Social Commerce: Is it Here to Stay?

social commerce strategy Instagram

Editor’s Note: This article is a contribution from Victoria Freyer, content marketing manager at BigCommerce and was originally published on May 20th, 2020. It has been updated to reflect current data and insights. 

The coronavirus pandemic shook the retail world when the government mandated that non-essential brick-and-mortar had to close their storefronts to help enforce social distancing. Though some shops have started to reopen, hours are often limited and store owners are forced to reduce their capacity for the number of people in-store.

These complications have many brands either adding ecommerce as a sales channel for the first time or doubling down on existing digital investments to prepare for an uncertain future.

While brands adjust to change, consumers are settling into new patterns and habits, too. A recent study showed that, as coronavirus impacted daily life, social media usage surged by 61 percent. 

Social networks were already instrumental in providing brands a place to engage in authentic relationships, receive honest feedback, and reinforce their brand message. Today, these networks are becoming their own self-contained marketplaces. With consumer usage at an increased level, social channels offer a bigger opportunity than ever.

Does that mean you should ditch your ecommerce site for a social-only sales strategy? Not so fast. Read on to take a closer look at:

What is social commerce?

Social commerce involves activities related to buying and selling within social media platforms and messaging systems. This could refer to providing information and support to customers via a messaging app like Facebook Messenger, featuring products on your social channels with a link to buy on your ecommerce site, and more.

Today, the use of social commerce is becoming more commonplace. In 2017, only 17 percent of retailers were using social commerce. By 2018, that number had almost doubled to 33 percent.
Then in 2019, more than 40 percent of survey respondents between 18–34 years old reported purchasing an item through social media and nearly another 30 percent said they hadn’t purchased but were at least somewhat interested in doing so. 

Social commerce can also refer to other actions of a social nature that impact or occur as part of the commerce process, like featuring customer reviews on your site, but for this piece, I’ll focus on the buying activities that take place on social network sites.

Social commerce platforms

Twitter threw its hat in the social commerce ring several years ago by introducing a buy button, but as a feature it floundered then was removed. Despite Twitter’s lack of success, other social platforms are becoming more commerce-available all the time. 

Here are some of the most important platforms to think about in terms of commerce options: 

1 | Instagram 

Instagram first released “Shoppable Posts,” which allowed retailers to sell their products through the social platform. With shoppable posts, brands can tag their products in photos to drive customers directly to the product page on their website in just one click.

Instagram later added an in-app checkout feature, enabling customers to complete their purchases without ever leaving the app.

2 | Pinterest 

Pinterest can be an incredible marketing and sales channel for the right business. In 2019, 47 percent of survey respondents said they used Pinterest to research or shop for products to purchase. 

This highly visual platform has features like Rich Pins, Shop the Look, Buy It buttons, and more. They recently introduced a couple of new features, like the ‘Shop’ tab and browsable style guides.

3 | Facebook 

If you’re just starting out in social commerce, Facebook could be a good place to begin. In a 2018 survey, 23 percent of respondents identified Facebook as the digital channel with the most influence on purchasing decisions.

Facebook business pages have the option to add a shop feature enabling checkout directly within the page. Your customers will be able to browse, buy, and seek customer support without leaving the platform.

4 | Snapchat

In 2019, Snapchat had over 80 million users. Particularly popular among millennials, another survey found that nearly four percent of Snapchat users were between the ages of 20–29.
Late last year Snapchat introduced its Dynamic Ads feature, which adds additional functionality to ecommerce retailers’ ability to advertise through the platform. Dynamic ads allow for automated personalization to increase ad relevance and return on effort.

5 | TikTok 

TikTok, the social platform devoted to short-form mobile videos, has grown quickly, with the number of U.S. users almost doubling from 18.8 million in 2018 to 37.2 million in 2019. 

The platform began to explore social commerce functionality at the end of 2019 and now allows some users to add links to ecommerce sites from their profiles. 

The unique features of social commerce

Social commerce encompasses a wide range of functionalities. Here are some of the unique features that bring commerce to the social world.

1 | Buy buttons 

Buy buttons are links on social media platforms that move a user into the purchase process. These buttons have been around for a while, but early adopters found the functionality clunky, so the concept didn’t take off right away. Digiday talked about Twitter’s failed attempt at adding buy button functionality, as well as Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest’s struggles with it as well. 

Today, though, the future looks brighter for in-app shopping and purchasing. Twelve percent of consumers said that buy buttons would increase the probability that they would buy a product online.

