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Clive Andrews

Can openers, wetsuits and eBay: Using tools in ways you’re not supposed to

Dave's Bike Tools

Use things for what they’re intended for!”

When I was a kid, that’s what my mum would shout if she saw me clumsily opening can of beans with a screwdriver or cackhandedly attempting to draw a straight line in my maths book by running a pencil along the side of a C90 cassette.

She had a good point. Our world is full of tools to help us achieve things – useful tools like the can openers and rulers I would sometimes eschew as a child. And now, in our online world, we have tools to help us talk, share, create, sell, learn and navigate. We have websites, apps and gadgets to help with every conceivable task.

But what if we break my mum’s rule? What if we use tools in ways other than their intended purposes?

I’ve seen a couple of neat examples on eBay recently. One high-profile and one less obvious.

eBay is a tool. A tool for selling. One of the world’s most successful tools, as it happens. But what if it’s used for something other than selling stuff? Can it be used as a way to spread a message? A way to start a conversation? It shouldn’t be too difficult – we’ve been having conversations around buying and selling for thousands of years. And think of the popularity of the modern shopping mall as a social destination.

First example – the ‘not-peed-in’ wetsuit

A guy wanted to sell a wetsuit – a used wetsuit he didn’t use or need any longer. So he listed it on eBay and, in keeping with good practice, described its condition honestly and openly. He thought about the questions and doubts of someone buying a wetsuit online and felt the need to point out that he had never peed in the wetsuit. A good point and an easy route into some humorous rambling. (A photo of a bear using a urinal was included, for reasons explained within the listing.)

So far so good. A seller found a good way to use humour to boost the virality and visibility of an eBay listing (the celebrated ‘rad to the power of sick’ experiment provides compelling evidence of this technique). The wetsuit seller received so many bids in response to his amusing words that the price shot up and he announced that the majority of the sale price would go to a fund helping survivors of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami. Great.

But the next clever move (the one I’m actually trying to write about) came from XCEL – original manufacturers of the secondhand wetsuit. XCEL noticed the way the listing had ‘gone viral’, appreciated the charitable development and realised one of their products, albeit secondhand, was receiving a lot of attention online. How did they react? They donated a brand new wetsuit to the sale, meaning that the winning bidder would receive not just the original (not peed in) suit but a brand new one.

What a great move. And other companies joined in. Before long a huge pile of donations had been added  – two surfboards, a watch, watersports clothing, beauty products, luggage, photo prints and more. The winning bid came in at £8,999 – substantially more than the seller’s original expectation of a few quid for his old rubberwear.

So the seller was happy, the winning bidder got an enormous pile of swag and the people of Japan received a healthy donation in their time of need. But in my view, the real winner was XCEL – the highest profile of the brands giving to the prize stash. In return for a donating one of its products, XCEL became associated with an online phenomenon that attracted over 665,000 eBay views, spread quickly through networks like Twitter and attracted the attention of blog posts (like this one).

Yes, eBay is a tool for selling, but XCEL and their fellow contributors made no direct profit from this enterprise. They gave something away. But their quick thinking and modest expense brought a boost for their brand and their reputation online. For XCEL, eBay was about marketing, not sales.

Second example – the ‘unwanted gift’

Here’s a smaller, lower profile example of using eBay as a marketing tool, rather than a way to make money. The sale price and view-counts don’t match those of the wetsuit, but for a small charity, taking a rebellious attitude to eBay was an alternative way to make a point.

Motoring organisation AA recently made a high-profile giveaway of bike helmets and high-visibility vests to cyclists in central London. This was done in response to AA members’ feelings about steps needed to improve road safety. Many cycling organisations didn’t appreciate this – they felt this gesture was detracting from the real causes of danger on the roads. Some of these organisations issued disapproving press-releases, some held counter-giveaways but road safety charity Roadpeace took the issue to eBay.

Roadpeace listed the AA-branded helmet and matching yellow vest as an ‘unwanted gift’, explaining the reasons why this particular present from AA was not wanted. The sale raised over £120 to support the small charity’s work, but more importantly, the listing attracted over 1,600 viewers, many of whom would have read the information and followed the links to Roadpeace’s other online spaces. A smaller sale than the viral wetsuit, yes, but importantly, one instigated by Roadpeace itself, rather than co-opted like XCEL’s giveaway.

So there you go. We have some powerful online tools. And they’re sometimes most powerful when we use them in ways we’re not supposed to.

That’s what I think. Now, has anyone got a bunch of keys? I need to open a bottle of beer.

*** EDIT ***

Since I wrote this, I’ve found another example of lateral thinking being used to bring new purpose to an eBay listing. (Again it’s bike-themed – an unapologetic indicator of what I read about online.)

Third example – the stolen bike

It’s a sad fact of life that bikes get stolen. And many bikes, after having been thieved, end up being sold on eBay (or the more localised yet less moderated listings site Gumtree). One unfortunate victim of bike theft is clearly aware of the way nicked cycles are often sold online, and following the theft, has gone straight to eBay.

The bereft bicyclist of Islington created and posted a listing with a photograph and a description of the missing machine. The words implore potential buyers to steer clear of any similar bike offered for sale:


Why has the bike’s owner done this? I think it’s clever in two ways:

  1. Just because I’m browsing eBay for bikes, it doesn’t mean I will necessarily end up buying online – I may decide to buy a bike entirely offline, from a market or through a card in a newsagent window. I’m clearly in the market for a bike, but who knows how I’ll make my final purchase? Having seen this listing, I’ll be aware of this distinctive bike if it’s offered to me, even in an entirely offline scenario – by a dodgy geezer in a pub on Upper Street, perhaps.
  2. This is where it gets really clever: If I’m browsing eBay, looking for a sturdy town bike, I may stumble across the stolen bike itself. I may be tempted to buy it, despite its dubious provenance. Now eBay is very good at grouping similar products together in a way that recognises what I’m viewing and makes it easy for me to compare related or similar items. So if eBay is working its magic correctly, it will recognise the similarity between the stolen bike and the listing describing its theft. eBay will very likely prompt me to check out both listings while browsing. So, if I read the ‘stolen’ listing and I’m a bike buyer of sound morals, I’ll steer well clear of the bike showing up for sale in another listing. If I see it, I may even contact its owner.

The funny thing here is that an eBay listing is being used to try and prevent a sale, rather than encourage one. I’m not sure if this approach will help the owner to get their bike back, but I like the way lateral thinking is again being used to subvert the usual patterns of eBay use.

*** End of edit. Here’s that silly video I originally ended with: ***

This post was filed under Social media, Working culture Comments are currently closed.

One Comment

  1. Brilliant post. Totally agree that the best uses of social media are the unexpected uses that users come up with. The intended uses are never the best.Twitter founder Ev Williams talked about this in a 2009 TED presentation that might interest your readers:

    He says he didn’t anticipate how important Twitter could be in reporting events in real time. I did it myself this morning when Temple tube station closed because of a bomb scare. He also said he’d have no idea how the API would be used. There’s apparently a device that lets a plant tweet when it needs water!!!

    Good stuff.

    Posted 4th May 2011 at 11:14 am | Permalink