About the "Baked In" series: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg likes to say that social dynamics are going to work their way into every industry, and the companies of the future will be the ones that bake them in from the beginning, rather than slapping them on as an afterthought. This series takes a look at companies that are discovering new opportunities by using social components in the foundations of their businesses.
If you’ve ever bought anything on eBay or Craigslist, you’ve felt that twinge of anxiety that comes from handing over your hard-earned cash to a complete stranger. Neither site, after all, requires sellers to provide their real names.
Copious, a new online marketplace that leverages Facebook’s social graph, and that goes live today, thinks it can help diminish that anxiety—as well as turn a host of online commerce paradigms on their head.
Like eBay or Craigslist, Copious is a place where people can buy and sell things—anyone from large retailers to Etsy-style small businesses to your Aunt Martha cleaning out her attic. But unlike eBay or Craigslist, Copious weaves in social tools that increase your confidence in the sellers you buy from.
If it succeeds, Copious could produce the next major paradigm shift in online commerce, a business whose primary conventions have remained more or less static since Amazon and eBay arrived on the scene over a decade ago.
The paradigm shift starts at Copious’ home page. There’s nothing to buy, peruse, or review until you log in. And as with question-and-answer site Quora, you can’t make up any old log-in. You have to use your Facebook ID.
That’s because, cofounder and former head of Facebook marketing Jonathan Ehrlich tells Fast Company, if the first wave of interpersonal interaction on the web was characterized by aliases and anonymity, the next wave, fueled by Facebook and the push it’s made to have people use their real names online, will be about people using what Copious calls "authentic identity."
"It allows the buyer and seller to see each other through the lens of their network," Ehrlich says. "Buyers can build comfort with the sellers via the power of that connection."
Once inside the site, each Copious user has a personal page that looks very much like a Facebook page. They can choose to follow other users. A feed lists the recent activity of the people they follow. And, drawing on the interests they've listed in Facebook (and that they've elected to share with Copious), the site provides a list of recommendations.
The pages for items for sale similarly use sellers’ Facebook identities to identify them. They also include "social signals," like whether anyone in your network is friends with that person and whether anyone has bought anything from them before.
This "people first, products second" approach, as Copious calls it, turns traditional commerce paradigms on their head. Reputation no longer rests on how many items a vendor has sold before and the ratings other buyers have given them. Instead, it rests on a social filter.
Each seller gets a rating that looks like the bars on your cellphone indicating the quality of reception you’re getting in your present location. The Copious rating (the orange "people" bars in the image at right), however, indicates the strength of the social signals connecting a buyer to a particular seller.
That’s not the only way Copious is resetting commerce paradigms. Through something the company calls "social pricing," sellers can choose to offer discounts to buyers who share an item with their networks or who choose to follow the seller.
The idea isn’t so much to encourage more purchases of that particular item—though that would be nice. Instead, it’s more a form of super-targeted display advertising.
The assumption is that some proportion of people in a buyer’s social network will have the same tastes as the buyer, so getting the buyer to share an item or favorite a seller produces a kind of brand advertising among people who, Copious assumes, might be likely future customers. And since that's worth something to the seller, they "pay" for the advertising via discounts to people who perform those actions and subsequently buy from the seller.
The last paradigm shift centers on allowing users to have conversations with each other. Traditional commerce sites have long allowed users to review items. But increasingly users online are expecting to be able to talk with each other about the things they care about—whether on Facebook or Twitter, for example.
Copious believes that commerce sites should allow their users to have those kinds of conversations with each other as well, not just to exchange information about a product, or to review it, but to simply to have a place to express their enthusiasms.
About 50 vendors are on board for the launch, many of them from the handbag industry, which Copious pinpointed as a segment that would work particularly well in this new environment. "For objects that are laden with passion, like purses, social conversations around the product are really important," Ehrlich says.
Ehrlich cautions that today’s launch is a very preliminary beta. The company is going out the door with certain assumptions—including the biggest one, that leveraging to a 700-million-strong social network can add whole new dimensions to online commerce. But, Ehrlich says, the company will be watching how buyers and sellers actually use the site, and will iterate based on what they see, all the while trying to figure out how best to work within this new context.