome transportation like buses and trains. The recent SNCF (train) strike in France provided an additional incentive to use this alternative.
Carpooling has a straightforward financial element: save money; it also has social components:
Meet other people, perhaps even engage in interesting conversations, see a bit of the countryside; or endure painful silences and unsavoury characters (or worse): it is the modern, more efficient equivalent of auto stop.
Individuals organize themselves by the thousands, so that drivers can establish routes, times, number of passengers, ride price or costs, passengers can ask about luggage size, smoking and even music preferences, and they can make specific enquiries about each other and accept or refuse rides.
Less pollution is generated (for instance with less cars on the roads, each with more occupants), and some governments have attempted to reward car pooling (for instance with carpooling only lanes) for this reason and to improve traffic.
Car pooling web solutions have two possible origins:
A community of individuals which organizes itself, usually with the help of a benevolent tech savvy user; this is a service for users by users, which usually runs into specific limitations: not easy to use, doesn’t cover as many routes, doesn’t have all the options (is it easy to know if I can take my cat? Is it easy to specify that I’m allergic to cats?), there’s no easy and safe way to check the reputation of the driver (is he a maniac?) or the rider (is she a psychopath?). A core of users will think it’s perfect, but the overall numbers remain limited and there are specific costs: for instance if a rider doesn’t show up and the driver still has to make the trip, it will cost him more than he had planned for.
A company trying to offer a specific service, usually following the logic of “capture the market, charge later”; this type of company requires a financial backer that demands growth in users and can wait for a return; it has the incentive to provide a polished service that covers most of what users want, particularly if it has competition on its heels: if done right the number of users and routes will be greater, the service more efficient and potentially the costs lower, for instance if the driver is paid even if the rider doesn’t show up (with a prepaid service) – which gives the riders the incentive to keep their word. It’s important to realize that while the solution may be more refined, the main input remains the community of drivers and riders.
One fine day, a company decides that to keep offering a useful and reliable service, and / or to repay the investment, it needs to start charging its users. The reaction to blablacar when it did just this is telling:
Many users felt betrayed, for it is their community.
Others cannot understand why they have to pay for a service which they see as occurring among themselves.
Others are opposed in principle to any form of payment, which would introduce the awful stench of capitalism.
Some drivers confessed that having an assurance of being paid was better.
Many drivers and riders find that the service is useful and offers convenient routes.
There are other carpooling options, some of which will remain staunchly free.
Apart from a few cultural idiosyncrasies (commerce and marketing being the work of the devil) the case helps us see a few lessons:
There is a lot of value unlocked when individual consumers organize themselves massively: this is consumer side innovation, as opposed to production side innovation, and can be very interesting for companies looking for a competitive advantage and differentiation.
The web makes this massive organization potentially much easier and faster.
Normal consumers depend on more tech savvy individuals, but this limits the benefits and reach of the solution as techies think about technology, not about consumers.
Companies that grow from a community need to cultivate it, so that everyone understands the individual and communitarian benefits of a better service, even if some will be opposed in principle. This is not just a communication effort but also a genuine operational issue, as the company benefits from the input of each individual.
Offering a better service can be a noble goal in itself and an option to less involved, nine to five jobs.
All companies can gain from thinking of their customers as a community, in which they need to be better integrated. For instance that community can help a company see which products are in demand, which problems they face, which changes would be desirable, before the competition can.