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Monetizing Interpersonal Obligation in the Online Buying Experience

Posted on February 19, 2009 by Brian

During the last several months one of my brothers and I both purchased our first house.  Inevitably we end up in discussions about various renovation and repair projects we have in work, or on the horizon.  One such discussion included my brother’s tale of a pair of pruning shears he paid some ridiculous price for, like two to three times the price than what was listed as the price at the big box up the street.  Why?  Well, he was standing across the counter from the guy that just spent time explaining what shears he needed and how to use them to properly prune his trees.  He visited the nursery because he knew he could get the information he needed and now the interpersonal obligation pushed him to buy the overpriced shears.  In all fairness, maybe the shears were fairly priced when the value of the information and advice was rolled in.  Unfortunately he didn’t get to see the information price tag up front.  Interestingly, I found myself in a similar situation, at the exact same nursery.  For me, it was information plus a jug of some chemical needed to solve a citrus tree fungus problem.  I too couldn’t muster the shrewdness to thank the attendant for the information while passing on the grossly overpriced chemicals. 

The lesson … interpersonal obligation can be a huge component of monetizing information.  If my brother or I had found the appropriate information online from a given source we would happily have made the subsequent purchase from another source based on whatever price, trust, etc. considerations we use when actually buying a product we’ve settled on.  There would be no interpersonal switching cost associated with buying from a seller who hadn’t provided the necessary information during the shopping process.

So, the obvious question for internet retailers is how to add a sense of interpersonal obligation to the process of providing information in the hopes of converting a sale.  This wouldn’t serve as an excuse to ignore the portion of the buying cycle that falls after information gathering, learning, and item selection, but it could help mitigate the impact of low switching costs that occur at that point.  Mitigating that impact may help to pay for creating all that informative content.

If you have any neat ideas for adding “interpersonal switching cost” to the ecommerce experience please add them to the comments; we’ll do the same.


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