From selling to sharing

One of the most powerful and disruptive aspects of the web is its ability to facilitate low effort, large scale sharing. In the beginning the primary disruption came from our new-found ability to share information. This is a force that has transformed the communications landscape forever, as well as radically altering the fortunes of the music, film and news industries.  It may, however, be only the beginning. The power of the web to enable sharing started with shared information but it isn’t stopping there.

Marketers remain primarily concerned with this pesky information sharing problem. In the beginning (let’s call it the viral video era) marketers embraced this as a wonder of our time. We could get people to watch our TV ads without having to spend money on media-nirvana was here! The assumption was that a broadcast model would endure, with consumers acting as millions of convenient distribution points for our content.

Then of course, we realized that people could not only spread the messages we wanted them to, but a host of other, far less favourable ones. People were saying mean things about our brands on the internets! We may call it the “United Breaks Guitars” era or “The Rise of Buzz Monitoring”. Now we live in age when savvy brands are all too aware that they do not control the dialogue and that, as a result they need to get ever better at listening, monitoring and responding to that dialogue. To understand just how seriously some brands are taking this challenge, just take a look at Gatorade’s or Dell’s buzz monitoring war rooms-this is no minor investment.

So, yes, the free and easy sharing of information has changed the way we communicate forever. Far more disruptive, however, is the potential the web opens up for the sharing of goods and services.

In Clay Shirky’s truly excellent speech at South by SouthWest last year (nicely summarised here), he outlined three types of sharing. Sharing of information, sharing of services and sharing of goods. Drawing on Michael Tomasello’s primates research, he explained that we are evolutionarily hard-wired not just to share our information but to enjoy sharing it.  This is in part, he explained, because sharing information costs us very little, whereas sharing goods and services costs time and potentially assets-something we’re mostly hardwired (through loss aversion) to avoid.  The music industry was transformed forever, Shirky pointed out, when sharing music became not a question of shared goods (tapes and CDs) but of shared information (digital files).  So we have an inherent willingness to share information-what the web has done is transform our ability to share.

The web transformed our ability to share information

It was a inspiring and exceptionally intelligent talk. Just a year on though, I believe we’re moving towards a scenario where the ease with which we share information has created both an infratructure and a cultural climate where we are ever more comfortable with the notion of sharing goods and services as well. Or perhaps one where that distinction is less and less relevant.  The power of a maturing social web has increased both our ability to share goods and services and our willingness to share. 

I believe a number of factors are effecting this shift:

Increased ability to share:

-As more products and services are digitized (from books to marketplaces) they become “information”-and thus logistically (and emotionally) easier to share.

-As sensors and chips become smaller, cheaper and more ubiquitous, it’s easier to track and locate inanimate objects-thus facilitating shared usage across cities.

-The nature of the social web makes it ever easier to connect with individuals with shared needs or interests and therefore to share capital with them, as this excellent article “The Case for Generosity” points out.

Increased willingness to share:

-Our experience of peer to peer information sharing has created a shared understanding of peer to peer value exchange-contributing something of value in confident expectation of value in return.

-The social web has also given us renewed confidence in the power of the crowd and a new-found comfort with relatively weak social ties-we are increasingly comfortable with acting in concert with people we know relatively little about by conventional yardsticks.

The evolution of the web is transforming our ability and our willingness to share goods and services

So what does this mean for brands and businesses? While the end of capitalism isn’t exactly nigh it may be time for brands to begin to think about how they can prepare for the shift from a selling to a sharing economy. So what does that mean in practice?

Enable access, not ownership: Across categories (particularly those categories with an environmental impact) consumers are beginning to realize that what they need is not ownership of, say, a car, bike, or workspace but intermittent access to one.  The opportunity here is for the brand who can organize information and connect individuals best to triumph. It’s no surprise that one of Google’s latest investments has been in a peer to peer car sharing service. Amazon’s Kindle Book lending service is a interesting move in a similar direction.

Move from monopolies to marketplaces: Rather than simply selling the same products, in the same way, how can we enable increasingly expert and entrepreneurial consumers to sell their own products through our platforms or to surface our inventory in new ways? The new ASOS marketplace initiative is a wonderful example of this trend, as too is the potential of Google’s Boutiques platform.

