Social Commerce:Will It Finally Take Off in 2017?

With the rise of social media, social commerce has inevitably become a hot topic. Brands are getting better and better at reaching their customers via social networks — so not selling to them in the same step almost feels like a waste of potential.

However, the step from engaging to selling is not that easy. Over the past years, multiple social networks have tried to branch out into social commerce, one way or another, but the practice still hasn’t caught on.

Social commerce explained

Social commerce often describes all e-commerce that involves social media to promote an online transaction. This can include:

  • product reviews left by other users on social networks,
  • user-generated content reviewing products on e-commerce sites,
  • ads on social networks involving calls to action that redirect to an e-commerce site to buy a product,
  • peer-to-peer buying and selling,
  • the option to transfer money for a product without even having to leave the social media network

But for the purpose of this article, we’re going to focus on a more narrow definition, predominantly social network-driven sales and, ideally, those sales happening directly on the social networks themselves.

The role of social media for shopping behaviour

Social commerce might not have taken off yet, but social media definitely plays a role in shopping — both online and offline.

For one, we know that online reviews and social media recommendations influence shopping behaviour. According to a recent Pew Research Center study, 82% of Americans consult online reviews before buying something. Some even do it right there while they’re looking at products in a physical store! Marketers call this the ROPO effect which is an acronym for “Research Online, Purchase Offline”.

Similarly, we are more likely to buy something a friend has recommended to us, both when they tell us about an awesome product in person or are posting about it on social media.

On the other hand, social media posts also create demand. While browsing social media sites we’re constantly looking at products, whether we realise it or not. Looking at a fashion blogger’s Instagram photo creates a desire to own the clothes they are showing off just like the post showing off interior design creates demand. Instagram and Pinterest, especially, have given importance to visuals in social media, for brands, and for creating demand.

Social media drives shopping behaviour, but it also drives shopping traffic. Again according to Pew, 15% of Americans have made a purchase after following a link on social media sites.

The buy button — bringing discovery and purchase closer together

Online shopping still relies strongly on knowing what you want, so you can search for it and then buy it. And while social does its job for recommendations and getting buyers’ attention via ads, a lot of the time the actual buying process still happens elsewhere. This is why many social networks have recently been experimenting with in-app or on-site purchasing.

The combination of social media and the buy button could make online shopping more like the serendipitous experience that shopping often is in meatspace. Everyone knows that you will never find a pair of jeans when you’re actually looking for one! 😉 With buyable products via social media, you can see something you want and then buy it, much like walking past a shop window on the street.

Each of the popular networks have made efforts to recreate this experience — with varied results.

Instagram: Shoppable photo tags

Instagram already offers ads with clickable calls to action. But at the end of 2016, Instagram introduced a way for customers to get more information about the products they’re looking at by tapping on tagged items for more information. The feature is still in a testing phase and only open to 20 U.S.-based retailers who can tag their photos this way.

Tagged posts then have a “tap to view” button which will bring up a maximum of 5 tags per photo, showcasing the products and their prices. When a tag is selected a detailed view of the product opens. If users then tap the “buy now” button, the are re-directed to the brand’s external sales page.

While the buying still happens elsewhere and re-directing does cost conversions, Instagram has discovered that the step between discovery and buying has importance and is giving people the opportunity to get more information before making a buying decision.

Many brands on Instagram have turned to third-party solutions, by integrating with services like Like2Buy. Brands link to their Like2Buy URL in their profile, leading customers to a page that sort of “replicates” the photos from the brand’s Instagram as a shoppable feed, allowing them to link directly from the photos to a product.

Nordstrom uses the Like2Buy service to recreate its Instagram profile — but with the option to directly buy products.
Nordstrom’s Instagram profile and Like2Buy profile side by side.

Meanwhile, many small designers and artists are already using Instagram to sell in a more personal way, simply by alerting their followers to an item they’re selling.

