The Evolution of Social Commerce
Before the world had ever heard of COVID-19, social media usage was expected to plateau in 2020. But like most plans for this year, this prediction was thrown out the window. eMarketer found 51 percent of U.S. adults had increased their time spent on social networks at the height of the coronavirus pandemic. This period has also driven a rapid increase in e-commerce, creating an opportunity for more product discovery through browsing and researching. It’s equally an opportunity for social and commerce to work together to inspire consumers, build purchase intent, and enable simple purchasing as part of one seamless flow.
Whereas social platforms have traditionally offered great product advertising options for retailers, increasingly there's a demand to keep users on the platform for longer and service all their shopping needs — from product browsing to checkout — directly through one site.
In a state of unknown, consumers want to feel a sense of normalcy, and being able to browse on social media platforms as a way to shop for goods and services not only keeps the process simple for them to purchase, but also provides surprise and delight opportunities they may not get from a traditional e-commerce site.
As these platforms continue to innovate and expand their offerings, brands now have various tools at their disposal to work with to drive online sales. And this isn’t restricted to the retail giants with seemingly bottomless budgets; there's ample opportunity for smaller retailers to get on board with social commerce.
Let’s Start With Facebook
Facebook has always had a robust advertising offering for retailers; its dynamic product ads (DPAs) have been the industry norm for the last few years. These ads work extremely well from a performance standpoint and really helped brands close a sale and drive revenue. However, DPAs lacked proper customization, both for the brand and the shopper. If anything, it was simply a bridge between consumer and brand.
Facebook eventually evolved and grew its shoppable offering with the launch of Instant Experiences. According to Facebook, these ads are mobile optimized and “are designed to capture the complete attention of your audience. [Users] can watch engaging videos and photos, swipe through carousels, tilt to pan and explore lifestyle images with tagged products — all in a single ad.”
These types of ads contribute to a greater native shopping and browsing experience for users, and are also super accessible to retailers and brands of any size.
In tandem with its ad offerings, Facebook has taken great strides to turn its pages into stores; that is, to allow brands with dedicated Facebook pages to sell directly through the platform. Separate to Facebook Marketplaces, which enables peer-to-peer sales, Facebook Shops is being positioned as a tool for small businesses — many of which have had to close physical storefronts and move online.
The announcement of Shops in May has been followed by a more recent update; that a new tab is being added to the main Facebook app, making it even easier for users to directly access the feature. This is a similar tab to the one introduced on Instagram in July.
Speaking of Instagram ...
Instagram, it seems, has had a more seamless journey to becoming a fully fledged commerce platform. Because of the nature of its most popular content — fashion, beauty and lifestyle products promoted by influencers — it makes sense that Instagram would want to offer purchase options for its users to keep them on the platform.
In March 2019, Instagram started rolling out Checkout, a feature first adopted by the likes of Zara and Nike, allowing users to view a product from a shoppable post and purchase, all within the Instagram app. Instagram Checkout is now available to all eligible businesses and creators in the U.S. And even more welcome news, Instagram is waiving its selling fee for this feature through the rest of the year.
The greater popularity of Instragram’s Live feature is one key differentiator from its parent company, Facebook. Having seen the success of live shopping around the world — particularly in China and Korea — Instagram is looking to expand its offering. It’s currently testing a live shopping experience, whereby brands can tag products in their livestreams and viewers can tap on the product to learn more and purchase while they’re watching. We'll have to wait and see if this social commerce feature is adopted by users in the U.S., and which brands will be eligible.
Pinterest has always been a popular platform for discovering new products, brands and ideas. With the recent launch of its Verified Merchant Program (VMP), Pinterest is taking it to the next level by offering not only a discoverable experience, but a shoppable experience from vetted brands. VMP now provides a level of legitimacy and builds trust directly with the consumer. Brands that have been accepted to VMP get an exclusive badge. Furthermore, the ability to tie in a feed allows for brands to showcase price and availability information on all of their product pins. There’s now even an added “shop tab” within a brand’s Pinterest profile to make the shopping and discovery portion seamless. Furthermore, VMP provides brands with an insights tool to see the impact on total sales of both paid and organic pins.
Not to be outdone by its competitors, Snapchat has also sought to develop its e-commerce offering. In 2018, in partnership with Shopify, Snapchat allowed select accounts to have a store within the app. This was an extension on an already existing feature whereby users could swipe up on snaps from influencers, publishers and brands to buy products directly in the app.
But where Snapchat makes its key differentiation from the likes of Facebook and Instagram is harnessing what it’s known for: being a camera-first platform. Also in 2018, this time partnering with Amazon.com, Snapchat started to roll out a new visual search feature — being able to search and find a product on Amazon directly from the Snapchat camera. It’s an incredibly innovative, albeit slightly restricted, feature for the social platform that few others have tried to replicate.
With social commerce having its shining moment, we predict we will see more and more tools created to provide seamless shopping experiences for consumers. For platforms like Facebook and Instagram, with large and established user bases, it’s likely we will see a more consistent evolution of the commerce features they already offer. But perhaps for new and rising players like TikTok, we might see even more innovative solutions that haven't yet been explored. Social commerce is an exciting space to be in, and for brands that want to stay ahead of the trend, these tools should be used to the best of their ability to meet the consumer where they are.
Allyson Lai and Katie McMahon are senior account managers, Biddable, Croud, a global digital marketing agency.
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