With all the chatter about how social media is killing off the rest of the web, and about which social media company du jour will be the next bazillion dollar IPO, we often forget to learn from the masters: companies started before the millennium. I’m talking about the ‘Old’ Internet. What did these companies do to become dominant, and how do they retain that dominance even as they don’t grab as many headlines as they used to?
I speak, of course, about ebay.
In the process of becoming the dominant and now the only player in this space (Yahoo! auctions anyone?), they established the template for many things that are standard in the ‘New’ Internet. Here are a few examples:
1) Gamification: The colored stars awarded to a users profile as they reach different levels of positive feedback are fairly pedestrian by today’s standards. But they meant something, because it took time to earn them. I received a tweet the other day from a colleague who deemed it newsworthy that she had unlocked the ‘Ten Hundred’ badge on Foursquare. That’s great. But getting to 1000 (‘Ten Hundred’ in Old Web speak) on ebay would have taken years. Years spent either as a dedicated buyer or as a seller who has found a niche. Not merely months of ‘checking in.’ I remember getting to 100 (‘Ten Tens’) and getting my turquoise star and I was pretty stoked. The previous star was given to me at 50, so I had to double my feedback to ascend to the next level. That took a lot of time, and money! (Note: I am currently rocking a feedback score of ’111′; the Purple Star is not awarded until 500. From an engagement standpoint, maybe this model is a bit too hard!)
2) Feedback (and member since): Feedback was always about more than stars: It is about reputation. The only time I was burned was when I bought from a cat who not only had a low feedback score, but also had not been on the system very long. Which required that I become keen observer of longevity as well as activity. You could have one without the other though. . .often times I found the best sellers were ones who had been using the service for years but had still amassed a feedback score sub 100. Each transaction meant something! Finally, folks are very persnickety about the feedback. If you didn’t leave it, you’d get a reminder to please do so. Retweeting is a spawn of this idea- giving credit for ideas that you are sharing with a broader audience via the honors system.
3) Favorite sellers: It has pretty commonplace to add a favorite blog to your Google Reader or to begin following someone on Twitter. Back in the day, this was done through adding favorite sellers into your ebay profile, knowing that at any moment they could be posting (er, listing) something you’ve been waiting to buy for a long, long time. I’m talking to you Drum Shop of New York!
4) Paypal: All this did was revolutionize payments. But it wasn’t gadgety- it grew organically out of a need to have a trusted payment medium between folks buying and selling on ebay. Here again ebay integrated the gaming concept to engender trust, by getting a ‘verified’ account. I think of the hubris of something like ‘Square,’ who aim to do away with POS systems, credit cards, etc. but forgot that they need to have a critical mass of customers first.
So call me old school, but I remember when a star was a star. And ten hundred was 1000. . . .