Tuesday, August 25th, 2015 | 11 min read
The major social media platforms have been trying to figure out how to get social shopping to stick for years.
Back in 2010, Levi’s launched its “Friends Store,” a Facebook-based shopping channel that allowed shoppers to log in with Facebook and Like or share Levi’s products. Fast-forward five years, and the clothing brand has dropped the ability to Like products in its online stores altogether – as have most other brands that tested the functionality.
Similarly, Twitter has tested a variety of ways to integrate shopping. While these tactics usually make headlines, they’ve struggled to crack the code when it comes to convincing people to buy regularly through Twitter.
One of the main barriers to socializing the shopping experience is that many people are reluctant to mix shopping with their social network activity; they see sites like Facebook and Twitter as tools to communicate with friends rather than places to shop. Hesitation to enter credit card details on social networks is another common obstacle.
The past several years have also seen the rise of shopping sites that have social features built into their core – many can even be considered full-fledged social networks. Wanelo, Fancy, Fab.com, Polyvore, and ProductHunt are among the better known and more successful. And since these sites are designed specifically for shopping, they don’t suffer from the typical barriers mentioned above.
“Social shopping” has typically been used to refer to any digital shopping experience that includes a social element, such as Liking a product or buying something via a link posted on Twitter. But the latest step in the evolution of social shopping is a truly end-to-end experience: users discover, explore, and purchase products all within the same social platform – no need to jump to an external site.
Let’s take a closer look at what each major social platform offers in terms of social shopping.
Facebook has been testing its complete social shopping setup in the U.S. since November 2014. The initial test has been with small and medium businesses, but Facebook is expected to open it up to all brands after testing.
Here’s how it works: product ads appear in users’ timelines, just like a normal promoted post. Brands can run ads that promote a single product, or ads that promote multiple products in a horizontal, scrollable format, like the one seen below.
The experience is similar to that found in a typical e-store; when a user clicks the “Buy” button, they can view more images and select options like size and quantity.
After that, the user enters their delivery information and payment details, which can be saved for their next on-Facebook purchase.
There’s another Facebook feature in the works that promises to transform social commerce. Soon brands will be able to showcase products on Facebook with Facebook Shops, which allows Facebook Page owners to place a mini e-store at the top of their Page. The new feature is still in the testing phase, and it is currently free for a select group of brands.
Some brands, like Express, house e-stores within tabs on their Facebook Page, but these are effectively external websites that sit within a Facebook tab. Users still need a separate store account; moreover, the transaction is not handled by Facebook, meaning that brands need to manage the e-commerce technology themselves.
Twitter launched its first “Buy” button in July of 2014, and it has been testing full social shopping with select partners, including Burberry and the non-profit RED, since September 2014. The test ad format is only available on iPhone and Android in the U.S.
As the video demonstrates, Twitter’s end-to-end shopping experience is similar to Facebook’s. If a user sees a tweet featuring a product with a “Buy” button, they can click on it, further specify their order, and then confirm payment and delivery details with their stored information.
It’s not known whether Twitter’s product tweets will be limited to ads, or if, once the feature is made public, brands will be able to tweet products to their followers organically. If Twitter does allow brands to use the format for organic content, it could charge a percentage of sales in order to generate the profit it would otherwise make from ads.
Twitter’s Product Pages, launched in June of this year, give brands the opportunity to set up individual Twitter pages for their products. The pages include product info, relevant Tweets, prices, and an option to buy on Twitter.
Brands currently experimenting with Twitter Product Pages, such as Target, do not have the “Buy on Twitter” button and functionality shown above. Instead, a “View” button on mobile and a “Go there” button on desktop direct the user to the brands’ e-stores.
It’s not clear when shopping on Twitter will become fully available to the public, but just last week it rolled out the Buy button for 100,000 Shopify merchants, which means a large scale rollout may be close.
In this example of a Banana Republic Carousel Ad, the call-to-action button opens the brand’s mobile e-store within the Instagram app.
And here’s the full range of call-to-action buttons available on Instagram:
With the recent launch of the Instagram Ads API to select partners, Facebook and Instagram advertising are becoming increasingly intertwined; advertisers can now use the same targeting for their Instagram ads that they’ve already set up for their Facebook campaigns.
In the future, we might see more overlap with Facebook and Instagram’s social shopping features. For example, Facebook could allow brands to automatically duplicate Facebook product campaigns on Instagram. Also, users who entered their payment and delivery details on Facebook could automatically load these details when they shop on Instagram.
Pinterest’s monetization strategy has been hotly anticipated. After testing and then launching Promoted Pins, Pinterest began rolling out in-app shopping in June. Retailers Macy’s and Nordstrom are already testing the feature. It’s available on iPhone and iPad in the U.S., and brands that already have a Shopify store can start selling their products on Pinterest in just a few clicks.
The Pinterest shopping experience includes a “Buy It” button in the top right corner of the pin, and a price below the image. The button leads to a product page, offering an end-to-end, in-app purchase process.
Of all the major social media platforms, Pinterest is the one that most naturally lends itself to social shopping. First, the user experience revolves around posting beautiful images, many of which are products available to purchase online. Also, Pinterest offers a robust search engine with detailed filtering options, including price range. And when a user searches for a particular kind of item, buyable pins now appear at the top of the search results.
It’s also easy and natural to add items to a board before making a final buying decision.
There are several reasons social shopping appeals to large brands involved in e-commerce. First, the buying process is relatively low in friction – with end-to-end social shopping, the entire process can happen within the same browser window.
Meanwhile, a huge amount of time and budget goes into optimizing online stores, and drop-off rates between a user clicking an ad and making a purchase is a pain point for traditional e-commerce. A standardized, streamlined social purchase process could greatly reduce drop-off rates.
Then there’s the problem of data overload caused by external ad-tech tracking systems, which can overwhelm mobile webpages with up to 14MB of data. This results in incredibly slow load times. Since an external tracking tool isn’t needed to track social purchases, end-to-end social shopping eliminates the need for loading large amounts of extra data.
All of this results in a more seamless, enjoyable experience for the customer.
Eventually, social networks could syndicate their social shopping experience to other websites and social platforms, just as Facebook has with Facebook Login and FAN (its advertiser network). Brands setting up e-stores would be able to use Facebook’s e-store and payment systems to set up a store at zero cost, or at a fraction of the cost of a self-build or readymade solution. Facebook Shops, which we reviewed earlier in the post, is the beginning of this.
If social channels can reduce or altogether eliminate these headaches, brand marketers can focus their time and attention on more important tasks. We don’t recommend closing your e-store and opening up shop solely on social, but there are many new ad types and social shopping features in the works that can complement your brand’s existing e-commerce strategy.
About the Author: Jamie O’Brien is part of the Sprinklr content team and is based in Singapore. In a previous life, he was a digital art director in London. He likes to get away from the city as often as is humanly possible to snowboard, dive, or hike.