Twitter: The short-lived buy button

Twitter introduced a buy button last year, partnering with payment provider Stripe, but halted development after a mere month. Some argue that Twitter’s buy button failed because Twitter isn’t a browsing place like Instagram or Pinterest are but more a platform for getting news and having conversations.

A picture showing Twitter’s short-lived buy button in action.
Twitter’s short-lived buy button. (Source)

Pinterest: Buyable pins

Pinterest is currently still one of the most successful networks when it comes to on-page social commerce. During 2016, Pinterest rolled out buyable pins, first on iOs and Android and later on desktop as well. (Unfortunately, it seems to still be U.S.-only!)

Brands can upload pins as buyable, which adds a “buy it” button next to the “pin it” button. The sales process happens completely on-site via a secure checkout using established e-commerce platforms. Furthermore, users can search specifically for buyable pins and even save a buyable pin to a board so they will be alerted in case the product price drops.

In a slightly unusual move, Pinterest doesn’t take a cut from the sales, but instead charges for buyable pins similar to PPC ads. By collaborating with big brands and offering a secure checkout option, Pinterest has managed to start driving sales on-site and off-site. Around 25% of retail referral traffic comes from Pinterest!

Recently, Pinterest has also introduced “Shop the Look”, an option similar to Instagram’s shoppable tags, which will allow brands to tag more than just one item per image. The newest addition to Pinterest’s e-commerce toolbox is Lens, which lets you take a photo of a product you like with your phone’s camera and then search for similar products and themes on the platform.

Facebook: P2P & conversational commerce

Facebook already is a strong e-commerce contender thanks to its extremely effective hypertargeting options in combination with buy buttons (or other calls to action) on ads. Back in October 2016, the social network also gave some select pages the option to tag products they have previously set up in their shop in their photos, videos and posts.

With the addition of Facebook Marketplace, the social network is making an even bolder move towards commerce. Facebook Marketplace is geared less at brands and companies and more towards the people trying to buy and sell used items. Most cities, towns or areas all over the world have Facebook groups dedicated to the exchange of used goods, so there is already a genuine desire to buy and sell things this way that Facebook is picking up on.

Facebook Marketplace is currently only available on mobile. After tapping the icon, users are taken to a Marketplace home screen that shows items available in their geographical vicinity. The can then make an offer on an item or message the seller all from within the app. The actual exchange of goods and money takes place offline.

Screenshot of Facebook Marketplace
I could buy anything from prams and cots to cars and chairs on Marketplace.

Marketplace mimics the flea market or browsing experience that we’re so used to from offline shopping. Though there is a search function, Facebook is very much aware that browsing is more popular on Marketplace than intentional search for a specific item.

Other important steps towards social commerce, or even conversational commerce, are happening in Facebook Messenger: a few years ago, Facebook introduced peer-to-peer money exchange via Messenger — in autumn 2016, the opened this function up to businesses as well. Brands can add buy buttons to ads that link to their Messenger bots and accept native payments from customers within Messenger as well.

Others: Asian market & younger audiences

One area where e-commerce definitely isn’t lagging is on social networks geared at younger audiences. Both Snapchat and WeChat (a social messaging app still mostly used in China) have successfully tapped into e-commerce.

While not offering a buy button per se, Snapchat has introduced shoppable ads that allow consumers to complete a shop without leaving the platform. The number of businesses for whom the feature is accessible is still limited at this point; among them are well-known brands like Lancôme and Target.

“Social commerce will become more accepted once it becomes more expected.” Click to Tweet

WeChat might still be an unknown in Europe and the U.S., but it’s a big player in China. It’s not only a much-encompassing messenger app. WeChat also allows users to pay using the WePay feature — not just for online shopping or in stores, but even to pay their bills or to transfer money to other users.

Many businesses still redirect users to their own or third-party e-commerce platforms, but many also use the option to create a WeChat shop so customers won’t have to leave the app to complete a purchase. What makes social commerce on WeChat work is its strength in hypertargeting.

