Social media sites like Pinterest and Instagram are embracing the idea of social commerce. Social commerce is about making it easier for users and accounts to sell products directly via their feeds and content. For instance, Instagram users that meet a certain follower threshold can link directly to products in their Stories.
For marketers, the appeal of social commerce is obvious. Leveraging social content to drive sales has always been a goal for marketers, and as platforms are embracing functionality that makes this easier, companies are obviously quite excited at the potential for social commerce. From the user perspective, my view is, how can social commerce be leveraged to improve the user experience? If the user experience is enhanced, then those users will embrace social commerce functionality on these sites. The attempts at incorporating social commerce will pass or fail in great part on how successfully these attempts understand user intent and only sell to those users who are truly ready to buy.
I think there is great promise and (potential) peril when it comes to social commerce, and I wanted to discuss how social commerce could work, and how it could fail. For now, marketers are focusing on social commerce to immediately complete sales. But when you factor in the social element, there’s great opportunity for these platforms to facilitate the awareness, consideration and research phases that then lead to commerce, and do so in a social setting, with users working together to help move each other through the sales funnel. So lets look at both the good and potential bad about social commerce:
So What Is Social Commerce?
Social commerce is about leveraging social media sites and platforms to facilitate and complete sales directly on that site or platform. For instance, Instagram recently announced a Checkout feature that will eventually let users buy products without leaving the Instagram app. This feature is currently in beta, here’s how Instagram says it will work:
“Today, we’re introducing checkout on Instagram. When you find a product you love, you can now buy it without leaving the app.
When you tap to view a product from a brand’s shopping post, you’ll see a “Checkout on Instagram” button on the product page. Tap it to select from various options such as size or color, then you’ll proceed to payment without leaving Instagram. You’ll only need to enter your name, email, billing information and shipping address the first time you check out.
Once your first order is complete, your information will be securely saved for convenience the next time you shop. You’ll also receive notifications about shipment and delivery right inside Instagram, so you can keep track of your purchase.”
The idea of using social media to directly drive sales is not a new concept, in 2014 Twitter let brands add a Buy button directly to tweets. This feature was later removed, but it shows that social media brands have been trying to find a way to add social buying functionality into its platforms for a while now.
How Social Commerce Could Benefit Users
The idea of implementing selling directly into social media streams and sites is a scary proposition for a lot of social media users. That’s because, marketers tend to push sales on customers even when they aren’t ready to buy. If used smartly, social commerce could greatly benefit customers by tapping into the ‘social’ element of social media.
First, let’s revisit the buyer’s journey and talk about how it applies to social media. This post on How to Sell With Social Media covers the topic, and I’ll summarize the stages here:
- Unaware, AKA Who the hell are you?. The buyer has no idea who you are, or why they should want to listen to you, much less buy anything from you. When companies talk about using social media to ‘Build Awareness’, this is the group they are targeting.
- Slightly aware and slightly interested. This group has begun to understand who you are, and can start to see how your products and services can fit into their lives.
- Interested and considering buying. This group knows who you are, knows what you sell, and knows how those products and services fit into their lives. Now they are trying to decide who to buy from, you or a competitor.
- Ready to buy. Take my money!
These are the stages for the journey that the average buyer goes on. As you can see, the buyer isn’t READY to be sold to until really the 4th and last stage. And the buyer doesn’t want any promotional content focused on products and services until the 3rd stage when they are doing research. So the challenge for social media sites and platforms that want to incorporate social commerce is to factor in user intent. If the user isn’t ready to buy, selling them won’t create a positive experience for them.
On the other hand, when you add a social layer over the buying process, that can change things. If you take a product that I don’t know about or know I want, and add an endorsement for that product via a person I trust ON SOCIAL MEDIA, that can quickly move me to a point where I am ready to buy.