Facebook has a couple of different social commerce features. One is a Shop Now button you can use on ads. When clicked, that button takes you to a landing page on the brand’s website.
The Facebook Marketplace is also available to buyers and sellers. While it used to be a place for peer-to-peer transactions, ecommerce stores can now also sell through the marketplace — which also enables in-app checkout with Facebook Pay.

2 | Shoppable galleries and stories

Shoppable posts on Instagram provide an excellent way to put your brand and products in the limelight — and can be particularly successful for brands with very visual products like apparel, cosmetics, and jewelry

Below are two examples of what shoppable posts look like on the ‘gram.
The features are the same on both — products are tagged on the image and are clickable. 

Here’s where the two diverge. The earlier version of shoppable posts directed users to the brand’s ecommerce site to finish the purchase process. But today, Instagram also has a native checkout option available to brands who want to offer the entire purchase process without redirecting users away from the app.
Here, the example on the left from Natori shows an Add to Bag button. That indicates that checkout is available within the Instagram app. Pink Lily doesn’t use in-app checkout, so their button takes the user to a product page on their website.

Instagram also supports shoppable Stories, as the example below from Theory shows.

3 | Multiple tagging

You can tag multiple products in each post on Instagram, which is great for using photos from a lifestyle shoot and encouraging shoppers to purchase more than one product to complete the look. Check out this example from Crate and Barrel:
These posts with multiple products tagged can, as in the prior examples, go either to a checkout page or a screen that will take you to the brand’s website to complete the purchase.

4 | Review-based purchase

Word-of-mouth has always been one of the most powerful ways for businesses to reach new customers. Today, one way you can gain a similar impact is by clearly showcasing customer reviews. Ninty-three percent of consumers say that online reviews impact their purchase decisions.

Green Roads, a CBD brand, features their customer reviews prominently on product pages.
As you might expect, customer reviews provide the kind of social proof that becomes even more important if your brand or a particular product is unfamiliar. 

Your Store Wizards’ Joe Palko says, “Make sure you are using product reviews and that you’re doing them in a way that they are being indexed [for SEO].”

5 | Active user participation

We’ve talked a little bit about social proof already, but let’s go a little deeper. On social media, your opportunities to showcase social proof are almost endless. It’s the perfect way to get people to engage and that engagement can make your job as a marketer a little bit easier. 

One survey found that 22 percent of internet users globally would be more likely to purchase a product online if it was featured in a post with “lots of likes.” That highlights the value of shoppable posts—when users scroll past your photo, they’ll see the image, as well as the products and likes/comments from other engaged users. 

Now, here’s the real goldmine: user-generated content (UGC). When brands find ways to utilize UGC featuring their products, they’re engaging authentically with their customers, demonstrating social proof, and building community. Check out this example from Passion Planner, who does a weekly recurring feature of one of their customers.

6 | Messenger-app customer support

Businesses can set up Facebook Messenger as a place to communicate in real-time with customers. Savannah Bee Company uses the chatbox to start conversations, prompting some of the most common actions to let shoppers know how the messenger can help.

Social commerce increases conversions

Social commerce offers some key benefits that have implications for conversion. One, of course, is that your shoppers are already spending a lot of time there. Think of it as having a storefront in a mall they visit several times a day. 

But you can’t just show up and expect a conversion miracle. Let’s look at three of the biggest benefits to social commerce and how you can make the most of them.

Drive authentic engagement 

You can’t just be a megaphone for your brand. You have to listen to and interact with your audience. One way to do that is by encouraging UGC. Not only does it build relationships with your customers, but it also extends your reach into your customers’ networks and serves as social proof for your brand.

Jambu & Co. does a great job making use of UGC. They popularized their hashtag then reached out to Instagram users who tag themselves so they have a wealth of UGC to use in their own marketing materials.

Build deeper trust and loyalty

Trust is built over time and over the course of repeated trustworthy interactions. A paper appearing in the April 2017 issue of the Journal of Computer Information Systems connects a person’s trust in a company with their willingness to engage in social commerce with that company. 

Once you’ve earned a customer’s trust enough to engage with them on social platforms, you create continued opportunities to deepen that trust and earn repeat business.

It reduces friction in the customer experience

Apps are mobile-first — the user interface is made with our phones in mind. Some ecommerce sites aren’t responsive or adaptive, making them extremely difficult to use on mobile devices, and even those that are often don’t provide the seamless user experience of a mobile app.

Keep it as simple as possible, use automation whenever possible, and keep the process as short as it can be to keep users from becoming frustrated (or bored) and abandoning their cart. The faster a customer is able to convert, the more likely they are to do so.

Be smart: Don’t forget about the benefits of ecommerce platforms

While social commerce is growing and serves as a great addition to your multi-channel selling strategy, don’t leave your ecommerce platform behind just yet. 

