Social media platforms are no longer merely an advertising channel for DTC brands. Platform after platform is rolling out eCommerce-focused functionalities, making social channels an increasingly important part of the buyer journey. A frictionless buying experience and profitable social media presence are available to brands that take the initiative, but those who choose to sit on the sidelines of social commerce risk falling behind. Here is everything you need to know about the current state of social commerce and an action plan for how your brand can excel at social selling.
Social Commerce: A Summary
Social commerce is the explicit use of social media platforms as a sales tool. There are no ads or redirects; the buyer journey begins and ends in one place. Customers can make purchases without leaving their platform of choice, explains copywriter and marketing consultant Pete Boyle. “No redirects, no purchase journeys, just a simple click to buy. By keeping the user on the network they’re already engaged with, you’ll drastically increase conversion rates.”
The Benefits of Social Commerce
Social commerce benefits brands beyond higher conversion rates. It is the perfect approach for brands that want to increase personalization efforts, says Jake Rheude, Vice President of Marketing at Red Stag Fulfillment.
“Social commerce is inherently personalized because you’re in someone’s feed, whether that’s through their efforts to follow you or from ads or interactions of their friends,” writes Rheude. “Social media itself is personalized, so you don’t have to do much more than target your ads or create content. Thankfully, this reduces the work your team is doing, and customers work to personalize the purchases themselves — sucas asking for your advice or help.”
Boosted customer loyalty and improved retention efforts is another benefit of social commerce, writes Maddy Osman. As a two-way communication channel, brands can use social media to deepen customer relationships and provide customer service.
The Drawbacks of Social Commerce
Establishing a strong brand presence on social media can be challenging. According to Sam Wheeler-Phillips, Head of Advertising at Superb Media Ltd., each platform’s rules and shopping capabilities play a large part in defining a retailer’s social shopping presence.
Many features are so new that it can be challenging for brands to determine how popular they will be over time and which ones to invest in. “If only a fraction of social media users are interested in ‘buy’ buttons, then maybe it doesn’t make sense as a step in the user journey,” writes Digital Marketing Strategist Anders Hjorth at The Blueprint.
What Does Social Commerce Look Like on Each Platform?
The buying experience differs significantly between social media platforms. Some platforms have more comprehensive offerings that allow brands to showcase a full range of products. Others only have buy buttons.
Here is a snapshot of what social commerce looks like on the leading platforms today:
Facebook offers two key social commerce features alongside its robust advertising platform: Facebook Shop and Facebook Marketplace.
Facebook launched Facebook Shop in 2020. It allows brands to create digital storefronts within the platform, explains Built In reporter Hal Koss, and was marketed as a way for brick-and-mortar businesses to survive the pandemic. eCommerce brands can certainly also use the platform.
In fact, HubSpot’s Pamela Bump advises brands to treat their Facebook Shops like any other digital storefront. That means:
- Promoting the Facebook Shop as its own part of the customer experience.
- Making the necessary capacity adjustments to handle an influx of purchases.
- Aligning the branding on that Shop with the rest of the branding across every other part of the customer experience.
Instagram has integrated shopping into every one of its content formats. In late 2020, Instagram began testing a feature that would allow users to shop products on Reels, the platform’s video content format. It has since rolled the feature out globally.
“Businesses and creators will be able to tag products when they create Reels, and viewers can tap through those tags to buy or save them,” Ashley Carman reports at The Verge. “A branded content tag is also available for influencers who are paid for their posts. With this rollout, Instagram now has shopping available in every format on the app — the Feed, Stories, IGTV, and Live.”
Instagram created its Reels content format to compete with TikTok, and the shopping experience across Reels and TikTok is therefore very similar. But brands at this stage appear to prefer Instagram as a platform because it’s more proven, Michael Waters at Modern Retail writes.
Reels seem to do a better job of facilitating engagement and conversions. TikTok, meanwhile, does a better job of facilitating content discovery, Waters writes.
Some brands are betting on that content-discovery advantage, too. For example, Levi’s invested heavily in TikTok shopping in early 2020, Anna Hensel at Modern Retail reports, and that has driven significant traffic to Levi’s online shop. During the middle of April 2020, Hensel writes, Levi’s published a series of videos that highlighted the brand’s Future Finish product and featured a “shop now” button.
“The company said that since the launch of the campaign, product views have more than doubled for every item featured in the TikTok videos,” she writes.
Pinterest spent 2020 testing out a variety of shopping features. In the U.S. and in the U.K., Pinterest has rolled out features that allow brands to serve ads in the Lens search, in the Shop tab, and within pins themselves.
