Social Commerce: Transforming the Online Shopping Experience
Since its birth, social media has been a critical marketing channel and the role it plays in how consumers shop has only got bigger. However, consumer behaviour until only very recently, was pretty much restricted to discovery and consideration, with actual sales happening off-platform on a brand or retailer website.
Now, social platforms seem set to "round the circle", meaning consumers will be able to browse and buy seamlessly and completely in one joined up ecosystem. This evolution is starting to revolutionise the way we shop online.
Welcome to 'social commerce 2.0'.
To gain deeper insights into consumer behaviours, attitudes, and beliefs in this area, we canvassed a nationally representative audience of UK consumers, learning that nearly 2 in 3 people would be more likely to buy from a brand if they could both window shop and actually shop all within one social media platform.
So, the evidence is clear: the winning brands in the near future will be those that make social commerce part of their e-commerce strategy, taking sales into the social platform space to satisfy a generation of digitally savvy consumers. For those that neglect to do so, a decline in their share of the market could become a very real worry. In a social world, learning how to charter these new courses is no longer just a 'nice to have'.
The rise and rise of social commerce
According to the latest research, social commerce is a market with an incredible growth curve, with experts predicting it could reach $600 billion by 2028.
As demonstrated over the last 12 months, the pandemic has super charged underlying trends in consumer behaviour. The latest figures suggest an extra £5.3 billion was spent online in the UK alone in 2020, as the blowback from COVID has pushed ever increasing numbers of people online. Early figures indicate this behaviour is not going to go away as we navigate our way though, and out of, the fallout.
Although consumers are migrating online in droves, social commerce is still in a pretty embryonic state in the UK and US. Indeed, research suggests that a mere 6% of UK shoppers have bought directly on a social platform, partially because of the dearth of in-platform buying opportunities within these territories.
In more cutting-edge markets such as China, however, social commerce is fundamental to the online consumer experience. Tencent's WeChat yielded $115 billion in social commerce sales in 2019 alone, while Pinduoduo, a group buying app where friends can buy together on social media, has transformed from a start-up to China's second-most valuable online retailer.
While US platforms strive to mirror some of this functionality, China gives us a model of how social might develop for commerce in the West.
Consumer psychology will be crucial to navigate social commerce
Today, brands have more chances than ever to engage with consumers, across a plethora of digital touchpoints. Digital and social platforms have managed to meet the latest consumer expectations, with criteria such as accessibility, usability, personalisation, and control rewriting the consumer experience script.
Hardly a surprise, evidently, that social media is uniquely poised to meet these needs. In line with our canvassing, however, social will still be a very sophisticated channel and highly nuanced. Close scrutiny of various consumer drivers and pinch points, in addition to brand experience across the entire consumer journey, will remain the key to keeping shoppability at an optimum level across brands' social media channels.
Shopper habits in this channel are far from uniform; actually, our research indicates that take up of social commerce will vary by demographic. The ability to buy in-platform would encourage three quarters of 21-34-year-olds to purchase with a brand, strongly implying that age differences will need meticulous persona planning.
It would appear that price too is currently a key factor in whether or not someone would buy on social, with our research suggesting that high value items such as travel and luxury are of less interest than more everyday purchases.
Different categories vary in their allure, with those surveyed ranking Grocery, Wellbeing, Beauty and Fashion as the categories they would most like to shop for on social.
Taken holistically, these insights are characteristic of a pivot to social media as a fresh and burgeoning e-commerce channel, but they also show the necessity for diligent planning. For brands, understanding where, when and how to activate a social commerce strategy, as part of a joined-up consumer experience, will be vital as we step further into 2021.
Social platforms at different stages of development
Another factor is the platforms themselves are at different stages of development vis a vis social commerce.
For example, Instagram has trialled its 'Checkout' function, which permits shoppers to search and shop directly within the app. The live launch of this feature will revolutionise how consumers shop with brands digitally, making it not only easier to shop directly from a brand's posts, but also from those of Influencers to boot. These platform advances will make the consumer experience on Instagram feel uninterrupted and easy - all the way from discovery to sale.
Meanwhile, with the live launch of 'Shops' across the Facebook platform, brands will be able to make digital storefronts, with links to buy items either on the retailer's website or directly within the platform itself.
YouTube and TikTok are also trialling social commerce. TikTok's collaboration with Shopify permits merchants to create and display shoppable content, while 'YouTube Shopping' permits shoppers to browse through catalogues offered by merchants and buy directly in-platform.
Putting aside these functionality considerations for the moment, each platform has its own spin on the shopping experience and users' receptiveness to brand advertising. So, for instance, Instagram feels like a shoo in for commerce as its predominantly visual nature replicates a glossy magazine, where featured goods feel both premium as well as native.
This was backed up by our survey results, which showed nearly half of all shoppers (45%) would prefer to buy on Instagram, with Facebook (41%) running a close second.
Both of these platforms seem, currently, to be way ahead in regards meeting consumer expectations, with YouTube (9%) and TikTok (5%) currently exciting very much less consumer interest.
The highly refined targeting options Facebook Advertising (which includes Instagram) and Google (YouTube) afford brands also offer opportunities for personalisation as well as disruption throughout the sales funnel.
Moreover, social commerce is an especially exciting avenue for brands that sell exclusively through retailers, as it presents an opportunity to give shoppers a more bespoke experience (in lieu of a true direct-to-consumer offering).
We interviewed Joseph Harper, E-Commerce Marketing Manager at Kellogg Company, who observes "The way people shop in the future will be totally different - it will be completely interactive and personalised."
"We know that retailers are starting to see themselves as media platforms and media platforms are starting to see themselves as retailers. That, in essence, is the crux of social commerce."
Building a joined-up experience for shoppers
For a marketing channel with significant advantage, social commerce seems poised to have a powerful effect on the way consumers discover, browse and purchase. E-commerce has already reduced the barriers to entry, allowing disruptive start-ups to enter the fray while coercing legacy brands to redraw their game plans.
Social looks set to do the same again, questioning traditional brand/retailer relationships and methods of marketing to consumers.
Piggybacking on new platform innovations will not be enough, even for the more forward-thinking brand. Brands have to create joined up experiences across all touch-points that deliver on the behaviour of a new generation of shoppers.
Whether researching on Amazon, being inspired on Instagram, watching television commercials, or unboxing a delivery at home, there's an ever-expanding ecosystem of places consumers can interact with brands.
Marketers need to focus on optimising the customer journey and include social commerce as a key touchpoint in this. In doing so, brands can take one step closer to delivering a genuinely joined up omni channel experience.
About the Author
Cally Archibald is an award winning content strategist at initials branding agency.