The Octopus and the “Alive Web”

Find the strategic focus and mental freedom to break away from the drive to the transaction, and embrace the drive to the connection...

Commerce is nothing new. Retail is nothing new. E-commerce simply superimposed a known purchasing process over a set of technological limitations. Clever retailers learned to distract users from the essential clunkiness of buying online with innovations in CX and the halo of the non-tech shopping experience. Meanwhile, in China, they’ve all but done away with the “traditional” e-commerce user experience in favor of concentrating the transaction into a messaging app window. So, what’s next?

Getting to “what’s next” requires us to abandon incremental improvements and approach these challenges from fresh perspectives. We’ve evolved beyond just wanting to sell things. We want a meaningful relationship with our consumers to help ensure that they will stay with us — and that we will continue to sell them things — over the long term. We may go so far as to leverage consumer relationships to help our brand / retail establishment enter new territory. We know that we can engage in some fairly sophisticated consumer engagement initiatives without a huge budget by having the strategic focus and mental freedom to break away from the drive to the transaction, and embrace the drive to the connection.

Don’t worry, it’s not just you; the fluffiness of that last paragraph made me barf a little. But it’s not untrue. A lot of tech effort has been dedicated to making the e-commerce experience behave so as not to disrupt the delicate path the consumer has been set on. But what if we think more about the consumer experience as a stack of discrete experiences that are not incremental, but are designed to bring people together? Something sharable, perhaps. Such a notion is not at all new, but the imaginations that envisioned it upwards of a decade ago were limited by the technology of the day.

Which brings us to this question: Do you know the difference between ‘arm’ and ‘tentacle’?

It’s Not The Size That Counts, It’s the Distribution

The octopus has about 500 million neurons, with more than half of them found outside its main brain. Octopus arms have suckers along most of their length, as opposed to tentacles, which have suckers only near their ends. Each of the octopus’s arms has a small cluster of nerve cells that controls movement, so the creature technically has eight independent mini-brains along with a larger central brain. Incredibly adaptable and clever, the octopus: They have no real weapons except brains and ink, and so they engage with what’s happening around them in ways that are eye-opening. And that’s the key: They rely on their decentralized centers of intelligence to leverage their surroundings, to achieve their goals.

Sure, they die right after procreating, but you can’t be everything

To see why this serves as a very handy way to envision how e-commerce should evolve, we turn to the writings of Om Malik, the accomplished (and very cerebral) Silicon Valley journalist / entrepreneur / venture capitalist:

“It has been over a decade since I first talked about the “alive web.” The pervasive connectivity and increasing number of network connections excited me then (and still does).”

The blog post this came from discusses the great failed experiment of Google+, its potential for fostering greater connections between people, and even mentioned Chatroulette (which, unbelievably, still exists). But this post also leans heavily on an earlier post of his, which shows both his continuity of thought and that we are always solving the same problem, over and over again:

“What matters is the connection and the interactions. We get online to socialize instead of posting status updates, just as we would when we would go to our favorite club or a neighborhood bar.”

The notion of fostering greater connections between people has the potential to profoundly impact how we approach e-commerce today. When our focus turns away from the race to the transaction and more toward providing a venue where people can connect in real time to co-experience something, we form the basis of a relationship.

Thanks in some part to COVID lockdowns, the ”how” part of creating these opportunities for connecting is less problematic than ever. If we imagine a marketing and commerce automation “system” where the central functions of e-commerce are decentralized and can operate semi-independently (like the brains of an octopus) we can customize the experience for the consumer, expand the collection of shopper preferences for the brand without intrusion, and broaden the ability to upsell / cross-sell for the retailer. Siloing the steps of an online transaction within one system neither guarantees security nor brings efficiencies to anybody except, perhaps, the tech team. And, most crucially, siloed systems do not align with how people behave online today.

Stack? Suite? Zoom?

To be fair, for years purpose-built e-commerce systems that support a truly direct customer engagement have existed. They are architected around a core capability, and then, through a series of “acquire-and-bolt-on” acquisitions, become a part of a disparate set of capabilities presented as a single solution. They are merchandised as a “suite” of “connected” services. They tended to cost more because — without anything else equally capable — they did more. You then adapted your business to the suite’s offering, not to the habits of the consumer.

You were not being an octopus.


TL/DR: Pick up the very important rest of this on our Medium.com blog.