In January 2019, 22 percent of respondents said that DTC brand websites were one of their favorite ways to buy and 25 percent said they would like to shop that way more in the future. Compare that to just four percent and five percent, respectively, for social media.

Here are a few reasons why owning your marketing strategy by selling through your ecommerce website is crucial:

1 | Fully control your online business 

One of the biggest advantages of having your own website is that you have full control over it—your branding, your backend, your security, the way you accept payments and ship, your data, and how you interact with your customers. 

That control is, to some degree, lost when you’re selling via a social platform. As social media and ecommerce become more integrated, VP of Marketing Corey Dubeau, of Northern Commerce, warns of social media channels “stripping merchants of control and ownership.”

2 | Collect rich customer data insights 

The data you’ll get on your customers’ behavior and preferences from your website will be much more robust than any data you’ll receive from a social channel. Only on your own website will you be able to see where your visitors came from, which pages they visited and in what order, how long they browsed the site, and where they bounced or converted. And, if they abandoned their cart at some point in the checkout process, you’ll be able to see all of that, too.  

This data is what fuels the smart optimization of your store — both from a business perspective and a technical one — as well as future marketing, such as email campaigns. Founder and CEO Shane Barker advises to “use data analytics to your advantage. Data is the key to understanding your customers. And by analyzing it, you’ll be able to improve your offerings. This, in turn, will help you grow your business.”

3 | Provide better customer support

Ecommerce platforms have far more opportunities to provide excellent customer support. Between contact forms, live chat, and chatbots, ecommerce sites are more likely to have a method to reach customer service much more quickly than on a social network site.

4 | Build a more secure environment

Some consumers just aren’t ready to trust social media with their payment details. Seventy-one percent of online shoppers in the U.S. hesitate to make purchases through social media because of security concerns, and 65 percent cite privacy concerns.
With declining public trust in social media networks, and people’s continued concerns over securing their own financial transactions, the robust security you can offer on your own site is a huge advantage. 

5 | Integrate a robust content marketing strategy 

On social channels, you’re limited on the amount of content you can include to showcase your products — never mind your business. On your own site, you can create a robust content program, with galleries, videos, blogs, UGC, forums, and more. All those content types can, depending on your business, work together to reinforce your brand narrative and promote your products. 

Without being limited to the structure of the social platform, you can also enhance your product pages in a way that can support conversion, with extensive product information, a variety of media, customer reviews, and recommended related products.

6 | Reach new customers via SEO for increased traffic 

Optimize your website using advanced SEO tactics not available to you on social channels, to reach more consumers via search engine results pages. The higher up you appear in the search results, the more traffic you’ll get to your store. 

Build the ultimate ecommerce store: Integrate social commerce 

Making your products available to shoppers via the social networks they spend time on can be an incredibly rewarding way to expand your business beyond your ecommerce website.  

Especially among younger consumers, the role of social media in commerce activities is clear. Fifty-two percent of Gen Z shoppers cited social media as a source of brand discovery. That percentage decreases steadily into older generations, but even 26 percent of Gen Xers said they discovered brands and products on social media. 

With that in mind, it makes sense to meet shoppers where they are and offer opportunities to complete purchases within those social channels. 

But if you’re thinking a social commerce strategy can replace your ecommerce store, you might want to reconsider. The benefits you get from social commerce should be an enhancement to your online strategy. 

The customers you acquire through social commerce will be added to your email list, which you can use to continue targeting them to grow your business. Then, within your email marketing program, you can segment your audiences and deliver even more personalized communications. That’ll work in your favor when it comes to retaining those newly acquired shoppers.

Think about your store as your home base and your social channels as additional arms of your business. You need all the parts to work together. You’ll be able to reach more new customers, better reinforce your brand narrative, provide better customer service, get more data to understand how to best serve your customers, and hopefully, increase sales and retention. 

Social commerce is here to stay 

After some sputtering starts, social commerce has finally really begun to take off in the past couple of years. Advancements in technology are making in-app shopping a commonplace luxury, while in-app checkouts are easier than ever — and impulse-buy friendly! 

Social commerce probably isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, but neither is your ecommerce storefront. The best digital strategy available is to combine these two channels to get the most out of each of their benefits and have them work together to fill each other’s gaps. Almost everything you learn on one channel can be applied to the other in some way, so iterative improvements can be ongoing. 

The most important thing to remember is to keep testing, keep iterating, and keep selling! 

Interested in learning more about creating a social media strategy and getting started with paid advertising? Find out how to build Facebook audiences.

Effectively leverage the data from your ecommerce store.

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