Blippy's Purchase-Sharing Model: Innovative, Creative And Dead-Wrong. Plug Pulled.

How much do customers actually want to share? It's a question that haunts retailers when it comes to social networks. On May 19, the CEO of Blippy, one of the most extreme shopping-sharing sites that has now given up on its much-vaunted share-my-purchases-with-the-world model, acknowledged that most shoppers just didn't get excited about the idea of publicizing every purchase they made with a credit card. In social-network terms, Blippy failed because almost nobody "Liked" it—the result of a colossal miscalculation about what and why customers like to share.

Sharing on social networks could be a CRM bonanza—there's a seemingly endless flood of data on what people are doing and buying. Retailers know how valuable that data can be and how hard it is to pry information loose from customers, which makes social tantalizing. But it's easy to forget that helping retailers isn't why customers are playing the social game. Neither is throwing away every shred of privacy. It may be that what social users really want is some attention—and their purposes don't always align with those of retailers.

"There is some flawed thinking about privacy with today's consumers, primarily the Millennials," said Todd Michaud, the IT VP for Focus Brands (Carvel, Cinnabon, Schlotzsky’s, Moe’s Southwest Grill, Auntie Anne's and Seattle's Best Coffee Int'l). "I think many people, including Facebook executives, assume that what they are experiencing is the effect of people 'shedding privacy.' In my opinion, what is happening is people are actually saying, 'Look at me!' They aren't shedding their privacy as much as they are competing for attention from anyone who will give it."

That sounds like Blippy would be a good fit, turning every purchase into conspicuous consumption. Not exactly, according to Michaud. "Blippy is a good example of how some people are willing to over-share to get attention, but most are not," he said. "Blippy probably works in a world where 'privacy is dead,' but doesn't really work in a 'Look at me!' world because it gets really intimate really quickly. Most people have a line, and I think we have found out Blippy goes past it."

Only about 100,000 users actually signed up for Blippy, according to CEO Ashvin Kumar, and a mere 30,000 ever shared a purchase. (The number of people sharing dropped dramatically after a data leak exposed payment-card information for a handful of users.)

Those aren't impressive numbers by Facebook standards, and they weren't enough to make Blippy interesting as a target for CRM data mining by retailers.

That, of course, is social's great fear: that no one will come to the party, and that those who do come won't hang around once it's clear that the cool kids aren't showing up.That, of course, is social's great fear: that no one will come to the party, and that those who do come won't hang around once it's clear that the cool kids aren't showing up. Blippy (which has since shifted to being a reviews site) is a particularly interesting case, though. It was arguably the most retail-oriented of social sites, because the data it posted was really nothing but a list of credit-card purchases. That's fascinating stuff for retailers, a great potential source of insight into consumer behavior and a trove of CRM data.

Just one problem: Apparently, no one else cared.

In hindsight, it's easy to see why. The Blippy inspiration went something like this: Shoppers, especially women, like to talk about what they've bought with friends. Blippy would turn that into a social network. What could go wrong?

But Blippy assumed that its users would use their credit cards to buy interesting things—concert tickets, apparel, movies—and when those purchases were automatically posted to the Blippy site, they would spark interaction and discussion by Blippy "friends."

However, Blippy didn't just share the interesting purchases—it shared everything. A new pair of shoes or tickets to a show might be a topic of conversation, but Blippy also reported every latte, fast-food lunch, dentist appointment, oil change, grocery-store trip and parking-garage payment.

And short of using a Blippy-designated card only for interesting purchases—which is a lot more attention than most users apparently want to pay—means that Blippy generated too much information. It was forced over-sharing, and for most people it was about as interesting as reading a credit-card bill. In the end, it may not have been controversial or frightening so much as it was boring.

If it's boring, it's not going to get anyone to pay attention to a user. And if "Look at me!" really is the driving force for many social users, Blippy got it all wrong.

As convenient as Blippy's success would have been for retailers, harvesting customer buying data just isn't that easy. Loyalty programs are expensive and IT-intensive. Big social-networking sites like Facebook are under continuous scrutiny because many users don't want to be forced to over-share. There may be a social-networking concept out there that will be a perfect match for both what customers want and what retailers need, but no one has found it yet.

Still, there's hope. Social-networking entrepreneurs will keep looking for that concept. But no one will know whether they've hit paydirt until they try it out.