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Ecommerce would get a lot more interesting with a little more cooperation.
Most "ecommerce communities" feel superficial, and limited to curt forum discussions about SEO and marketing.
I think this is because many ecommerce players tend to see each other as competitors. Every player is primarily worried about their own survival, and this can lead to an overly-conservative view towards cooperation and community building.
I'm worried about directing customers to you, because if they buy your shoes they might not have enough money left over to buy my leggings. - AnxiousMerchant69
It's hard to inspire cooperation when players feel like they're in direct competition with one another.
But the truth is that ecommerce doesn't have to be a zero-sum game. Not every store is directly in competition with every other. The pie is expanding, and it's possible for everybody to win.
Let's look at some examples of cooperation done right.
Black Milk Clothing: Pretty girls, nylon, and awesome pop culture references.
If you drop by Black Milk Clothing's FAQ page, you'll learn that a lot of people are curious about the shoes worn by the models:
OMG, where are those shoes from?
If I had a dollar for every time we get asked this question... I'd be a millionaire. And yes the shoes we use are amazing and are supplied by our BFFs at Solestruck."
This is really worth exploring. Black Milk sells leggings and other nylon paraphernalia. They don't have to care about shoes. Yet they do! Why? Because they're in the fashion business, and they're committed to good fashion. So they pay excruciating attention to detail: Good shoes, attractive models, and professional photography. Everything is a part of the very good-looking bigger picture.
This strikes at the heart of branding in a way that's difficult to teach. It's about obsessive commitment to quality, or what Steve Jobs would've called "insanely great". It's compelling because it's so hard to fake. We know it when we see it, it oozes at the seams. That's what people pay good money for.
As a consumer, it's great to know that when you buy Black Milk leggings, you're buying stuff that's lovingly made by people who're passionate about great fashion. This is also why people love Apple and Tesla so much. They trust the brand to overdeliver on its promises. That's a competitive advantage that endures because it's hard to emulate.
A pathological commitment to good taste is great for business. It also has the beneficial side-effect of putting healthy pressure on your products to get really good, because you're your own worst critic.
I went to check out Solestruck and found a few interesting things:
1: They do a lot of collaborations.
It's very much like musicians covering each other's songs, promoting each other's music, and collaborating together. That's a win-win: Their fans get excited to see what's coming next, and the pie expands for everyone: designers, artists, models, photographers, fashionistas, bloggers, and consumers.
When enough people collaborate and cooperate, a scene emerges, and scenes inspire development. Scenes are the birthplaces of cool. A small group of highly committed individuals can create a movement that spills over across the rest of the market. It's easy to imagine that the combination of Black Milk + Solestruck might've been at the root of a broader movement that subsequently tipped and went mainstream.
What if collaborating with others in your niche means possibly getting so much exposure that your niche becomes the next big thing? That will have an effect on your business that's simply off-the-charts. Immeasurable.
2: The first thing I saw on Solestruck's blog was them raving about another brand.
Here's a screenshot:
Why would anybody dedicate precious blog space to gush about... others?
It makes a lot of sense of you think of these ecommerce players as fans first, players second. They love the game so much that they simply had to get involved themselves. They're ultimately the biggest fans of everything happening in their own niche.
"They're not trying to figure out what the audience wants, they're just trying to make the thing that they want, that they wish other people would make. This is the movie they wanna go see." - One of the Matrix CG guys, talking about the Wachowski siblings.
It's very easy to imagine the Wachowski siblings blogging excitedly about some new cyberpunk film that they enjoyed. It might be a competitor to their films, but it would be a contribution to their scene. It expands their pie.
So here's a proposal for more cooperation in ecommerce:
1: Commit to developing good taste, and communicating it to the world.
We highly recommend that you use a blog to do this. Celebrate whatever it is that you believe is worth celebrating, especially high-quality work from others in your niche.
There's something very compelling about people who're so excited about what they do that they can't help but gush about what others in their scene are up to. Develop a strong understanding of what good [product] is, and people will be interested in what you have to say, and sell.
If you develop and communicate good taste without producing anything, you're a commentator. There's nothing wrong with that. Bloggers and thought-leaders can do quite well for themselves, and contribute significantly to their communities. It's a wonderful foundation to build a business on.
What doesn't make sense to attempt the opposite: To produce things without first developing and communicating taste. Yet this is what a lot of eCommerce players do. It could be naivety or idealism, but they're almost always going to get slaughtered by competition that works harder and knows their niche better.
2: Avoid promoting anything that doesn't meet your standards.
The paradox of influence is that it can't be bought. If it's ever revealed that you're sharing something simply because you were paid to do it, your influence diminishes. Link exchanges, for example, are ultimately damaging because they remove taste from the equation. You'll dilute your brand.
You know that you can count on any of these players to refer you to other players of good taste.
If enough players celebrate complementary stores that impress them, the end result is a sweeter marketplace where every agent is a harbinger of quality. Unfortunately, we aren't yet at this utopian future- and perhaps we'll never quite reach it.
But clearly, as demonstrated by Black Milk and Solestruck, it's good for business.