After years of indifference toward social networks, Amazon is suddenly getting very social this year. Spark, the company’s social shopping feature introduced this week, is the clearest sign of that trend so far, but Amazon has given other hints in recent months. And if Amazon is serious about social, it could end up on a collision course with Facebook.
Amazon has long offered social and communication features on its site, but they are mostly the kind you could have found there in the 1990s: customer-authored reviews, consumer photos of products, a message-board-like place to ask and answer questions. Buyers could email third-party sellers or use a hard-to-find message service on the site. A decade ago, after Facebook made a social network a must-have feature, Amazon stubbornly clung to its old ways.
For years, Amazon also neglected opportunities to build or expand social networks around other properties. IMDB, which Amazon bought in 1998, fostered a community that penned passionate reviews and argued about films on the site’s message boards. After Amazon started streaming movies, it kept IMDB independent of its online store.
In 2013, Amazon bought Goodreads, essentially a social network for booklovers. While introduced as a feature on Kindles, Goodreads was never integrated into Amazon’s online bookstore, leaving it mostly independent. Both IMDB and Goodreads built up devoted communities that Amazon could have strengthened with social network features, but the company always passed.
All that has been changing this year. In February, Amazon said it would shut down IMDB’s message boards, after millions of users had migrated to IMDB’s Facebook page. At the time, IMDB said it would “launch new features in 2017 and beyond that will help our customers communicate and express themselves,” suggesting it could be planning an improved social experience on its site.
In March, Twitch introduced Pulse, a Twitter-like social feed that allows gamers on the video platform to communicate with viewers even when they’re not livestreaming. The announcement of Pulse led to speculation that it could be a template for social networking on Amazon’s other properties, turning Amazon into a player in social media.
Shortly after that, Amazon introduced its Influencer Program. Similar to its Affiliates Program, the beta program would allow social media influencers to earn a fee on any purchases they drive to Amazon by sharing a vanity URL in their posts. The program is invite-only to people with large followings on Instagram, YouTube, and other sites.
Already, a pattern is emerging here. Amazon is losing IMDB commenters to Facebook, Twitch conversations to Twitter, and product recommendations to YouTube and Instagram. What would happen if the company stopped shunning social networks and learned to love them instead? Social networks like Instagram and LinkedIn see user likes and shares as useful data — imagine how such data could improve Amazon’s still clunky recommendations.
An early answer is Spark, a feature in its iPhone app designed for product discovery. Tapping on the bell/notifications icon brings up Spark as an option, which then opens up a feed of user-generated images — a feed not unlike Instagram’s shoppable photos. Clicking on an image will bring up the product itself for easy impulse buying.
First reported by TechCrunch, Spark is not only Amazon’s first real foray into social shopping, it’s a potential threat to its rivals. Given Amazon’s strength in AI, an image-recognizing feature in the vein of Pinterest Lens could soon follow.
Amazon is also experimenting with other, improved modes of communications built around Alexa. Last fall, Amazon offered a $2.5 million prize to develop a socialbot that can converse for 20 minutes. Earlier this year, Alexa began offering voice calls and messages. The Echo Show can also make hands-free video calls at home, while the Skype-like Chime service makes enterprise conference calls. Reports this week indicate Amazon is surveying users about a possible messaging app called Anytime.
Together, these technologies could help Amazon strengthen its Echo family’s role as social devices, the way Facebook is hoping Oculus will become a hardware platform for its future social features. But they also offer Amazon a potential defense in an area where Facebook is already pushing: merchant-to-consumer conversations inside Messenger.
While it’s easy to speculate on how Amazon is thinking about new social features, it’s clear that the company is already moving on several fronts. In this respect, it’s interesting that Amazon is starting to match Facebook feature for feature — in B2C communications, messaging, and especially in social shopping. There’s even a hardware device to deepen user loyalty.
The two companies have different approaches to social networking technology — Facebook wants to sell ads to its users, while Amazon wants to sell things to its customers. But depending on Jeff Bezos’ ambitions, a new rivalry may be emerging: Amazon, the 800-pound gorilla of retail, versus Facebook, the 800-pound gorilla of social media.