How Venmo and other payment sharing apps change culture

Venmo-screenshot

If you ask a group of 20-somethings how to split a dinner tab, you’ll get a totally different answer than you would from their boomer parents. This became readily evident in a graduate class I teach on cross-cultural communications made up mostly of international students between 21-26 years old.

Just three years ago when I asked the question, there would be a wide variety of cultural issues about “Dutch treat,” but the central unifying theme was that someone brought out a calculator to determine how much cash everyone would lay on the table for their portion. Everyone would discuss the inconvenience of handing the server seven different credit cards, but the transaction was purely physical.

Fast forward to 2018 and enter PayPal’s Venmo and other similar payment-sharing options like Zelle. I can now ask virtually any 20-something how they settle a dinner tab and they’ll tell you that one person pays and the others immediately Venmo (now a verb) the cash to the payer, with arrival before the credit card is even signed.

To this demographic, not having a Venmo-type app is the social equivalent to not posting on Instagram. This is evidenced by the fact that Venmo is far from just an instantaneous share payment platform, it’s a “you show me yours and I’ll show you mine” peer-to-peer payments network. Those who choose to do so publish their transactions (dollar amount sanitized) for their Venmo friends to see.

As a boomer on Venmo I must admit that there is a disturbing voyeuristic aspect to the platform that is subtly different than watching Facebook posts or Snapchat feeds. It’s almost like watching someone’s bank statements in real time.

From just the past hour, I now know that:

  • Eric paid Jean-Pierre for drums.
  • Adam paid Winfield for his Comcast bill.
  • Annie paid Maura for salad and vodka.
  • Chad paid Javier for Black Panther tickets.
  • And seemingly everyone is paying everyone for beers!

I can’t stop myself from scrolling through the hundreds of friends “texting money”!!

The other interesting aspect of the platform is that money can completely bypass the standard financial institutions. Venmo funds can be held in the platform as “Venmo money” if one doesn’t wish to transfer them to a credit or debit account. This is much like the original PayPal accounts, but at a much more pedestrian level and driven by a social network mentality.

Finally, businesses cannot ignore the significance of the convergence of the social and transactional aspects of these peer-to-peer payment systems. First there’s the obvious need to be part of that ease-of-payment ecosystem so as to add to transactional convenience.

But think about the social monitoring aspects of the thousands of transactions where roommates are reimbursed for their monthly bills at the end of billing cycles. As we approach the end of the February billing cycle, I saw at least a dozen Comcast or Verizon reimbursement transactions this afternoon alone. Aside from utility payments, it is easy to see what the trendy restaurants and delivery services are within certain areas.

There is no better advertising than watching real-life consumers pay for goods and services in full view of customer prospects. As such, there is no better real-time competitive analysis tool than tracking why you’re NOT being mentioned on Venmo as a regular venue for reimbursement transactions.

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