EBay Flexes Its… Friendliness?

Every day, eBay looks more and more like the strongest swimmer in the dot-com pool.

Nowhere was that more evident than at its recent three-day smile-fest in Anaheim, California, where thousands of eBay devotees came to hear Meg Whitman and others detail the company’s plans for world domination.

And if anyone can take over the planet, it’s eBay. So why are they so darn nice? Just once, I’d like to see eBay greet the world with a snarl.

Meaner, Rowdier eBay

The eBay Live conference sounds, from a distance, like a hoot. At one of the keynote speeches, vice president of marketing Henry Gomez told a story of being awakened at 3:00 a.m. by people running down a hotel corridor while chanting, “eBay, eBay.”

Those crazy kids. Apparently, they partied all night and at 3:00 a.m. were equally as intoxicated by the alcohol as by the happy fumes emitted by the auction site.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with being nice, of course. And it’s a great trait in a company as big and powerful as eBay.

Bad Dog

But eBay had opportunities to let out a growl or two. At one panel discussion, a question came up about why eBay appears to be making it harder for users to include PayPal in the list of payment options for auction sales.

EBay could have shown its teeth to let people know it is sick and tired of this PayPal pest. The company could have come right out and said so. I mean, it must be true, after all, that eBay hates PayPal. But instead, the company reps answered that it wouldn’t be fair to other payment systems, like C2it, to single out PayPal.

That answer is nonsense, but more importantly, it’s the nice way out. It’s an answer that can be delivered with a smile. True, PayPal has a following large enough that eBay might not want to risk upsetting it needlessly, but who would you pick in a head-to-head fight?

Sharp Focus

That is just one example of eBay’s penchant for turning the other cheek. The entire weekend focused on celebrating the community aspect of eBay, which is one of the two great stories the auction giant has to tell. The other is a much harder-edged story of marketplace domination.

But the focus was clear. Sharply produced videos showed people earning solid livings selling oddball items on eBay, like, well, glass eyeballs. Another tear-jerking segment showed an eBay buyer and seller working together to return a World War II veteran’s lost dog tags.

The scary part is that all of eBay’s claims are true. The fact is that not only did eBay issue “trading cards” featuring Whitman and other key eBay figures — the backs of the cards outlined each exec’s first and favorite eBay purchases — but people actually clamored to get them and have them signed.

And people traveled from as far away as Russia to attend the conference. That’s dedication, and it underscores two things: how much people love eBay and just how powerful the company has become.

Super Friends

If eBay chooses to use its power for good, so be it. At the gathering, Whitman brandished a copy of a recent Newsweek cover with the title “the United States of eBay.” And rather than stock prices and market share, the weekend was all about the people who make eBay tick.

At some point, though, eBay executives are just that: leaders of a company with ambitious goals, investors and customers.

Maybe eBay will never face a serious competitive challenge or upset its members enough to cause problems, but if it does, it will have to be ready to take a different approach. For now, though, the smiling continues.

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

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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