Let give you an example of how this can work: A few years ago I was invited to join a Facebook group based around business travel. These are peers (many of who I knew and trusted) who wanted to create a Facebook group just to discuss navigating a lifestyle where you are traveling more than you are at home. In the course of the conversations of this group, product recommendations would often come up. Someone would mention a problem they had with frequent business travel, someone else would recommend a product they bought that helps solve that problem. Several times I saw members buy a product another member had recommended, I did as well.
The funny thing is, I wasn’t interested in buying those products until someone I trusted recommended them on social media. If I had seen an ad for those same products appear in my feed, I would have ignored them, but because someone I trusted recommended those same products, I bought them. But even then, all they could do was link to Amazon or another site. We didn’t have the ability to buy right there without leaving Facebook. Social commerce is about removing that layer of friction to the buying process AND it’s about shifting the buying process to people you know and trust. When leveraged correctly, social commerce can merge with the organic discussions that are already happening on social media, and add utility to the user experience, instead of degrading it.
For instance, Pinterest has begun incorporating social commerce into its platform. If executed correctly, this could improve the experience for Pinterest users as many are on the site browsing for ideas or doing research for future purchases. Additionally, comments from other users can help users make decisions on which products to buy and which ones to avoid. The key is adding social commerce in a place and time that the user is OPEN to the addition and doesn’t view it as a distraction or irritant. Social commerce should enhance the user experience, not detract from it.
Related: Pinterest explains its new social commerce products on the Behind the Numbers Podcast.
The Potential Risks of Social Commerce
At its best, adding a commerce layer to social interactions could provide great utility for users, while helping customers work with other customers to better organize information and recommendations. It helps connect customers with products they need and can use, and can help them make smarter purchase decisions, by leaning on advice from peers and friends they trust.
But there is a potential risk to adding commerce to social interactions, especially if the commerce involves leveraging those social interactions to create new sales that otherwise might not happen. It can lead to spending more than you wanted to, and increase feelings of remorse, post-purchase.
Here’s an example of what I mean: Last year during the week of Thanksgiving, I downloaded and began playing a game on my iPhone called World War Rising. I figured it would be a fun time-killer and I had some free time during the holidays. The game itself it pretty forgettable, but it does have a very strong social element driving it. The game is set up so alliances of people wage ‘war’ on each other by attacking each others bases. An alliance can have up to 100 members and members have chat functionality as well as private messaging to connect with each other.
Here’s where things get tricky. The game is set up to encourage you to interact with your fellow alliance members. You get to know your teammates, and feel a connection to them. The game has events where teammates work together so that the alliance as a group receives prizes. So you quickly develop an affinity and sense of kinship for your teammates.
What’s curious, and a bit scary, is how the game monetizes its players. The game offers players packs of goodies that are designed to help them grow their bases and become stronger. These packs can range in price from $5 all the way up to $99. And believe it or not, there are a LOT of people that spend a LOT of money on these packs. It’s not at all uncommon to find players that have spent THOUSANDS of dollars on this game.
Many times, I have had a player tell me that they bought a $99 pack and they justified the purchase to themselves by saying “I felt I owed it to the team to get stronger”. When I first joined the game and learned that people spent hundreds if not thousands on the game, I thought these people must be insane! But after playing the game for a while, I can totally understand why people spend money on the game. There really is a sense of wanting to HELP your teammates by buying packs to get stronger. And when a player buys a pack, they are congratulated by their teammates. I’ve talked to players who have played previous versions of this game by the same developers and they all comment on how the developers have selling to its players down to a science. They know how to drive sales, and I would even say it comes dangerously close to manipulating players to spend money. If your base is attacked and you suffer a major defeat, you might be offered a pack that promises to “help you recover now!” or something similar.
Selling via social media has always been about accepting the behaviors of the users and improving the experience for those users. If you try to change behavior via commerce, it’s very easy to alienate and irritate users. But if you accept the organic behavior of users and only introduce commerce functionality to users who are ready to buy, then you are offering utility, not hindrance.
Either way, social commerce is here to stay. There will no doubt be growing pains, and hopefully marketers will work with existing user behavior when incorporating commerce into social channels, instead of trying to change behavior.