Building Connected Commerce in the Age of Loneliness

In May 2023, the U.S. Surgeon General declared the country had entered a loneliness epidemic, which could prove an existential threat to the health of our society and its people if left unaddressed. With this declaration, the CDC issued a clarion call for “individuals, governments, workplaces, health systems and community organizations” to confront this growing crisis by developing ways to increase personal connection.

While the isolation we all experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic still echoes through our lives, the problem dates back a lot longer. In fact, as the CDC notes in its statement on the loneliness epidemic, half of U.S. adults were already experiencing significant loneliness before the pandemic.

It’d be ignorant to say the increasingly digital nature of our communications hasn’t contributed to some of our isolation. However, as a study from Oxford found, the effects of technology on loneliness depend on the type of interaction with that technology. Mindless scrolling and ‘lurking’ were linked to negative emotional outcomes, whereas digital communication with other people yielded a small net positive. The question remains — how do we increase that positive impact?

As an ecommerce product executive, I believe that my cohort of peers has a social imperative to develop products with human connection in mind. Connected commerce is on the rise, but it has to be done in the right way; we have to foster connection, but it can’t feel forced or invasive. Otherwise, we’ll only turn people away.


Moreover, at a time when long-reliable social networks are experiencing massive upheavals, people are looking for connected experiences that feel safe, secure, and ethical – and while online shopping may not sound like the primary destination for those experiences, shopping has historically been a social affair. If the social media giants can introduce commerce into their platforms, we can do the reverse by building ecommerce platforms that are conducive to positive interpersonal interaction.

Optimizing Communication Touch Points

Creating a more connected product – and in turn, a more connected user experience – starts with identifying and understanding the major communication touch points for your product and what they mean to your audience. It’s critical to understand the place these touch points have in users’ everyday lives, and examine how those patterns shift across various target demographics. A few common touch points include:

Customer Service
Customer service is perhaps one of the most important communication touch points for your brand, though one that’s becoming increasingly automated. The meteoric rise of generative AI has powered a groundswell of AI chatbots and automated FAQs, but only 34% of consumers  approve of their usage. That said, AI is proving incredibly useful when it comes to answering quick questions and relieving the burden of customer service professionals, allowing these employees to focus on more complex customer needs.

These complex interactions are your proving ground for a more connected customer experience. While needs will differ from product to product, customer service professionals should not serve the same function as an FAQ or even your company blog. Instead, they should be allies and coaches to your users; when customers connect with one of your representatives, they should feel like they have a true advocate for their needs.

Apple has made an example of this with its Shop with a Specialist initiative, which enables users to shop one-on-one with a store associate virtually. By creating a highly personal online version of its unique in-store experience, the company has created a new space for personalized, connected commerce experiences.

Of course, not everyone can be Apple, but a more personalized customer service approach doesn’t require that much complexity. Even instituting a live chat with a real person, not a robot, can be beneficial. Forrester  found that consumers spent 10% more after engaging in a live chat while online shopping as opposed to those who didn’t. These tiny connections users build with customer service may not seem like much, but research shows that even the smallest interactions can have a positive impact on our social and psychological wellbeing.

Social Media
In order to build a truly connected experience, it’s necessary to give customers a voice beyond the customer service desk. This is the part social media has traditionally played, as replies, comments and direct messages are all ways of giving instant anecdotal feedback. But while many businesses see social media as an extension of their customer service arm, the way people engage on social media is often quite different from how they would engage over the phone or on live chat with a representative.

A study from DimensionData found that 73% of consumers prefer to use a company’s website for customer service as opposed to social media, indicating that even official social channels may not be as reliable as going straight to the source. Knowing this, ecommerce companies should instead focus on using their social platforms to build community and rally users around the product.

As with customer service, social media should be managed in a way that shows deep empathy for users and appeals to their emotions. It’s also a platform to foster peer-to-peer engagement, where community managers can encourage users to interact with the brand and each other.

Here, creating connections is about more than just bringing people together, it also offers incredible ROI for your business. Relationship-building increases the potential for user-generated content, which a 2021 report by Stackla found to be 8.7X more effective than traditional influencer marketing, and 6.6X more effective than branded content marketing.

Peer-to-Peer Interaction
Peer-to-peer interaction is where your product or service takes on a life of its own, and, for those of us seeking to bring people together with our products, that is where the magic happens. Most of the time, this isn’t something we see firsthand. It happens in direct messages and private conversations, on review sites and live chats.

If we build spaces for peer-to-peer interactions within our software offerings, we can gain more powerful insights into our impact. Depending on the type of ecommerce product, this could be a robust offering such as a social marketplace, or something as small as a website forum. It’s been said that every company is a tech company, but in the ecommerce space, every company is also a social media company. If we want to restore people’s sense of interpersonal connection when shopping online, we have to create the space for it.

The goal should be to have a sound connective strategy across all customer touch points.

How AI can Humanize Virtual Communication

Right now, business leaders across every industry are grappling with how to fit generative AI into their workplaces and/or products. But looking outside the office, it’s clear the technology has also formed a complicated knot in the ongoing loneliness crisis.

It sounds counterintuitive, but generative AI can actually make our virtual communication more human and personable. For one, prompt writing forces us to think about the intentions behind our words. What is the emotional impact we want to create? How do we convey that in the right way?

In an ecommerce environment, generative AI also can be used to train customer service reps in developing appropriate responses, providing real-time feedback that helps them improve their interactions. It also can be used to suggest responses to a social post, or guide users in giving feedback or writing product reviews. The idea is to get people thinking, but then empower users to make it their own. Businesses should leverage AI to enhance engagement and personalization to create a seamless interaction between brands and customers.

If there is one critical piece to remember in building connected commerce experiences, it’s to respect your users’ space. There’s a reason a WhatsApp group, Discord channel or even your Slack or Teams chat at work feels more personal than high-tech virtual communications like what happens in the metaverse. Convenience is one factor, but I believe the secret is in their simplicity: there’s more space for you. When we give users a place to see themselves in our product and connect with one another, we can sow the seeds of a thriving community.

And that, I’d wager, is doing our part to make the world feel a little less lonely.

Andrew Chen is an experienced product executive and the Chief Product Officer at CommentSold, a leading video commerce platform that has produced over $4.2 billion in sales by enabling thousands of retail businesses to unlock sales growth through live selling.

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