Social media has become a crucial tool for marketers, especially when it comes to brand building and engaging potential customers. Recently, social media platforms have dipped their toes into commerce as well; Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest have all jumped into the social commerce game in one form or another.
"Social commerce started off in a pretty organic way with people simply posting the things they were buying on social media," Brian Lovett, director of product at VigLink, told Business News Daily. "Marketers quickly recognized the power of these 'friend' recommendations and started proactively recruiting people to sell products."
But are social platforms, where people primarily come to interact with one another – oftentimes through memes – really the ideal place to buy and sell? The results are mixed, but that hasn't dissuaded companies from pursuing social commerce as a new source of conversions. Some platforms are willing to bet the answer is yes.
For instance, Pinterest's "Gifts feed" specifically features Product Pins with pricing, availability and buy links. And Forbes called Instagram "the world's most powerful selling tool" due to the success of its sponsored posts, which have significantly increased the brand engagement and awareness for early adopters since their debut in November 2013.
The social media marketing game is changing with each innovation, and businesses of all sizes need to be ready to pounce. Here's what marketing and e-commerce experts want you to know about this developing trend.
Evolution of social networking
Just a few years ago, simply having a social media presence gave a brand a significant advantage. The ability to interact with consumers directly on platforms they were already using to connect with one another was the new frontier in customer service. As more and more companies began to establish Facebook and Twitter accounts, conversations on these platforms shifted from interpersonal communications to shared opinions and experiences about brands.
"People don't just go on Facebook and Twitter to connect with other people anymore; they also use it to consume news, develop tastes and even shop," said Nissim Lehyani, CEO and co-founder of Facebook-integrated e-commerce platform Easy Social Shop. "As retailers understand that social media plays an important role in determining what and how consumers will buy, more resources are being devoted to formulating social media marketing strategies to captivate consumers and facilitate product sales."
"The first step of this process is to create a … Pinterest board or Facebook page to cultivate a following and raise brand awareness," Lehyani said. "But the next step is the standardization of tools that maximize brand exposure and facilitate sales for the retailer, while consolidating and simplifying the shopping process for the customer. It isn't just about being on social media anymore – it's about maximizing the potential of these platforms."
How social media marketing is changing
With new and upcoming social commerce technologies, the biggest change for social media marketers will be a shift in focus from branding to lead generation and conversion.
"Social commerce started out pretty simply. Retailers would engage followers to develop a brand and hope that the followers would eventually convert into paying customers. It continued to evolve to having strong influencers develop huge followings and people came to value their opinions about what to buy," Zabrina Hossain, product manager at Shopify, said. "Up until recently, whether you were a retailer or an influencer, there was no easy way to really capture and immediately seal the deal, but we have been seeing that gap get smaller and smaller."
That shrinking gap is key. The shorter the path between consumer and product, the more likely businesses are to convert more sales. And boosting sales is not the only thing on the table. Social commerce offers the opportunity for improved demographic and behavioral data collection, as well as direct feedback, enabling companies to better understand their consumer base and respond accordingly.
Lehyani agreed, noting that successful social marketing will become an even more important component of overall marketing strategies, and that marketers will have to think longer, harder and more creatively if they want to be able to fulfill the newly created potential of social commerce.
"[Social commerce tools] are raising the stakes of social marketing, but they also ease the sales process by providing ways for businesses to effectively interact with customers," Lehyani told Business News Daily. "The digitalization of shopping also means that customer data is plentiful, and with the right tools, companies can analyze their online customers' behavior and use that information to improve social marketing strategies to complete sales via social media."
Peer-to-peer social commerce
There's also another kind of social commerce developing outside of the business-to-consumer (B2C) models mentioned above. With the rise of commercial opportunities like Facebook Marketplace, which allows people in a certain geographical area to advertise and sell their personal items, social media is also creating peer-to-peer communities of buyers and sellers.
"The Facebook Marketplace fits the definition of social commerce. Uses can sell to their entire network and beyond," Hossain said. "It is the evolution of a crafter’s pop up shop or anyone’s garage sale. As its online, Facebook Marketplace brings more options to more people, and encourages the reuse or repurpose of used items. We are also starting to see people start to sell new goods on the marketplace."
Lovett sees peer-to-peer marketplaces as the natural next step in social commerce. Because people spend so much time browsing content on social media, Lovett said, it's only natural that social media platforms would build up a marketplace for buying and selling goods new and old.
"I see these platforms as evolutionary rather than revolutionary. We've always had these 'social commerce' marketplaces in some form," Lovett said. "[Whether] classified ads in a newspaper, community yard sales … fast forward a few years and sites like craigslist emerged. Now we have these marketplaces integrated directly into social media platforms like Facebook."
For a list of small business social commerce solutions, check out our guide here on Business News Daily.
Additional reporting by Nicole Fallon. Some source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.