Multiply's metamorphosis: From social networking to social shopping

The customer-centric focus of enterprises is not unusual in a competitive market landscape, but when Multiply decided to completely shift its identity to follow its customers into a totally new territory, has it gone overboard?

Probably not if one takes seriously that age-old marketing mantra that the customer is always right.

When Multiply was launched in 2004 as a social networking site, it has the same goals as all the other pre-Facebook era social sites that were getting very popular all over the world: allow people to connect with other people and share photos, videos and random thoughts and blogs.

Its customers in the Philippines, its biggest market so far in the world, however thinks otherwise. Making use of the site's feature that makes it easy to upload photo albums and write brief descriptions of each photo, they quickly turned their albums into virtual showcases of products and services they were selling offline.

Despite the official ban to use the site for commercial purposes, over 65,000 such virtual product showcases have been set up in the country by its enterprising users by 2009 and the site was humming with commercial activity, the offline and online worlds merging into a very definite trend. It has many advantages: it's free, it's fun, and it’s social.

A year later, the company has officially announced plans to turn the site into an e-commerce site.

Heading East

Since the official launch of its social commerce platform in May 2011, Multiply has more than doubled to 130,000 its online retail stores in the Philippines. It has also moved its US headquarters in Ohio to Indonesia, where it has also built a huge following and presently hosts around 70,000 online stores.

Jack Madrid, Multiply Philippines Country Manager, added that while the company traces its beginnings in the US, it is a Southeast Asian company now in many ways because it is in this part of the world that started the company on the road to social e-commerce.

Newly hired CEO Stefan Magdalinski, CEO of Multiply Global, explained that the move to Indonesia rather than the Philippines is a strategic move for the company.

"We chose Indonesia because it is non-English speaking and it is a harder market for us. Some core functions are in the Philippines. And also the fact the Philippines has 90 million people and Indonesia has 230 million. The Philippines has a bigger in the number of stores, but we believe Indonesia can grow more," he said.
Magdalinksi is unfazed that online shopping is still in its very early stage in these two Southeast countries and sees a very good prospect for growth as it becomes more popular.

Banking on growth of global commerce 

"E-commerce growth in the US is projected to accelerate to 15 percent. However, in the Asia-Pacific region, the forecast is 25 to 35 percent," he said, citing data from the US Department of Commerce."

"Travel spending is around $1.9 trillion globally, but only 32 percent is done online. Advertising spend is also pegged at $1.6 trillion annually, but only 13 percent is online. The retail space is however much bigger at $12 trillion spending annually, but only 6 percent of the trade volume is online. Social commerce is growing faster than general global commerce," he added.

Counting on these growth projections, Multiply recently beefed up its Marketplace with the launch of a new e-commerce platform that gives entrepreneurs more sophisticated tools to manage their online business. These include a Merchant Dashboard where sellers can easily view traffic trends and get a view of the most visited product listings, get an easy to digest sales report with status on all orders, and run even promos on their Multiply shops with a discount code creator.

It has also introduced a shopping cart and added several payment gateways, so that it can accept payment in behalf of the merchants through credit card, Paypal, mobile payment, and over-the-counter payments at selected banks.

The new platform will give entrepreneurs solutions such as a detailed product listing, inventory management, and order tracking, so the system could ‘do the dirty work,’ and reduce the sellers’ manpower and overhead costs.

Through a Merchant Dashboard, sellers can  also view traffic trends and get a view of the most visited product listings, get sales report with status on all orders, and run even promos on their Multiply shops with a discount code creator.

“There seems to be a reluctance on trade through the Internet due to a lack of accreditation and guarantees. Filipinos rely much on the interpersonal relationships, and therefore tend to feel more comfortable buying from known vendors. We wanted to retain the shopper-seller interaction while providing a simple and secure way to pay online,” commented Madrid on the unique quirks of the Filipino customer.

IT platforms evolving

”But it is good to note that banking and IT platforms are evolving, and we are making more options available to online buyers in the future,” he said, adding that a Buyer Protection Program has also been installed to guarantee purchases from merchants with a Trusted Badge.

In Indonesia, the company has recently hosted a shopping festival that gathered 300 online sellers and explained to shopper’s e-commerce concepts and held product demos, auctions and other promotions. The goal is to get people started in social online shopping and hope for that tipping point that would take the trend mainstream.

Asked what products are fast moving across the site's 16 product categories, the Multiply's executives said its gadgets and electronics, baby stuff and women's apparel. In its transition to a new identity, however, some aspects still needed to be fine-tuned, including the diverse layout styles of the online stores.

"Those are legacy issues," said Magdalinski. "In the new platform we will probably mandate certain styles and encourage marketers to adopt. One of the things we can do is share best practice that we learn from stores that do well.

Has Multiply totally shed its social networking platform? Not really, said Magdalinkski. As of now, the e-commerce platform is available only in Indonesia and the Philippines. The rest of its users in other territories still use the site as a social networking site. And even in the Philippines where it has 5.5 million users, the highest activity still happens in social networking sites, followed by usage of various business tools such as search, e-mail, and instant messaging.

"The plan is to make the Indonesia and the Philippines really successful before we venture into other territories. We'll stay focused in Southeast Asia," he disclosed.