GUEST BLOG: Joe White on how online and social commerce is opening new doors for small businesses

When was created, its aim was to allow anyone - from individuals through to small business owners and beyond - to control, maintain and customise their online identities, without needing big budgets or technical expertise. Together with the proliferation of social media platforms, this created a more equal playing field for people vying for online exposure.

Since then, people's online priorities have progressed from controlling their presence to boosting their sales. Online platforms use a number of methods to focus on money-making: traditional ecommerce, where people can buy products or services online using electronic payment; ad-supported platforms, which offer a service or content funded by commercial advertising; and paywalls and micropayments, which allow sites to monetise individual units of content.

What's new in ecommerce?

So why has ecommerce been so important for smaller businesses with a mandate to grow? Since launching our ShopBuilder tool - which allows people to publish online shops across a number of platforms, including their own site, Facebook and mobile - we have seen some innovative ways to make money using ecommerce functions. Some of these go way beyond simply selling products for payment.

Our customer Yoga Bellies, a pre- and post-natal yoga class that takes place across the UK, has done something very interesting with ShopBuilder. Its online shop function collects customers' payments for classes that take place offline. Similarly, the King's College London Symphony Orchestra is using ShopBuilder to allow people to purchase concert tickets in advance of the event.

While this isn't new in itself (most people have purchased tickets for a concert or holiday online), Yoga Bellies and King's College are integrating ecommerce into real life without using the complex online registration or billing systems required by tour operators and ticket vendors. This is hugely significant for small businesses and micro-traders because it removes some of barriers that may have inhibited growth in the past: customers not carrying the right cash, for example, or not possessing a chequebook.

Ecommerce vs. social commerce

Social commerce is a concept that builds on ecommerce by adding interactivity and sharebility to the traditional buy/sell structure. A number of studies have shown that people trust the recommendations made by their family and friends online more than they trust other types of promotion. It makes sense: Why would you trust an advert or even a third-party endorsement when you can access unbiased advice from the people you know in real life?

Facebook is a particularly fertile platform for social commerce not only because it has so many users, but also because ecommerce functions have started to be integrated with company pages. It's powerful because it allows people to buy within their own network without needing to visit other websites - and because they can engage with the brand in ways their friends and network can see. This process introduces a viral effect into the selling chain, and enables smaller businesses to grow organically using popular platforms such as Facebook.

We originally launched ShopBuilder to allow site owners to set up shop wherever their customers wanted to buy, and to fill a gap in the ecommerce market. So it's interesting to see that our users are most excited about one specific ShopBuilder feature, and that's Facebook integration! Thousands of our shops are already using this feature to publish their whole product catalogue into the social network to allow buying and selling inside Facebook itself. It will be even more interesting to see how they innovate with social and ecommerce in the future.

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