Watch out Craigslist, OLX, 99acres, Burrp – here comes Facebook (Groups)!

The internet has been around for 2 decades now. And so have online classifieds! We in India have had our fair share too – Baazee was the snazziest of them all (do you remember those ads on TV*?) till their original inspiration – eBay – bought them out. Then there have been others – Olx, Quickr, Sulekha, Click.in, Locanto, Vivastreet and at least a dozen more rear their upgly seo heads the moment you look for used anything.

Despite the huge investments, years of being around, various business models, and even TV ads, trust in these has never quite gone up enough for any of these to become a reliable, de-facto choice for folks looking at selling/buying used furniture, or appliances, or books. The fact that both as a buyer and a seller, you keep running into dealers trying to either sell you new stuff, or rip you off on used goods, makes for a terrible experience. From an end user’s point of view, classifieds have pretty much never worked. The various sites and numerous attempts in the end have little to differentiate them from each other. They all have stale listings, seo links that take you nowhere – a lot of noise you must cut through to try and find or sell something.

For a while, at least in the big metros, print classifieds grew. Ad-Mags and Free Ads were priced at 5/- and actually served a purpose – and became very popular.

More recently, Apartment community/management portals like CommonFloor and similar tried closed groups too – with limited traction. They have had trouble getting their own users onto their sites rather than be used via email alone, and obviously the classifieds play is not at the top of their priorities.

What really worked through all this was the Infosys Bulletin Board! Folks used to get friends to post stuff for sale, seek matrimonial alliances for family members, and the success rate was quite something! A few, niche Yahoo groups (later Google) also played this role, though in a much much smaller way.

And then came Facebook Groups!

In a day – here’s what got posted on Second To None – a camera, beds, cupboards, assorted bits of furniture, almost unused clothes, an LCD TV, an iPhone car stand, wine, old clocks, assorted pieces of decor, a recliner, boots, a jigsaw puzzle. Other days see ear-rings, upcycled junk around home, bags, cellphones, lots of books (great collections, usually), microwaves, crockery and a whole lot of surprises put up for sale. And more often than not, someone grabs these within a day or two at most. That’s way better than what happens on classifieds sites.

second_to_none

This is a pretty successful community with nearly 3000 folks on it – and some very active! Its focused on the messaging around re/up-cycling – and that message has resonated with a wide audience across Bangalore.

“A flea market (for used goods) is simply one of the most-wanted features of any city, and Bangalore had only Avenue Road on dusty Sundays, with a limited range of products available. From personal experience, we have so many things about the house which may not sell at places like Avenue Road and it is practically impossible to find buyers easily. Am talking about CDs, decor, mixers and grinders, kids bicycles, so many such things. And it is a shame, and appalling, that they get junked, adding to landfill. Hence 220,” says Anu Gummaraju – who started this with 2 others.

She believes Facebook works because of its quasi-personal nature. “Members start conversations with each other over ideas, products, experiments, recycling news. They do this through conversations via Comments, private messages, and soon many become Friends. It is this personal note, and the feeling members get about being with like minded folk that has made the group attractive to folk.”

We agree. Used goods have a major issue – the perception of their reliability. Then there is the complexity of picking it up. Getting to know about something being available itself is a big factor. Personal (extended) networks solve a lot of these problems to various degrees. And Facebook has become a major extended network in most of our lives.

Second To None is also about being able to sell the small stuff. It offers just about the widest range for trade, compared to other platforms. There’s little noise/clutter – and the Facebook timeline for the group ensures old stuff doesn’t hang around – recency is critical for classifieds.

Someone in Delhi was recently inspired and created a similar group there as well.

Then there’s the self explanatory Flats Without Brokers! We’re not sure if folks will join a group for what is essentially a transient need, but the trust in “people like us” and the ease of conversation, feedback and transactions with the same might prove much stronger forces than we can imagine.

Similarly, for a lot many, Burrp! may no longer be needed – there’s a Bangalore Foodies group that not just shares their views on restaurants and takeaways across the city, but also share recipes, advice on smart food choices, sources for great ingredients and the like.

Why does Facebook work so much better – after all Yahoo/Google Groups for suchlike did exist in the past as well? The answer may lie in the network effect – read visibility – that Facebook brings to every update, every share. A much wider sharing, and the chance discovery of something that might catch a user’s attention is more “life-like” than the act of pursuing a clear, identified intent on a search engine or a website dedicated for buying/selling used goods, or sharing restaurant advice. You might come across something a friend shares on or from such a group even without being aware of the group in the first place – mailing lists did allow for that. On Facebook, you know, or get to know, folks better and their opinion and statements are automatically trusted more than they would be as a stranger’s claims on a random website.

These groups are often hyperlocal – and that’s the best place for a classified or review/ratings service to exist. Picking stuff up from the neighborhood is far easier than from halfway across the country. Because of the familiarity amongst members, there’s also an implicit sharing of tastes amongst members, and the reliability of goods or opinions is perceived to be higher. These groups are also non-commercial an community controlled. For instance, Second To None is focused on used goods alone. No posts about new goods are permitted which help keep spam out unlike on some of the so called classifieds sites which have essentially become a storefront for vendors peddling wares of uncertain quality.

There is also the ease of posting. We’re forever on Facebook, and used to posting updates into that box. This has its limitations as well – information is unstructured, comments bump up an old post and search is non-existent. But it does make it easy to share anything you may have to share with an audience you’re comfortable with quickly.

Of course, each such group specific to a city, and a niche. It may not exist for every city, or have the same level of activity, or set or rules or quality of interaction across places and interests. That is the nature of the beast, and we’re not sure its a big problem for the users who’re interested in this. Each user cares about their interest, their location and will probably just appreciate the lowered levels of noise that come from it.

Are traditional classifieds, listings and reviews guys – some of them VC or angel funded – worried about this growing trend? What can or should they do? Are there gaps and unfulfilled functionality that p2p networks cannot solve?

Over the next few weeks, we’ll try talking to those involved in the formal classifieds, listings and reviews spaces, and share with you what they think of the emergence of true, unfettered growth of p2p networks.

Facebook, of course, only has reason to celebrate this.

* Baazee Ad: