What should online merchants do with Facebook Connect?

The New York Times ran a piece today heralding the imminent arrival of Facebook Connect – significant as an indication of the huge expected impact of the feature.  My guess is that for brands and online merchants planning their social commerce strategy, the anticipation of Facebook Connect will be matched by an equal measure of head-scratching about how to make the best use of it.

Its predecessor, Beacon, had significant flaws.  But for merchants, it also had a particular beauty – clarity of purpose.  It did just one thing (sending “stories” to their customers’ Facebook pages so friends could see what those customers bought).  And it provided all the infrastructure needed to do that.  Just pop a bit of code here and there, and you were up and running.

Facebook Connect, on the other hand, is a tool kit which can be used in many possible ways.  In addition to posting stories back to Facebook, it offers the ability for shoppers to bring their Facebook friends with them to the merchant’s site.  Sounds exciting, but what does that really mean?  What features and applications should sites build around that capability?  And where does the technology to take advantage of this potential come from?

My belief is that the killer app for Facebook Connect for online commerce is going to be “trusted reference systems”.  If you sell online, and all-of-a-sudden you can know the friend-network of your shoppers, what is the most powerful use to which you can put that information on your site?  It is: to tell your shoppers what their friends have bought from you, while they are shopping.  Shoppers who see that friends buy from you are going to be more likely to do so, too.  They’ll get ideas from seeing what their friends have purchased, so they’ll buy more.  And they’ll be able to see who among their friends they can turn to for advice if they have questions, so their whole shopping experience will be improved.

We’re on the brink of a new phase in online commerce where brands and merchants of all sizes will be able to put applications driven by social graphs on their sites.  For those who take advantage of this opportunity, the potential to create value for their business is tremendous.  (Not to be coy, at TurnTo, we are excited to be the leading provider of turn-key trusted reference systems that make it a snap for sellers to add these social commerce features to their sites.  If you are wondering what Facebook Connect can mean to your business, we’d like to talk to you; please drop us a line.)