In 2014, Business News Daily published an article that focused on the future of social commerce – buying and selling directly on social media platforms. Ever since, the idea of social media as a sales tool has advanced from rumors and anticipation to an evolving but functional commerce ecosystem.
"Shopping is inherently social, but this aspect has disappeared in recent years due in equal measure to the growth in e-commerce and an ever-growing list of consumer distractions and obligations," said Liat Zakay, founder of the Donde Fashion search engine app. "Instead of in malls, [people] are shopping from their phones ... on the timelines and terms that work for their busy schedules."
According to Internet Retailer, the e-commerce industry experienced retail sales that "reached $3.375 trillion in 2016 – a 3.9 percent jump compared with $3.247 trillion in 2015." Sales are expected to continue to rise, but people won't necessarily use those buy buttons just because they exist. Brands need to give customers a reason to shop on social.
Business News Daily talked to a few experts about what consumers look for in social commerce, and how small businesses can succeed in following this growing trend.
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.
Facebook: Brands can use Facebook's social commerce functionality by setting up Shops through their company pages. When someone wants to buy something, they can browse on the page's Shop and pay directly through Facebook, without being redirected to your website. [Learn more]
Pinterest: Pinterest has a blue price tag feature called a Buyable Pin, which allows shoppers to purchase anything they see on the site. Since Pinterest users are accustomed to interacting with product-driven images, the platform is conducive to having people purchase items when they find something they want to buy. Plus, these pins are easy to spot while browsing search results and on different boards. Brands can promote the pins, similarly to sponsored content on other social networking sites. [Learn more]
Instagram: Last November, the platform experimented with a new strategy: adding a shopping bag icon to posts to "tap to see more details from products featured in posts, and even click to a business's website if you're ready to buy." This makes it easier for the consumer to purchase products by redirecting them to a product listing from an external link. Business owners can also view insights from these buttons as well as for any sponsored ads they put out. [Learn more]
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 experiences on each platform. Jeff Soriano, vice president of marketing at globaledit, compared Instagram, a visual platform where users share incredible pictures, to Twitter, a vast wealth of text-based content.
"Inappropriately targeted communication will not only fall flat with the wrong customers, it may end up harming your existing relationships," Soriano explained.
Just as every social network is different, so is every brand. 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, added Mike Rowland, director in the customer experience practice of West Monroe Partners.
"[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."
To successfully sell your products on social media, our expert sources recommend following these three steps:
1. Research and experiment
Many entrepreneurs spend too much time reading and not enough doing. In other words, they consume lots of information without diving into the world of social commerce and knowing how to apply that knowledge.
"Research popular niches so that you can guarantee a chance of growing a sustainable business," said Nicole Martins Ferreira, chief e-commerce officer of Galleon Co. "After you've narrowed down a list of the top five popular niches, be honest about which one you're most excited to work on and grow. [You'll] be spending the next few months and possibly years growing it, so you should have enough enthusiasm to grow it even on days with low sales."
Once you've established your business, don't be afraid to jump in and start by experimenting. First, Ferreira recommends creating ads to reach new customers, but when you start to score sales, invest your profits back into the business to help cover startup costs.
"Most of the things you'll learn, you'll learn as you go," Ferreira said.
She also advised using retargeting strategies – specifically advertising to people who have visited your website before – to encourage customer follow-through and loyalty.
"Retargeting … will help reduce abandoned carts," Ferreira said. "Featuring influencers in blog posts in hopes that they'll share it can help build an audience [and] make it profitable by running retargeting ads on your blog. Sending out loyalty club emails a day after a customer's first purchase with a special VIP discount can help drive repeat sales."
2. Engage your audience
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.
One way brands are creating a more organic feel to their social media presence is by incorporating user-generated content (UGC). Soriano said that brands need to be able to reach social users in a way that complements 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 explained. "Consumers can smell branded content from a mile away. What is really exciting is how brands are leveraging their users' content to drive social sales."
Soriano adds that brands are doing this by curating users' photos, videos, memes, posts and more into digital galleries, and allowing users to click from user photos directly to a product page.
3. Offer convenience
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."
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, said Jay Chang, co-founder of the personal growth and leadership resource, Achieve Iconic. Consumers already use social media to discover and talk about brands. 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.
Additional reporting by Nicole Fallon. Some source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.