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Brands must adapt to social commerce, or be left behind

As social platforms become serious e-commerce channels, Oli Booker, Head of Paid Social at Reprise UK outlines how brands must adapt and embrace new opportunities now, or risk being left behind.

Oli Booker, Reprise UK

Head of Paid Social

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As mobile channels and websites have become more complex, consumers have reacted by demanding slicker, smoother digital experiences and faster, simpler transactions. By offering direct, streamlined purchasing within a social platform or app, social commerce will deliver a step change in customer experience and consumers will begin to move away from web browsers to do their shopping on social platforms. With the introduction of Facebook Marketplace and shoppable organic posts on Instagram there are early steps into this space.

Social commerce represents a seismic shift in consumer behaviour, and Facebook’s dominant social commerce offering may even begin to rival Amazon in terms of purchases within five years, especially for purchases where the initial intent to buy isn’t there. In this new world, the early winners will be the first brands to introduce integrations between their websites and social commerce platforms, but the strategic challenge will be how brands adapt to a fundamental shift in the way we shop online.

How can brands seize the social commerce opportunity?

Brands must adapt now to the once-in-a-decade change in consumer behaviour introduced by social commerce. Challenges and opportunities will vary by category, but every brand needs a strong presence wherever people discover their products, so a clear strategy is essential. There are examples throughout history of brands that have fallen by the wayside by holding off and waiting for customers to come to them. That is simply not an option.

The short-term advantage will go to brands who future proof themselves by being first to market with integrations between their websites and social channels that give consumers a great experience and a smooth route to purchase.

Brands are taking advantage of the idle scrolling moments that potential customers enjoy in between consuming content to advertise their products.

Oli Booker

Brands must understand how their customers use social commerce

Strategically, brands must match the consumer decision-making process to where they invest their ad budgets. A crucial determining factor will be the consumer’s starting point for a purchase, i.e. whether they’re in a ‘want’ or ‘need’ state. If a consumer ‘needs’ a specific product, then brands should focus their ad spend on search-based channels like Google and Amazon, rather than social. An example of a consumer product people ‘need’ would be nappies. Parents know they need nappies, so they’re likely to bypass the consideration phase and actively seek them via the quickest, most convenient channel, such as Amazon.

But for consumers in the ‘want’ space, social offers a much better opportunity for brands. If the same parents want a new cot or buggy for their baby, they’re more likely to be open to inspiration and brand influence in a consideration phase. If brands can reach them in the social space first, then make it easy for them to buy the product seamlessly and quickly without leaving the platform, social commerce will very quickly become as important a sales channel as Amazon and their own websites, if not more so.

How social media has grown up and got serious

As recently as five years ago, social wasn’t considered a medium to drive sales. Google was the key sales-driving tool because it was a demand channel. But all that has changed now that social media has become a channel for brands to sell directly to consumers.

Social commerce really began to take off when Instagram Checkout launched in March 2019, with retail partners including adidas, Nike and Prada. This fully contained shopping experience allows users to complete purchases within the app, with their details saved for future payments.

Brands originally considered social as an engagement space, but consumers now use it as a consumption channel, especially Facebook. As people post less and consume more, Facebook will be used much more in the consideration phase of the purchase journey.

With news and entertainment publishers distributing more content in newsfeeds, there are a host of users available to advertise to. Brands are taking advantage of the idle scrolling moments that potential customers enjoy in between consuming content to advertise their products. This can work for brands whose products have either short or long decision-making processes, as long as they match the objective of their campaign to the user’s stage within a purchase journey. A potential customer would be unlikely to click straight through to purchase a car from a newsfeed advert on social media, but they could be expected to sign up for a test drive.

Over time, starting with younger demographics, consumers will stop using web browsers to do their purchasing.

Oli Booker

Will social commerce make websites obsolete?

Over time, starting with younger demographics, consumers will stop using web browsers to do their purchasing. Initially this will apply to short-term consumer goods in the retail space (fashion, tech etc.), but then move into other categories like travel and automotive, where products have much longer decision-making processes. Millennials and Generation Z already spend most of their shopping budgets on products they find on Instagram and Snapchat, while Generation Z spends two to three times more time shopping on social channels than the average consumer.

We’re already working with partners who are adapting to this trend by developing social commerce solutions that remove the need for their own websites. Facebook is the biggest player and driving force behind this move, by providing brands with powerful integrations to their back-end systems.

When they have a robust Facebook profile that lists all their products and links seamlessly to their catalogue and stock availability, brands will soon ask themselves if it’s worth investing in their own ecommerce solutions. Facebook and Instagram are offering brands a ready-made, end-to-end platform, so why invest in a sophisticated ecommerce back-end? This will present a tempting, cost-saving opportunity for brands in the retail space initially, but it will become attractive to other sectors as more consumers adopt social commerce.