Facilitate sharing: Ask how your brand can facilitate peer to peer sharing of goods and services. How can you provide a trusted environment that brings together individuals with shared needs and passions and where they can meaningfully pool their resources? The Zilok site is an interesting peer to peer utility where users can “rent anything from individuals or business” and Neighbourgoods is another interesting initiative but how much more powerful could this service be coming from an already trusted brand? Could fashion retailers enable peer to peer clothes swaps? Insurance companies facilitate house swaps? Could Starbucks enable hyperlocal sharing?  As Saneel Radia puts it, in this excellent post, “Help people loan to help yourself sell” .

Enable smart redistribution of resources: Service and utility companies may want to consider how they can enable users to redistribute resources within the network. Energy companies are already enabling users to “sell” energy back to the grid-how much more powerful if they could “gift” energy saved to those in greater need? Could we apply the same principle to bandwidth or server capacity? Wieden and Kennedy’s Off-On initiative is a wonderful example of how this can work at a charitable level-how much more powerful could it be at an enterprise level?

To end on a scary, but inspiring note, as Kevin Kelly expressed it in this Wired article:

“At every turn the power of sharing, co-operation, collaboration, open-ness, free pricing and transparency has proven to be more practical than we capitalists thought possible. Every time we try it, we find that the power of the new Socialism is bigger than we imagined”

We may not be headed directly towards the new socialism, but it feels that we are almost certainly headed towards a new era for the social web.

8 thoughts on “From selling to sharing

  1. The graphs really articulate the transformation of culture over the past couple of decades. It’s a very interesting time as some businesses change their models to tap into the collaborative consumption model (apps, social coupons, open affiliate programs), while others attempt a war on culture through political channels (Department of Homeland security seizing a hundred thousand websites revolving around copyright laws). Considering past political campaigns against human nature (and their failure), it would be wise for businesses to evolve their models to adjust to the new business environment over fighting the hydra of illegal supply and demand. Most of the time this change is simply giving the customers what they want, when they want it, and how they want it. Too many businesses still falsely believe themselves to have leverage over the consumer (when the opposite is true).

    1. Thanks Scott-agree there’s an emerging tension between those brands that embrace this shift and make it work for them and those that try to legislate against it. History suggests you can’t turn back the tide! Agree as well that for most consumers the key question is access rather than cost-people are often happy to pay for something as long as they can access it.

  2. This is a worthy exploration of sharing, and the infographics tell the emerging story of sharing well.

    However, it’s not accurate to say that humans are hardwired to NOT share physical things. Nobel winner Elinor Ostrom’s multi-decade research on commons showed that ordinary people can and have shared physical commons well under certain conditions. Numerous small farming communities have done so over hundreds and even thousands of years. Here’s an overview of her work:

    How to Design for the Commons (or Elinor Ostrom Explained):

    What some argue is that new technology is opening up new possibilities for an ancient human ability. Now sharing can go global. I agree with this.

    1. Neal, thanks so much for the link, a great read. Fascinating to me how the very latest technologies are reawakening some very old behaviours-behaviours that modern life had apparently eliminated. Like sharing, open-ness, hyper-locality.

  3. Peer to peer services based on the internet are as old as the internet and like you, I’m really interesting in the rise of non-information consumption.

    I think of it as ebay model (I can’t think right now of any service before) – create a platform that allows C2C interaction

    Air BnB – allow people to share their homes.

    Go Get Car Share – allow people to share cars.

    As you say, we are moving towards a model of collaborative / shared ownership.

    Have a read of this great presentation for more examples –

    One of the great future disruptive technologies will be rapid prototyping – at the moment this is based around ABS 3D printing – but new materials such as glass, ceramic and metals are all now possible.

    However, what is really interesting is how the ‘data’ of the object is now more important than the object. Object brokerage services have been around for a little while –

    In a few years, could we browse the MUJI catalogue and customise the object to our needs, and have it 3D printed on demands? Could MUJI then be a curated platform of furniture designed by the world?

    I’m pretty sure this is the future, i’ll be interested and surprise if a brand has the foresight to lead the way.

  4. Thanks Sermad-great presentation, many thanks for sharing. Fascinating idea around the disruptive nature of rapid (near real-time) prototyping-agree that takes the sharing/C2C to a whole new level-from sharing goods created by major manufacturers to creating/curating our own.

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