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The Balance of Value
Respond.com went out of their extended beta two weeks ago, with a launch party in San Francisco that had several guests wondering if it weren't just the perfect moment in history to be a catering company. Greeters, jugglers, mimes, beef satay, vodka tonics, free tins of mints…all supporting the release of a site that was brought to market a bit too early.
Respond.com is the latest in a slew of "demand-driven" commerce sites. Think of it as a reverse auction…but without the auction part. Let's say you're interested in buying a new Sony digital camcorder. You drop by the site, click through to the "Camcorder" section, fill out a form indicating your interest in buying said camcorder, and leave behind some personal data, including your email address. Respond.com takes your request, and forwards it anonymously to the merchants in its list of 20,000 that sell camcorders. Those merchants then start contacting you via email, letting you know what they have in stock, and inviting you to visit their site.
Respond.com charges merchants a monthly fee to participate in the network, and an additional fee to respond to customer inquiries. For Telren Wholesalers in Bridgeville, Pennsylvania, who responded to my inquiries about a new camcorder, Respond might just be an easy and cost-effective way to attract new potential customers.
But for me, Respond.com was just another quick and easy way to fill my inbox with sloppy marketing messages. More than half of the thirty vendors that responded to my two requests (I'm also looking for an LCD monitor) didn't bother to suggest specific products, and half of the ones who did respond with specific products didn't bother to list prices.
Worse yet, Respond.com doesn't provide a way to shut off the flow of email. (A quick reminder to web marketers: if you provide folks the ability to "opt-in," they should also be able to "opt-out.") In fact, Respond.com offers no account management functionality. Not only can I not log in to opt-out, but I can't read or respond to offers on the site (a la eBay), I can't manage message delivery mediums (a la Spyonit.com), I can't rate or review products or merchants (a la Epinions), and I can't combine my interest with other customers' in order to drive a better bargain (a la Mercata).
Given this year's infomediary explosion, Respond.com clearly felt the pressure to launch something quickly. The fact that they launched with 20,000 merchants on day one (not to mention a just-in-time-for-the-holidays distribution deal with Excite) speaks to the strength of their business development team. But they need to invest in tools or content that help provide a greater balance of value between the merchant and the buyer…especially if they want to live up to their "demand-driven" promise. The demand side of the market is too smart, and too fickle, to let sites sit in the middle of the transaction flow and do nothing more than direct traffic and collect tolls.
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