Where the New Commerce Opportunities are in the Current Wave of Innovation

At TechCrunch’s Disrupt conference a few weeks ago legendary venture capitalist John Doerr of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers spoke about what he considers to be the next, and third, great wave of innovation- the intersection of social, mobile and new commerce. Like swells in an ocean, technology innovation is not comprised of a single wave or event, but instead a series of them. Smaller, initial waves enable those in the middle of a set to generate the largest swell and associated impact, while the smaller waves at the end benefit from all the efforts of the preceding waves in the group.

While I would agree with GigaOM’s Om Malik that we are already in the throes of John Doerr’s third wave, the areas of social, mobile and commerce each represent a unique wave in time within this current innovation set. Social is an important, but early wave that will help mobile, the middle wave, generate the largest impact in this third technology wave. One of the benefactors of both the social and mobile innovation waves will be commerce, which well-known early stage investors Josh Kopelman of First Round Capital and Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures have both identified in recent months as being areas of emerging opportunity.

In 2007, two events helped propel this commerce wave forward more than any others- the launch of Facebook’s platform and Apple’s release of the iPhone. Though Friendster and MySpace preceded Facebook in the area of social networking, the ability to create and extend the social graph of what is now 500 million users to third-party websites and services has enabled Facebook to become the social identity layer for the worldwide web today. Meanwhile Apple changed the mobile landscape forever by enabling applications to be developed for the iPhone that leveraged the smartphone’s capabilities as well as those of the wireless carriers’ networks. The traditional insular, walled-garden approach to third-party content and services on carrier data networks and mobile handsets has been replaced by innovation around the mobile internet and applications. This has resulted in enhanced functionality and value to consumers from not only the iPhone but other smartphones and mobile operating systems looking to benefit from this new ecosystem- all while driving additional data revenues for wireless carriers in the process.

The Social Wave

Internet commerce websites like Amazon were actually early adopters of social technologies- empowering their customers to post reviews and ratings on product pages to help other Amazon shoppers determine whether or not to buy a particular item. This crowd-sourcing feedback model hasn’t evolved much since first being launched though, keeping the relationship between reviewers and shoppers fairly anonymous and thus limiting consumers’ trust factor. Allowing users to layer their social graph on top of the commerce experience would enable potential buyers to see feedback from family and friends or their extended social network first, further enhancing the shopping experience for consumers and inevitably driving better revenues for commerce sites.

Recently launched Blippy and Swipely both aim to capitalize on this theme by enabling their users to share purchase transactions with their social graph. While these companies are focused on creating a discussion around purchases post-transaction, there is an opportunity in being able to curate this commentary and incorporate it into product feedback loops across commerce sites, making the shopping experience even more personal and dynamic.

Probably the hottest area in online commerce though has been the group buying segment with the likes of Groupon and LivingSocial raising $135 million and $39 million respectively this year alone. While the business model isn’t new (Mercata and MobShop, founded in the late 1990’s were the original group buying platforms that became casualties of the internet bubble), the ability to tap into consumers’ social graph to enable the group buying mechanics to work is.

The Mobile Wave

After years of promises, mobile finally seems ready to deliver on the cliché “get-a-Starbucks-coupon-on-your-phone-when-you-walk-nearby.” With the ramp in mobile internet subscribers already exceeding the speed of traditional desktop internet adoption and global smartphone sales expected to surpass personal computing in 2012 according to Morgan Stanley Internet analyst Mary Meeker, how mobile is being thought of and used in commerce is changing dramatically. With most commerce companies already having a mobile version of their website and native applications available across various mobile app platforms, the biggest opportunities in mobile going forward are in bringing real-world and digital experiences together via augmented reality and enabling a variety of payment capabilities through mobile phones.

Augmented reality brings information from the web into the real world in real-time. This can be accomplished by (1) adding visual data elements to the visible world (i.e. through Layar’s Reality Browser) while looking at something through a mobile phone camera, (2) leveraging QR (quick response) codes located on storefront decals (which Google makes available through Google Places) or outdoor ads to access additional information about a place or item via the mobile internet and (3) adding data to physical objects via bar codes (the idea behind recently launched StickyBits) or associating data with locations people have visited (a la Foursquare ‘tips’). In each of these instances the opportunity is to quickly and conveniently provide additional information to help consumers make more informed decisions.

Mobile payments represent the largest, albeit most fragmented, opportunity as Generator Research predicts the market will grow almost ten-fold from last year to $633 billion in worldwide revenues by 2014, driven by nearly 500 million users. The types of payments users are able to initiate vary from physical dongles like Square that allow phones to function as cash registers for merchants, to buying virtual goods for apps through Boku or Zong using a consumers’ mobile phone bill instead of a credit card, to paying friends through platforms such as PayPal or Venmo.

How can commerce make the best use of these innovations?

