In 2014, Business News Daily published an article that focused on the future of social commerce — that is, buying and selling directly on social media platforms. Since then, the idea of social as a sales tool has advanced from rumors and anticipation to an evolving, but functional, commerce ecosystem. With the recent introduction of virtual Facebook storefronts and "buy" buttons on Twitter and Pinterest, brands have access to the tools they need to turn their social media presence into a direct route to sales.
"Most [e-commerce companies] have both their social network and a 'store' in their hands, and social commerce provides a new channel to enable a transaction," said Dan Forno, vice president of client success and consumer engagement at BrandShop, a provider of branded digital commerce solutions. "This will be a great opportunity to engage with consumers in a way that is both brand-building and profitable."
"Shopping is inherently social, but this aspect has disappeared in recent years due in equal measure to the growth in ecommerce and an ever-growing list of consumer distractions and obligations," added Liat Zakay, founder of the Donde Fashion search engine app. "Advances in social commerce are bringing the fun and sense of community back to shopping, but instead of in malls, [people] are shopping from their phones ... on the timelines and terms that work for their busy schedules."
Internet Retailer recently reported that social commerce was projected to grow by 25 percent in 2015, and retailers are proving this right as they jump on board with social selling tools. But people won't necessarily use those buy buttons just because they exist — brands need to give customers a reason to shop on social.
Retail and marketing experts weighed in on what consumers are looking for in social commerce, and how small businesses can succeed in following this growing trend. [Social Media Selling Solutions for Small Businesses]
How social commerce works on each platform
Brands that want to enter the social commerce space should first have a basic understanding of how it works on popular social channels. Jay Chang, co-founder of the personal growth and leadership resource, Achieve Iconic, offered a brief outline of the current major social commerce players:
Facebook: Brands can use Facebook's social commerce functionality through posts or in their ads. When someone wants to buy something, they either type their credit card info directly into Facebook or choose to store their information for faster purchases. [Learn more]
Twitter: Twitter has individual product pages that pull together tweets about a specific product or brand. This makes each page serve as an info-hub for curious customers, giving them a place to see what other users think about each product. A buy button is included, so shoppers can check out directly through the site. Chang noted that brands with an established presence on Twitter will likely find this worthwhile. [Learn more]
Pinterest: Pinterest has a "Buyable Pin" function that lets shoppers purchase anything they see on the site. Since Pinterest users are already accustomed to interacting with product-driven images, the platform is conducive to having people purchase items when they find something they want to buy. The user base for this social network skews heavily toward women, so brands that cater to them may do better with Buyable Pins, Chang said. [Learn more]
Instagram: Since Instagram is owned by Facebook, this platform's social commerce functionality is currently only available to select Facebook marketing partners. It works by connecting ads to sites where users can go to shop, which creates a lot of potential for luxury and fashion brands since they regularly promote individual products. Instagram offers the same data-gathering capabilities as Facebook, but again, the drawback is that it's still not available to everyone. [Learn more]
What consumers really want
Years ago, the "hard sell" — telling customers why they need your product or service — was the way of the advertising world. Today's companies are advised to take a softer approach, with marketing strategies that appeal to consumers who want a more authentic brand experience.
"Understand your consumer and how they interact with the world," Forno said. "Social media is rooted in engagement. It's important to stay relevant, while not making all your content feel like a sales pitch."
One way brands are creating a more organic feel to their social media presence is by incorporating user-generated content (UGC). Jeff Soriano, the senior director of demand generation at UGC content marketing platform Offerpop, said that brands need to be able to reach social users in a way that is complementary to what the brand is doing if they want to succeed at social commerce.
"Simply posting on social is not going to directly convert to sales," Soriano said. "Consumers are savvy and educated, and they can smell branded content from a mile away. What is really exciting is how brands are leveraging their users' content to drive social sales. People trust other people, so using their peers to help sell your products is a no-brainer."
Soriano said that brands are doing this by curing users' photos, videos, memes, posts and more into digital galleries, and allowing users to click from user photos directly to a product page. According to Offerpop's data, incorporating UGC into social marketing strategies results in 10 percent more conversions.
Consumers are always looking for easier ways to shop. PayPal, Google Wallet and Apple Pay have all simplified the transaction process for many everyday purchases, and social commerce has the potential to do the same.
"Social commerce is all about immediate calls-to-action," said Thomas Adams, CEO and co-founder of apparel retailer OnePiece. "Everything on social media happens on the user's time, not the company's, which can be a difficult mentality to adapt to at first. Users want simplicity, and to save time and effort by directly purchasing [on social media] when they see something they like. Social commerce takes out the frustrating part of searching the Internet for products."
Adding a "buy" button to your social channels does make purchasing much more convenient for customers, but it also benefits your business in a big way, Chang said. Consumers already use social media to discover and talk about products and services. By keeping transactions contained within the world of that social network, brands can get immediate feedback on the items they're selling.
"Assuming enough people purchase products through these networks — and data suggests this will happen — businesses will be able to evaluate their marketing tactics in real-time," Chang told Business News Daily.
Incentives to buy via social
For some consumers, the convenience of social media-based transactions isn't enough to encourage purchases. They're used to the standard e-commerce checkout experience, and may need a little something extra to persuade them to change their ways.
"Consumers are still hesitant to engage in social commerce because brands aren't using the correct strategies to entice them to purchase," said Mike Rowland, director in the customer experience practice of West Monroe Partners, a business consulting firm. "If a deal is available everywhere and not solely on social media, consumers likely won't pursue the opportunity through social commerce. Instead, they'll turn to a traditional channel — online or in-store — that they're more comfortable using." To combat this, companies should offer differentiated and custom promotions for social users, Rowland said. For example, OnePiece has seen great success with its #SocialCurrency campaign, which allows customers to convert their social media followings and activities for monetary credits towards its products.
"OnePiece wants to put the power in the hands of our customers and fans," Adams said. "By working with companies like the newly launched brandbassador.com, we are able to directly empower and reward our fans and customers for doing what they already do on their own, sharing what they love."
Succeeding in the social commerce space
Smart social media marketers know that the audiences on each network are unique, and want different things from their experience on each platform. Soriano offered the example of Instagram versus Twitter: Instagram is a visual platform where users share incredible pictures, while Twitter is a vast wealth of text-based tweets, impressions, opinions and more.
"If you were to create a very clever text advertisement and photo on Twitter and adapt it over to the visual Instagram platform, your consumers would spot it from a mile away and it would fail to resonate," Soriano said. "Understand your channels and target them appropriately. Inappropriately targeted communication will not only fall flat with the wrong customers, it may end up harming your existing relationships."
Just as every social network is different, so is every brand, and what works for one company may not be as successful for another. The best way to determine your ideal strategy is to continually test and refine your selling and marketing tactics, Rowland said.
"[Some] companies ... are using e-commerce and data from their social media channels to develop better offerings for each platform's target audience," he said. "Others are using social to promote shareable coupons, test flash sales to reduce inventory, and donate a certain amount of [social commerce] proceeds to charity. I anticipate more e-commerce companies will test their presence in these areas to determine their best social commerce methods."