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Social platforms often use the low-ball squeeze to lure businesses away from connecting with customers directly. Will e-commerce be next?

by JERRY SILVER // Twitter, Facebook, Instagram
Digital PR specialist and CEO at Spin Factory

Who’s in control of your audience?

Carl Waldecrantz, CEO and co-founder of Tictail, delivers an anti-website observation in The Death of Webshops (Huffington Post):

“Over the years that have passed, I have witnessed the deconstruction of websites as one part after the other have been moved elsewhere. Support to Twitter, Forums to Facebook, Blogs to Tumblr and now Medium, Videos to YouTube and now Snapchat, Opening Hours and Directions to Google Maps, Images to Instagram and so on.”

Waldecrantz then goes on to make the point that webshops, too, should be relocated onto third-party e-commerce platforms — like Tictail.

But before we give away the farm, let’s talk shop:

Who Can Say No to a “Free” Audience?

I love Tictail, but also Google, Facebook, Apple AppStore, Android Market, Tumblr, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, Medium, Youtube, Snapchat, Mynewsdesk, WordPress.com, Amazon, Pinterest, Eventbrite, Flickr — and the list just goes on and on.

In fact, I love most platforms that will compliment and extend any corporate online presence.

And the arguments are valid: How could a corporate webshop ever compete with Amazon when it comes to discovery? Or with Facebook when it comes to social graphs? These types of online platform deliver a tremendously valuable commodity:

Audience.

In theory, it sounds perfect with a networked online webshop. Companies can focus on what they do best and (for a prize) outsource their online sales. The pitch is almost rock solid.

Almost.

When the Argument Sounds Eerily Familiar

Here’s what Facebook said:

“Hey, come on over! Post your content here, and we’ll place it front of those people who needs to see it, all thanks to our awesome network algorithms.”

Remember? Then they said:

“Thanks for adding free content to our platform for a couple of years, we hope you enjoyed your free fix. Now that you can’t reach people without us, it’s payback time.”

In PR, we call this the low-ball technique1:

the low-ball technique — first make it extremely easy to enter into a customer-client relationship, then you maximize the client’s buy-in, thus making it difficult for them to back out. Then, when you have your “hooks in”, you change the rules to your benefit.

For example, the hotel industry got severely low-balled by online travel portals:

Most hotels allowed portals and forums to offer up their vacancies. It was incredible at first, but as soon as the hotels became dependent on these portals, they started to squeeze them. Now, many hotels are fighting for their very survival by trying to get people to book hotel rooms via their sites instead of through these portals.

Terrible. But e-commerce managers are starting to wise up.

The Low-Ball Squeeze: Should We Expect It?

When using third-party platforms that are asking for more in return2, we should always explore the possibilities of establishing a meaningful presence. But given the long-term risks of being low-balled, we must also be smart about outsourcing our online customer relations.

A reasonable trade-off could look like this:

Yes, your platform can:

  • Leverage our content for free.
  • Collect data on our customers.
  • Communicate with our customers.

In return, we want:

  • Traffic ownership (domain).
  • Client relation ownership (email).
  • Total UIX control (white-label customization).

Many platforms allow you to operate from a domain under your control, you control the transactions, and the possibilities for UI customizations are great. But will it stay that way?

What happens if (or when) the low-ball squeeze sets in?

Will the service start dictating how we design customer experiences? Once we become fully dependent on discovery, will the service raise the percentage cut on all transactions? And what happens when the platform denies us access (emails, phone numbers, addresses, etc.) to “their” users?

Should I Kill My Blog and Move to Medium?

Waldecrantz writes:

“… the brand website will be fully transformed into a vanity property and hub we hold on to serve the older generation …”

Sure. I could easily kill this self-hosted blog off and do Medium instead.

Here’s why that’s a bad idea:

On Medium, I won’t get Doctor Spin readers; I’ll get Medium readers. And my content will look and feel just the same as everyone else’s content — hardly a winning PR- or branding strategy.

Now, there might be readers who like to read my articles on Medium, so it makes sense for me to syndicate some of my articles there. Online properties can exist both here and there, after all.

However, if Google sees these articles as duplicate content and decides to punish the smaller site (“Hey, that’s me!”), I’d prefer fewer readers on a platform where I can be directly responsible for my end of the relationship.

But maybe that’s just me?

Here’s what I say: Skepticism is called for — healthy, even.

Webshop Owners Need “No Evil” Guarantees

Don’t get me wrong:

Facebook, Amazon, Medium, and every other socially networked platform are right to exploit the market in the best way it can. A smart company can still leverage their social graphs and algorithms with remarkable results.

The problem, however, is that businesses often rely too heavily on these platforms while forgetting to build direct online relationships with their own customers.

If nothing else, webshop owners will need “No Evil” guarantees, in writing, before giving up on their own website stores. If not for themselves, but for their customers’ sake.

Because we’ve heard all the “network discovery” arguments before. As the saying goes:

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

Notes:

  1. The low-ball technique is similar to the more well-known bait-and-switch technique.
  2. In contrast, Matt Mullenweg’s WordPress.org isn’t trying to take over their users’ customer relationships. As a platform, WordPress powers 26,6% of all websites.

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Behind the keyboard:

Jerry Silver is the author of Doctor Spin, a PR blog that's been around for 15+ years. Via his agency Spin Factory, Jerry is advising brands on how to adapt to a 'digital first' world. In 2016, Cision Scandinavia named him "PR Influencer of the Year". Jerry lives in Stockholm, Sweden with his wife Lisah, news anchor and television host, and their three-year-old son, Jack.

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