Can E-Commerce Make It by Doing Good?

Lately, it seems like Internet companies are tripping over each other in a rush to do good deeds. has decided to use an AIDS benefit CD to test out its new micropayment collection system.

Yahoo! has started hosting an auction of celebrity items to benefit the Easter Seals charity. The portal giant has also joined Microsoft in pledging millions of dollars to fights AIDS around the world.

Even the otherwise ruthless F**, the rumor repository for dot-com layoffs and failures, has collected US$13,000 from its visitors to help the families of victims of a shooting at a Massachusetts high-tech company.

Of course, businesses of all sorts and stripes have long embraced charity as a way of giving back to the community and, to be more cynical about it than is probably necessary, to insulate themselves against complaints that they are only interested in maximizing profits.

But for e-commerce players, the upside to these good deeds can be even bigger than for established, traditional firms. If done right, doing good may help the dot-com industry gain a much different image in the eyes of the public. Image becomes all the more important when companies are announcing sweeping layoffs.

Makeover Minute

So does e-commerce need a little image makeover? In short, yes.

If nothing else, it needs a distraction from the constant news of layoffs and bankruptcies and unpaid debts. But that — we hope — is only a temporary condition, one that will go away, one way or the other.

More than that, though, e-commerce also suffers from a detachment from its customers that few firms have found an effective way of overcoming. And many have tried.

There’s personalized e-mail missives ‘signed’ by the CEO of e-tailer X, or the customized home page, replete with your very own recommendations. E-tailers have even tried slipping little goodies into your order shipment. But all the free pens and note pads in the world won’t make me view a dot-com the same way I do my local retailer.

Warm and Fuzzy

So how does charity help? It takes the cold, hard edge off the e-tailer. It rounds out that company’s corporate image. And maybe most importantly of all, it makes us realize they live in the same world we do.

Because up until recently, that wasn’t too clear. E-tailers seemed to have appeared out of nowhere and suddenly were dominating the spotlight, from TV commercials to media events, all of which suggested they existed in a special world where the regular rules — especially economic ones — don’t apply.

That was good for a while. We wanted to believe that such a never-never land existed. But we now know it didn’t, doesnt and probably never will.

So the e-tailers have come down to earth. It’s clear now the world is not going to change to suit them. They need to do the adapting. That means meeting us mere mortal customers on our own turf.

Really Like Them?

Think about it: As great an e-tailer as it is, does anyone feel any particular affinity for Amazon? Appreciation of its reach and ease-of-use, maybe, but actual affection is hard to imagine.

But if suddenly I see Amazon donating or helping to donate thousands of dollars to a charity that I happen to believe in as well, that changes things quite a bit.

A little good deed may not change things overnight, but every little bit helps. E-tailers have spent lots of time and effort appealing to my eyes and my brain. A little proof that they have hearts too may make a difference next time I decide where to spend my money.

What do you think? Let’s talk about it.

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Note: The opinions expressed by our columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the E-Commerce Times or its management.

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