Follow buttons began with a narrow group of social media platforms and have now become a standard form of engagement on the web, allowing ecommerce sites to weave the concept of 'follow' into the shopping experience. The degree to which the follow button makes sense for ecommerce depends on how well it is used and whether online retailers are able to resist their urge to try and turn a standard social action into something else on their site.

At Backcountry.com, we launched a follow button in October of 2013 after several months of discovery and development around how to make the site more engaging for the communities of "ers" (skiers, climbers, bikers, etc.) that were filling the site with great content. Because the Backcountry community trends towards a high level of expertise, we got great adoption from a relatively small core group of users and saw incredible conversations happening around the gear that our contributors were interested in. The next question for Backcountry, and any other site wishing to experiment with follow buttons, is how to take follow and make it meaningful to a broader audience, powering a more interesting shopping experience or driving free traffic.

Most users will tell you that their network already lives on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc., so why would they want to build another network outside of those all-encompassing platforms? The answer is that ecommerce is set up, with the promulgation of user contributions, to offer value beyond a subscription to a feed of content. Follow, in order to succeed in ecommerce, must be exactly what users expect (subscription to a feed of content), or they won’t use it. But, it must also power an experience that is unexpected and useful to the shopping experience. Users may follow each other on your site because they are interested in a feed of user-generated content, but it is unlikely that you will be able to construct a social network capable of driving repeat visits over the long term solely on this offering. What you do with the data collected via follow actions, however, can have a dramatic impact on customer behavior and repeat visits.

Site customization is one avenue through which we can leverage the data from a follow graph to power a more meaningful experience. If I know that a user follows the professional climbing athletes on an ecommerce site, I can make some assumptions about that user’s interests and (hopefully) create a more meaningful site experience for that user and other similar users. This is just leveraging follow buttons to create customer segments, and then serving a custom experience to each segment. As someone who spends a lot of time thinking about how user generated content powers scale in ecommerce, I’m even more interested in leveraging follow to create an entirely unique site experience for each user. In practice, this means that I can take the products, content and topics being discussed by my network and use that data to merchandize a shopping experience that is unique to each user. As users play with this, they will expand or refine their network of followed users based on how narrow or broad they would like their site experience to be.

This may seem like a very complicated way to do site customization, but that is just the tip of the follow iceberg. Beyond site customization, ecommerce sites should be pursuing follow because it is a key channel through which your users will express something to you that they do not tell you through any other form of feedback: their future interest. Julien Genestoux cast the vision for the future of following, saying that “following is to the future what search is to the past”. That is to say that users follow things they are curious about or plan to pursue more deeply in the future. This is vital information for anyone attempting to merchandize an ecommerce experience for users with rapidly changing tastes and interests.

Following becomes even more meaningful as third parties (such as result.ly and SubToMe!) decouple consumption of followed content from publishing platforms. Sites that already have vibrant communities producing user-generated content and identifying tastemakers through following will be poised to extend their reach substantially beyond their web real estate. Soon, I will be able to follow users across many platforms, and the ecommerce sites with established tastemakers will be at an advantage. Instead of looking to Nordstrom or Bonobos to discover clothes that interest me, I’ll be looking to the users on those sites whose advice and opinions I personally identify with – and I’ll be using that input both on and off of the sites where my favorite contributors post content. Content syndication has already been established, and I think that user syndication, via following, is the next domino to fall. Ecommerce is and will increasingly be the most natural space to leverage these changes for the benefit of users and themselves.

Tagged in : Social Software, Product, Users, Content

Mark Parrett

Mark Parrett is a product manager interested in building things that solve problems by connecting people to experts and each other. Contact him with any questions about this or go here to see what he has done lately.