Craigslist: One Place CRM Isn’t Welcome

craigslistWith no recommendation engine, graphical improvements, or image search, Craigslist is a website stuck in the past. And while business best practices often include heavy investment in sales, marketing, and customer service, Craigslist eschews these functions–yet continues to grow its revenues. What makes Craigslist a “classifieds killer” and how is it able grow its business with little attention to the customer experience?

Craigslist seems to defy the odds. As an online classifieds website, it doesn’t accept payment for most advertising (with the exception of some job posts, and apartment listings in large cities). And recently the site begrudgingly charged for listings in categories frequented by prostitution services–and only then in order to assist law enforcement. Yet estimated revenues for the website top out at $100 million per year!

How can a company that cares little about maximizing profit, stay in business much less be termed wildly successful? A Wired magazine article, “The Tragedy of Craigslist” (September 2009), may provide some answers.

Gary Wolf, author of the article, noticed that Craigslist founder Craig Newmark and CEO Jim Buckmaster break just about every rule in business.

First, customer service is almost nonexistent. While founder Craig Newmark makes a diligent effort to respond to customer service requests and complaints about spam, there are many queries that never receive a response. Also, if you happen to do something on Craigslist that the community considers a “no-no,” such as starting too many conversations in user forums, your posts might be met with a haiku similar to:

Frogs croak and gulls cry
Silently a river floods
A red leaf floats by

Moreover, users complain that posts sometimes don’t show up, or are deleted by Craigslist staff without notification. And if your posts are too often “flagged” for inappropriateness by the Craigslist user community, you may find yourself completely locked out of future listings.

The Wired article notes that Craigslist has no marketing staff or sales teams. Business development is unnecessary because at Craigslist, postings are–for the most part–no cost.

And that’s exactly how Craig Newmark would have it. Newmark believes that the best way to run a business is to provide customers a basic foundation/infrastructure to interact and transact and then step aside.

Could Craigslist improve its user interface, design a recommendation engine, or allow third-party advertising on the site? Sure, but so far Newmark and Buckmaster have shown little interest in innovation. And with 47 million unique users every month, Craigslist figures, Why tinker with success?

Newmark has long believed that Craigslist is a community service, much to the dismay of its for profit competitors–those dying periodicals formerly known as daily newspapers. In fact, according to the article, revenue from newspaper classifieds is off nearly 50 percent in the past decade.

It’s hard enough to compete in today’s challenging economic environment, much less compete with free, as newspapers such as The New York Times, or San Francisco Chronicle have discovered.

However, where there is indifference and customer dissatisfaction, perhaps there’s also opportunity for competition. And while market momentum is currently with Craigslist, technological innovation coupled with a focus on customer value may leave a crack in the door–and a fighting chance for someone to dethrone the giant.

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