WeChat shop on a mobile phone.
WeChat offers so-called “official accounts” (read: business accounts) the option to open an integrated shop. (Source)

The role of mobile shopping

While online shopping is probably old news, studies find that more and more target groups are now also willing to shop via mobile devices — especially those who already heavily use social networks.

According to a survey from 2016, 19% of daily Snapchat users, and 15% of daily Instagram and Pinterest users in the UK are using their smartphones for shopping on a daily basis. And the younger they are, the more likely they are to shop mobile.

Fashion, beauty, entertainment and food are the four major groups of items they buy. Their reasons are often those of convenience. They might not be at home but need to order something urgently, they don’t want to go and get their laptops or — and this is where the importance of social media for e-commerce really hits home — they have clicked on a link from a social media network.

How to kickstart social commerce

Mobile shopping for a jumper with the words “Trust me you can dance” printed on it.

It is apparent that e-commerce works, that mobile shopping works, and that social media sends plenty of traffic to e-commerce sites. So why does social commerce still struggle and what can social networks and brands do to kickstart social commerce in 2017?

Normalise social commerce by creating trust

Scientific research suggests that one major issue that social commerce struggles with might be trust in the networks. Especially those of older generations often feel weird about giving a messenger bot or a social network access to their banking data.

Social commerce will become more accepted once it becomes more expected. Buying on Pinterest works, because the platform is less a social media network and already geared towards browsing products. Pinterest users are already much closer to or more ready for a buying decision than someone casually scrolling through Instagram or Twitter.

Once we see that social commerce is a safe and secure option, we will accept it more. Obviously, this is done in small steps. For example, Facebook allowing payments through the Messenger app was a first step towards making in-app handling of money more usual for consumers long before asking customers to trust brands with their payments over Messenger.

Create mobile-friendly content

Given how strong social media use is on mobile, those wishing to sell to customers via social media — or converting from social media — would do well to create websites and online POS that are mobile friendly. Nothing is more frustrating than tapping the buy button on a product ad on Facebook only to be re-directed to a website that isn’t optimised for a small screen.

Create a smooth process

When we walk into a shop on the high street because we saw a product we liked in the window display, we don’t want to be ushered out the back door, across the street and into the next building. We want to buy the product right there in the store.

Similarly, social media networks and businesses will have to figure out a way of selling that least interrupts the process.

Create a transaction experience

A transaction is more than just the handing over of money. The buying process also includes discovery, research, having questions, comparing prices and even leaving reviews after the acquisition. That also means that brands could lose buyers at pretty much every single step of that process. To convert interest to (repeated) sales, brands should be there for their customers on social throughout the process, from facilitating the buying decision to customer service after the shopping has been done.

I think we’ll be seeing more and more social media networks for whom selling directly is a good fit (e.g. Instagram rather than Twitter, etc.) incorporate direct buy options that keep buyers on-site for the whole process.

In-app purchases will counteract the conversion loss that happens when people are redirected to the seller’s site to buy but will also mean that social media networks will have to create trust for buyers, e.g. through partnering with already trusted payment handlers like Stripe.

Over to you

It’s true, a lot of these things that need to happen in order to make social commerce successful are out of your hands, especially if you’re only a small or medium-sized business.

But you can get started by creating a brand experience that is primed for social commerce, for example by using social media campaigns. When you try to sell products on or via social media, make sure your social media and hashtag campaigns tie in nicely with them, creating more buzz for what you are selling. Then use your hashtags to spread not just your regular posts but also your products.

Tie ads to your hashtag campaigns and vice versa. And make sure to include calls to action in your regular posts as well, and not just in your promoted posts. But at the end of the day, it’s not up to one of us but all of us to make it possible for social commerce to succeed.

We’d love to know what your experiences with social commerce have been so far. Have you ever tapped that buy button on a social network?