Social commerce is here: but how should businesses approach it?
Social commerce is going native. With the launch of its new Checkout feature, Instagram has triggered what might be considered the end of the beginning for retail through social media - the ability to make purchases within the social platform itself.
Although currently only available in the US as a beta trial involving 20 or so brands, Checkout could well end up being the innovation we look back on as marking social commerce's emergence into maturity. To date, all the major social media companies, Instagram included, have experimented with commerce features in various forms. Buy buttons, pioneered by Facebook, allow companies to sell direct from their branded pages. Discovery tools like Instagram's Shoppable Stories allow brands to apply product tags to organic content featuring their wares, with information about the items and a link to an external shopping cart.
Instagram Checkout combines these two approaches. It lets consumers buy from within the social site or app, but not solely from branded pages. It turns organic content into selling opportunities, without the additional step of clicking out to a different platform. Brands have long been drawn to social media because of the opportunities for customer relationship building and product discovery it offers. Now, Instagram Checkout directly links these to sales conversion, creating an end-to-end shopping experience that provides added convenience on a channel consumers love to use.
There is even talk of this closing of the social commerce circle allowing platforms like Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest to evolve into "social marketplaces" to rival the likes of Amazon.
But what does this mean for brands and retailers?
On the one hand, the growing maturity of social commerce represents yet another channel to be incorporated into strategies, yet another cost point as they have to pay for the privilege of selling through social platforms on top of existing investment in marketing and advertising. But with social media companies commanding a user base of three billion people worldwide, no brand can afford to ignore the concerted grab for retail share the big players are making.
So, how should brands and retailers approach social commerce, and what clues can be garnered about the direction of travel from the launch of Instagram Checkout?
It is revealing that Instagram's parent company, Facebook, has taken the decision to roll-out a full native commerce feature on that platform rather than on Facebook itself. Instagram is a more picture-oriented channel than Facebook, and the feeling is that images are coming to play an increasingly important role in digital commerce.
As this Forbes article points out, it isn't just Facebook/Instagram turning their attention to so-called "shoppable images", the practice of using visual content as the main medium to drive sales online. Google introduced shoppable image ads late in 2018, while Pinterest is also recognised as a pioneer in this area. The article makes some interesting connections between the tendency for image-based social media like Pinterest and Instagram to score highly on user satisfaction and studies which show that a majority of shoppers prefer visual information to written details when making purchasing decisions.
For businesses looking to get on board with social commerce, visual branding and presentation of product selection will be key. This need not be a major obstacle, as there are now tools which will quickly convert and optimise content from your product information management (PIM) system into social content and even targeted ads. The feeling is, with their instant, often emotional, appeal, images could be to social commerce what user reviews were to Amazon - the key point of difference in the discovery phase that draws consumers onto the platform.
Use content to drive commerce
Following on from the importance of images, social commerce challenges brands to rethink the role of content on social media in general. Most of the focus in social marketing to date has been on brand building and consumer engagement, raising profile through dialogue and interesting use of content, mainly to drive traffic to a branded website.
Content strategies for social commerce will have a different focus that is more closely aligned with sales. For one, if social commerce evolves to follow the Instagram Checkout native purchasing model, the aim will not be to divert traffic to another site, but to convert there and then. As this article in The Drum argues, creative strategies aimed at direct conversions may look quite different to those focused on engagement and discovery. This could potentially reignite interest in the old 'outbound' marketing techniques exemplified by pre-internet advertising.
Shorten journeys, smooth sales
Arguably the key attraction for consumers of native purchasing on social media is convenience. With a fifth of digital shoppers already using social media for product discovery and inspiration, the option to buy directly without having to navigate to an external ecommerce site is sure to increase the appeal of using social channels to shop.
Instagram Checkout underlines the interest in creating seamless, end-to-end shopping experiences within social platforms. In partnership with PayPal, Checkout saves account holders' payment details, to make the transaction process that much smoother after initial registration. Even while brands wait for other native commerce platforms to emerge in social, they can take a clear lesson from the Checkout example - keep the purchasing option close to your social content, and take as much of the friction out of the transaction process as possible.
Cash in on influencers
Social media has seen influencer marketing become a core strategy in the digital branding specialist's playbook. Getting the right kind of likes, shares or mentions for your business from the right people on social media can do wonders to raise brand awareness and engagement. But with social commerce, the stakes are even higher - influencer marketing becomes linked directly to sales conversions.
Based on the principle of making shopping journeys as short as possible, the aim should be to align influencer marketing activities with purchasing options - you want people to be able to click and buy at the moment they are getting the inspiration and making their decision. To do this, one tactic is to use screenshots of recommendations or threads where a product of yours has created a real buzz and re-post them with buying links or shoppable tags.
Provide service with an e-smile
Finally, what makes social media such an enticing opportunity to brands and retailers is that it can be used to provide service directly to customers as well as for inspiration, discovery and sales. Going back to why brands first started using social media, customer service forms an important part of engaging with consumers on digital channels. With your commerce hat on, if you can answer questions about products or resolve issues around availability and fulfilment in the same place customers finding product inspiration from their peers and making purchases, then you truly do offer a complete end-to-end experience. What is more, service is what will make the experience feel personal to the customer, locking in loyalty and driving more value from the investment you make in the platform.
Social commerce is just one of the digital trends we explore in our Futures 2019 trend report.