“The new Shop tab on Search will help users find in-stock items from retailers when they perform a search query, like ‘spring outfits,’ ‘home office décor’ or ‘kitchen remodel,’ among other things,” Sarah Perez at TechCrunch writes. “Before, users would have to scroll through a variety of search results, only some of which may have been shoppable.”
Pinterest has also been testing out tags like “Popular” and “Best Seller” to draw even more attention to product pins, Joele Forrester at the influencer marketing agency Billion Dollar Boy writes.
In 2020, Facebook began to roll out in-app purchases on WhatsApp, a planned strategy that was accelerated by the pandemic, Robert Williams at Retail Dive writes.
Now, shoppers have a variety of ways they can interact with brands on WhatsApp beyond simply messaging them. WhatsApp lets brands publish product catalogs that people can browse, and it introduced a shopping cart feature just before the 2020 holidays so that the platform could serve as a fully fledged retail outlet.
AliExpress is not a social media platform, but some of the features its parent company, Alibaba Group, have introduced since early 2020 blur that distinction. The AliExpress app has integrated social commerce features like brand-specific product feeds, interactive games, and even tools that allow brands to connect with influencers on the platform.
Jan Dominik Gunkel, Head of Global Commerce at factor-a, notes that AliExpress’s move into social commerce — which primarily targets European customers — is still in its early stages. However, Alibaba Group has made some key partnerships with established retailers like El Corte Inglés in Spain, and Chinese brands like Xiaomi, which has made major inroads into European consumer markets in recent years, are using the AliExpress platform to create truly engaging customer experiences.
How Brands Can Make the Most of Social Commerce
Brands should use several strategies to get the most from their social commerce investments. Target the platforms your audience uses and employ the features and feel of that platform, while focusing on low-cost products and regularly optimizing.
Target Resources and Tailor the Shopping Experience to the Social Platform
Few brands will have the resources to successfully build and manage a presence on every social media site. A targeted approach is essential. When customers scroll their social media feeds, they are not planning on making a purchase. Therefore, brands must focus resources and strategy on the platforms their customers use daily.
Andrew Caravella, VP of Global Partnerships at Sprout Social, recommends that brands consider the best social fit for their products.“Consumer packaged goods brands with a strong, visual, brand identity should focus their efforts on a platform like Instagram whereas a business-to-business brand may see more success with traditional social selling on LinkedIn.”
Brands that optimize their shopping experience for each social platform will see the most success. Anthony Svirskis, CEO at influencer marketing platform TRIBE recommends that brands tailor photography and content to match the ‘mood’ of each platform. “Products will need to be featured in the Instagram style which means photos and videos that customers can relate to, not just items shot on a white background,” he notes as an example about Instagram.
Focus on Low-Cost Products
Buffer’s Heather-Mae Pusztai says brands starting with social commerce should focus on their “best, lowest cost products.” Customers casually scrolling their social media feeds are not prepared or willing to consider the pros and cons of an expensive purchase. Instead, promote affordable items, impulse buys, flash sale merchandise, or staple items that customers are more likely to click ‘add-to-cart’ for. The better the price point, the less friction customers will experience. Focusing on best sellers can also be a winning strategy as the products are likely to appeal to a broader audience.
Create a Progressive Web App (PWA)
A fast site is essential if a brand’s social commerce efforts involve directing customers to their store. For this reason, Studio 15 CEO Jia Wertz recommends brands develop progressive web applications. These hybrid app-based mobile sites load quickly and operate in familiar ways.
Optimize Your Brand’s Social Presence
Brands should never stop optimizing their social commerce presence, writes Megan DeGruttola at Stackla. New platforms will emerge, and customer behavior will change, she says. “Just because a particular channel or strategy has worked in the past, that doesn’t necessarily mean it will be fruitful in the future.”
An Omnichannel Presence Is More Important Than Ever
Social commerce channels represent the importance of building out an omnichannel presence. Because consumers frequently switch between several channels when shopping for a single product, integrating social commerce efforts into a brand’s broader eCommerce strategy is essential. GrowBiz Media CEO Rieva Lesonsky recommends tracking sales and studying metrics of your social selling efforts just as closely as one would study eCommerce website performance. “Keeping track of sales and studying the metrics on your social commerce campaigns can help you improve marketing strategies and boost brand recognition.”
Social media is no longer a brand’s advertising platform or customer service tool. As a core part of the buying journey, social media platforms must be considered an integral part of any brand’s eCommerce ecosystem and prioritized accordingly.