Has the Internet's Level Playing Field Finally Arrived?

New Crop of Technologies Help Small Businesses Overcome Competitive Disadvantages

By Published on .

Judy Shapiro
Judy Shapiro
Remember the early, tender days of the internet when businesses were still contemplating how to take advantage of this powerful new "channel"? And in those early, optimistic days, the promise of the internet as the great equalizer was so alluring as to capture the hearts and minds of millions. Small merchants, the argument went, now had global access to a world market that, with a little bit of pluck, hard work and smarts could beat out even the largest players. It was technology's version of the American Dream spun on the loom of new technology.

This diaphanous-hazed view dissolved rather quickly as money began to make itself felt in this otherwise utopian level playing field. Well-funded sites applied slick (aka expensive) UI technology in combination with even slicker ad campaigns to buy user trust (aka. even more expensive). Next came keyword optimization and SEO campaigns (you guessed it -- oodles of money) to funnel larger and larger numbers to their sites.

The inevitable result was that more and more online sales were in the hands of fewer sites. By the end of 2008, according to Internet Retailer, a mere 500 e-retailers accounted for 65% of total online sales; up from 61% in 2007.

The smaller guy was simply outgunned -- made more sadly ironic by the fact that they were betrayed by the very technology that promised them so much. But the game ain't over just yet, folks. Over the past 12 months, there has been a blossoming of new technology platforms and services that give smaller e-merchants many of the tools heretofore only available to big guys. In short, these economical but powerful tools begin to even out the disproportionate advantage the moneyed sites had. There are lots and lots of cool companies out there and here is just a mere sampling or "nosh" of the "leveling" tools available (space would not permit me to list all of you out there):

  • WebCollage is really interesting because it started life as a content management solution for large manufacturers like Sony. Its primary goal was to help these large companies manage their complex content management needs across the wide range of sites that carried their products. Driven to satisfy customer needs, WebCollage continued to innovate so that this platform could support video and other rich media. Once these more engaging sales tools were available, WebCollage noticed something interesting; rich content converted better, impressively, in the double-digit range.

    With this insight, the company decided to adapt its technology for use by smaller manufacturers that use larger sites like Target or CVS as a main distribution channel. They developed a solution called the "Power Product Page," which is a template page that allows the small manufacturer to have a multi-tab, content-rich web page describing their product within these large sites. "WebCollage has spent the past decade perfecting its content-publishing network; we are proud now to be offering this level of technology to companies of all sizes," explains Scott Matthews, CEO of WebCollage, Inc. Using a Power Product Page has been proven to improve conversion extraordinarily by 17 to 30%, according to live customers like InterCure. More importantly though, according to WebCollage, 90% of the top direct selling sites (like Amazon, Walmart, etc.) are already primed to let their manufacturers use the Power Product Page platform. For the smaller guys -- the advantages are clear; customers will convert based on overall produce attributes and not whether a larger company outspent them.

  • It's conventional wisdom that consumer product reviews are good at improving online conversion. Then it follows that consumer video product reviews would convert even better. That is the main idea behind ExpoTV, a video-based feedback and review platform used by big brands today. But ExpoTV is looking to adapt its platform for use by smaller companies, according to Bill Hildebolt, president of ExpoTV. In fact, ExpoTV is working with WebCollage to introduce this capability in its WebCollage's Power Product Page.

    Adding robust video reviews tool is another way to bolster trust if the site does not have deep pockets for huge ad campaigns. Mark another win for how "smarts" can outdo money in the conversion wars.

  • BuyerTrust helps level the playing in a different way. This service guarantees that if a site with the BuyerTrust seal does not deliver as promised, BuyerTrust will mediate on behalf of the consumer to a successful outcome or reimburse the consumer for the purchase price. The BuyerTrust seal is awarded only to companies that can be authenticated (via Comodo, a certification authority) including undergoing ID checks, financial verification of standards and terms of sale. So while "JudyJewels.com" can't possibly outspend Zales.com's ad campaign to buy consumer trust, BuyerTrust reassures "Judy Consumer" by saying, "It's OK to buy from this site because we guarantee they will perform. "For "Judy Consumer" this extra level of buyer assurance (in addition to the normal coverage a consumer might have from their credit card provider) might be what tips the balance in favor of JudyJewels.com.

  • ImpactEngine is another platform play that makes the creation, management and reporting of online campaigns much simpler than ever before. They provide templates ads and reports that are more or less "click" friendly and don't require heavy lifting on the programming front. This platform, for instance, lets ad sales people create ad campaigns for clients on the fly. And like all good platform plays, there are plenty of bells and whistles; a simple, yet powerful hosted flash banner (or "display") ad builder with a suite of services including: Campaign management tools, independent real-time metrics gathering and reporting, ad optimization and analytics, real time ad updates, custom ad creation, advertiser self service options and more. Yup -- a ton of functionality, priced based on the scale of economies that platforms allow. Now money-making campaigns can be created and deployed without hiring an army of consultants to do it.

  • Cartfly is a natural extension of the social media revolution as it allows small merchants to have an ecommerce presence in their social networks. What I love about this is that they provide both the technology (e.g. storefronts, widgets etc) and the basic blueprint for the small e-merchant on how to construct a social media, ecommerce integrated world. Their description makes it very friendly but is cleverly very social media savvy: "Cartfly is the newest way to sell your products online. This simple e-commerce tool allows ... you to customize the look of your new store and start selling items across the web. Cartfly gives you the code to embed your store, your favorite social networks, blogs, personal web sites, etc. Why limit your store to one location when you can have hundreds? Friends and supporters can also embed your store to boost visibility. Every sale made at any location comes directly back to you!" Cartfly levels the playing field by letting e-commerce sites create a monetizable platform that can go where the larger online sites can not -- into the social networks of smaller companies. As Internet goes more "niche", this provides a powerful channel that is closed to even the largest eCommerce sites.

  • Going mobile is now also something that smaller companies can also take advantage of. In this space, you've got some great "leveling" companies like Hot Potato; a free platform that, "helps friends and fans socialize and share experience around live events" or Mixmobi that lets retailers can create their own coupons/ offers which integrate with key social networks. These two examples are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of mobile marketing opportunities and there are great organizations like the Mobile Marketing Association designed to help brands utilize these tools.

The true genius of this generation of platforms/ services is that their "easy to use" front-end belies some pretty nifty heavy lifting on the back-end. Often, the platforms are "plug 'n play" and the only technology requirement is integrating the alternate technologies to make them work together.

So maybe one day JudyJewels.com can rank on page 1 on Google for "Best online jeweler." It's a dream that's closer now than ever before.

P.S. If you've got a tech platform that helps smaller business beat the pants off the larger guys, send me word at [email protected]. I'd love to kick the tires.

Judy Shapiro is chief brand strategist at CloudLinux and has held senior marketing positions at Paltalk, Comodo, Computer Associates, Lucent Technologies, AT&T and Bell Labs. Her blog, Trench Wars, provides insights on how to create business value on the internet.
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