The underlying theme with many of these commerce examples, from aggregating audiences for sales to sending users mobile coupons, is their focus on addressing the supply-side of the commerce equation. Instead of trying to find new ways to incentivize demand for products and services through price elasticity or information overload, the more interesting and challenging opportunity in commerce is creating solutions to identify demand pre-transaction. If consumers had efficient ways to signal their intent on an individual or aggregate basis prior to making a purchase, a whole new commerce paradigm could be created around real-time demand fulfillment. Some possibilities include:

  • A group of co-workers decide to go out and have lunch together and broadcast their intent to restaurants at the local mall who in turn have the ability to offer coupons or discounts to these consumers before they make their decision;
  • A family on vacation in New York City is interested in sight-seeing as well as catching a show on Broadway. The father sends out a prioritized list of attractions and a budget to local travel agents, which respond with multiple itineraries based on the given parameters.
  • Several people in the same city are looking to buy the same toy. They query their phone to find the cheapest price. Participating stores are notified of inquiry and are given the ability to offer a discount if a minimum number of these consumers buy today, which can be completed on the phone and the toy held for pick-up.

The key distinction with these futuristic examples is that instead of making consumers proactively pull information from disparate sources to get answers, the information is pushed to consumers based on their stated intent. Pleet, which launched earlier this month out of the UK, looks to address this opportunity by “socializing vouchers” around consumers’ intended action in a specific location. Well-known tech blogger Robert Scoble also explores the possibilities of real-time, in-the-moment commerce that leverages context aware apps and services  in a guest post on TechCrunch this month. In either user case (pre-sale or during an event) the default requirement is that the consumer has control over which apps and services can share what type of data with one another and what information (updates, offers, etc.) is allowed to get pushed to users and their social graphs.

Mobile’s role in all this is to tie these web services to a user’s physical location to enable various types of commerce opportunities to occur as well as provide a way for consumers to add information in real-time to enhance the value of the data. For this reason augmented reality (AR) does have a viable future, despite some of the early hype around it. AR can pick up where intent-based, push-oriented commerce opportunities leave off by providing consumers with the ability to pull dynamic information from the internet into their real-world situations. That is why services like Foursquare and StickyBits that allow users to access data related to places and objects via barcodes respectively have a great chance to succeed- because they can generate a large network effect not only from social connections on the platform but also due to the information users are augmenting these respective services with. So for those instances where someone doesn’t have the ability to request offers and information from restaurants on lunch discounts they can instead leverage an augmented reality app that contains information on proximity to restaurants in the area as well as any reviews from friends, general feedback or coupons and make reservations in the process.

Some of the winners will be companies everyone knows…

Amazon- Even though Amazon has been accused of missing the boat on social commerce, they still have the very enviable position of being the largest pure-play ecommerce company, and fastest growing retailer, in the U.S. With all the product information and review data they have collected over the years and experience in managing online storefronts, Amazon could not only empower other sites and apps with this data but also manage the supply chain for consumers looking to transact via mobile yet pick up products at a physical location. The value of the company’s data set could be further enhanced for its own financial benefit by enabling Facebook users to access their social graph through the Amazon.com website.

Apple- The company’s inclusion is due to its recent acquisition of Siri, a voice-activated personal assistant application, rather than being the leading smartphone and app platform. Siri’s value to Apple is in its ability to integrate various APIs from a variety of restaurant, movie, weather, taxi and event services to enable voice-activated search which can lead to a variety of commerce opportunities. In the process of integrating Siri into the iPhone, Apple is also laying the groundwork for an entirely new user experience in mobile search.

Facebook- The company has already proven the power of combining the social graph with commerce by enabling a billion dollar economy in virtual goods to arise. With the launch of Credits, which could become one-third of the company’s revenues over the course of the next 12 months, Facebook has an opportunity to become a big player in mobile payments by enabling alternative payment options for its virtual currency. Combined with the fact that Facebook not only has the most popular mobile app out there but also provides authentication for a number of other mobile apps, there is tremendous upside in what the company can achieve in the commerce space.

Google- The launch of Android, Google Latitude, Google Maps and Google Places over the years are all efforts to bring location into the search equation. Being able to marry search intent with location data opens up a new revenue opportunity around local search advertising and commerce for Google, which despite their forays into display advertising, needs to continue to rely on search advertising to grow its business.

…While other are just getting started

Some of the aforementioned companies in the social transaction, group buying, augmented reality and mobile payments spaces all have opportunities to succeed in this new wave of commerce innovation. The broad category of augmented reality is the most interesting because it operates at the intersection of both worlds (real and digital) so is best suited to incorporate social and mobile features from these other businesses. While most success stories will be through acquisition, companies like Foursquare have the potential to succeed on their own by focusing on the demand and intent side of the commerce equation. Since the company has created a user experience around “checking-in” to locations and venues as well as leaving “tips”, it would require only a slight modification in behavior to have users instead display their intent by “pre-checkin” and aggregating the demand they already capture to drive additional utility around commerce. Even though the company has focused on the game mechanics of its service, the fact that it has nailed social and mobile interaction gives it a leg-up on other competitors.

While I can see why Josh Kopelman believes the past 10 months have shown greater innovation in online shopping than the past 10 years, I believe the wave has yet to come and that the next 18 months is where the greatest innovation will occur around real-time, intent-oriented commerce.

Photo credits: Madeleine1912/Photobucket, centralasian/Flickr and chizzachong/Flickr.

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