Shopping has changed. Just as malls and shopping centres rose to prominence as social spaces in the 80s and 90s, so social media has become a central part of how we find and purchase products. Brands have always needed to be available in some way where people are spending their time, whether through branded content, advertising or products available for sale.
Today, social media occupies a position at the start of the product lifecycle – the discovery phase, before a customer knows anything about the business or the product. Instagram is the new home for product discovery, particularly amongst younger shoppers (millennials and Gen Z particularly). It’s where they hang out, so it’s unsurprising that savvy businesses who understand the language and culture of their audience are using the platform to promote their products and brand.
Social media is a place where customers learn about things that they want, often via their friends, and it’s a place unlike any offline space where brands actually get to engage in the conversation and influence their followers directly. The value of this can’t be missed. Brands can introduce their customers to products before they even consciously are in the market for those products. They can remain differentiated from the crowd in the mind of their customer. Discovering new and interesting products is an exciting experience, but most importantly it’s one which is hard to replicate in other platforms.
Take Amazon, for example. While 55% of product searches occur through the marketplace giant, these are searchers who know what they’re looking for – or at least have a rough idea already. By contrast Instagram and Pinterest et al are the places where many consumers discover the products they’ll later be Googling and searching for on Amazon.
This means that brands should be active on all of these platforms, so that they have the opportunity to introduce the consumer to new products & differentiate their offering immediately, then be available for purchase later down the line when the consumer is actively seeking to buy.
Avoiding Common Pitfalls
Of course, there are pitfalls. Customers are always quick to ridicule brands that miss the mark with out of date memes, wrongly applied slang terms, and other indicators that they don’t really understand the audience they’re engaging. However, perhaps the biggest paradox brands face on social media is how to avoid appearing ‘sales-y’, pushy or being seen to ‘try too hard’, whilst still driving measurable traffic and sales.
Too many posts that focus on products, deals or competitions jeopardise the brand-building objectives. Too few, and it’s hard to prove the value of building the brand in the first place. The only way to find the balance is to measure results and test varying balances of lifestyle or engagement posts with products or deals posts. Scheduling tools can help manage this and collect engagement data; and using tracking URLs and specific offer codes can reveal where purchases on-site or elsewhere were influenced by social.
Friction and Customer Journeys
Part of the issue with social commerce as it stands at the time of writing is that the user experience of purchasing from any social platform involves the friction of moving away from the social channel and entering payment details on a site. While the brand captures more data and has more control over the look and feel, this gating turns off a lot of browsers. After all, they came to Instagram to be on Instagram.
Social channels know this. Instagram is experimenting more with tools to reduce the friction of this purchase journey, which enable users to find out more about products tagged in images without leaving the app. The Facebook-owned social media giant recently released in-app payment functionality which allows some users to input card details and purchase entirely in-app.
The Future of Social Commerce
At this time, its limited to select business users and some customers. However, it’s a clear indication of the direction of travel for Instagram, which is towards commerce on-channel as opposed to linking out to websites. In this sense, social media channels are becoming more like marketplaces, and as this shift happens brands need to be prepared. Expect other channels to follow in Instagram’s footsteps as the value of enabling commerce where users are hanging out becomes more and more apparent.
Early adopters of these changes will reap the rewards of increased direct-to-consumer sales and the security that comes with diversified revenue streams. For the time being though, here’s a general playbook for consumer brands on social.
Twitter is often seen primarily as a customer support channel, as consumers grow increasingly used to having 24/7 instant access to a public domain where they can tag a brand into their complaint, giving it visibility.
However, it’s also a great place for viral content, where timely commentary, wit or images can earn massive exposure for free.
Instagram is the most credible social channel for commerce to emerge on in the short term. However, brands must ensure they’re developing a following and engaging their audience to remain top of mind as much as (or more than) they’re driving website traffic to product pages.
Facebook is video dominated – audience building is all about eye-catching, short-form videos. Captions are a must, as up to 85% of Facebook video is watched without the sound on.
Social channels are increasingly pay-to-play spaces. Appearing in user’s feeds is harder than ever as algorithms change and the crowd clamouring for attention grows larger. Sponsoring content and/or purchasing influencer posts are effective ways to increase impressions, audience and long-term engagement and purchases.