How social apps offer brands frictionless nirvana

Facebook is a mobile-first platform, so all its new features are developed with the Facebook app in mind. Integrations make it easy for a brand to upload all its products to the platform, so consumers using the Facebook app can click straight through to buy a product without leaving the app, and channels like Snapchat aim to offer a similar experience. The key benefit of the app environment is that it delivers a rich customer experience that is streamlined to take friction out of the purchase journey. One of our partners, a major sports and leisure brand, has already seen a 35% uplift in online sales by using the Facebook app format to remove virtually all friction.

Amazon vs Facebook: Direct competition will create new challenges for brands

Facebook’s high levels of consumer trust and vast global reach make it the only brand who could conceivably launch a new ecommerce channel to challenge Amazon’s dominance. Within the next five years, Facebook’s social commerce channel may begin to challenge Amazon in terms of purchases. This will raise new challenges for brands and their partner agencies because the more Facebook and Amazon become direct competitors, the less they will want to share data or enter tracking partnerships.

Amazon already prevents Facebook’s pixel being placed on its website, which makes retargeting more difficult and forces agencies like ours to come up with creative workarounds. Amazon would never prevent brands from driving links from Facebook and Facebook wouldn’t stop sending traffic to Amazon, as there is too much value in the insight from both parties. The real competition will be in the race to become the easiest place for brands to sell, and for consumers to discover what they want. Whoever can create the best experience will take a portion of the other’s revenue.

Facebook is driving the new channel and setting the standard, which makes it the easiest entry point.

Oli Booker

Other platforms are playing catch-up to Facebook

Facebook is driving the new channel and setting the standard, which makes it the easiest entry point for clients getting started, but platforms like Snapchat and Pinterest are playing catch-up. For example, Snapchat helps brands integrate with its Face Lenses augmented reality experience, so brands like Ray-Ban can allow consumers to virtually ‘try on’ sunglasses then click straight through to a frictionless purchase.

A platform like Pinterest behaves very differently. Facebook is a fast-moving environment where you must catch a user’s attention very quickly, and Google is where people are more likely to be ready to purchase immediately, but Pinterest, along with Instagram, behaves more as an inspiration channel. Both platforms have pioneered social shopping with visual aesthetics and rich content designed for discovery. Pinterest is ideal for products with a longer consideration phase, such as wedding dresses, where people look for ideas months before purchase. This shows intent to a brand at the start of the purchase journey when they can beat competitors to the consumer by serving relevant ads first.

While it doesn’t offer purchasing within the platform, Pinterest has introduced several social commerce features including an enhanced visual search tool, Lens, and Product Pins to surface products with direct links to checkouts on retailer’s websites. Pinterest and Snapchat actually pioneered many of the social commerce trends that Facebook has now introduced. Snapchat was first with the ephemeral content trend, while Pinterest has been developing purchase capabilities for Lens for years. When Facebook spots these trends and develops solutions of its own, it removes the USPs of smaller platforms.

There is still room for disruption, however. Short-form video app TikTok is now experimenting with social commerce, according to TechCrunch. By allowing users to link to e-commerce sites in their bios, it is giving brands access to the younger Generation Z audience that makes up much of its 500 million global users.

In Asian markets such as China, Southeast Asia and India, social commerce is more mature and already challenging traditional e-commerce players.

Tomorrow’s social commerce trends begin in Asia

China is the world’s most mature and developed social commerce market, so what happens there and in other Asian markets is a useful guide to what will go global tomorrow. According to the Internet Society of China, social commerce accounted for 14% of China’s online retail sales in 2018, and is forecast to make up over 30% of the country’s online retail business in 2020.3 The dominant player in China is Tencent’s WeChat, which has become the kind of ‘super app’ that Facebook aspires to be. First launched as a WhatsApp-like messaging tool, it has evolved into a one-stop-shop for its 1.1 billion users.

Its ‘mini-program’ integrations, launched in 2017, allow brands to set up e-commerce storefronts in the WeChat ecosystem. Consumers can move through their entire shopping journey, making every interaction from browsing offerings, communicating with customer service, making payment, tracking their order and leaving post-purchase reviews, without having to leave the app.

Guest Author

Oli Booker, Reprise UK

Head of Paid Social,

About

Over the past decade, Oli has worked across all things social media. He started his career in organic social and online reputation management, managing a number of high-profile retail accounts. In more recent years, Oli has focused his efforts on paid social distribution with multinational brands across both the branding and direct response accounts. At Reprise, he has worked with some of the agency's biggest social media spenders including Amazon, Rockstar Games and many others. Oli currently leads a team of 30 paid social specialists at Reprise Digital and loves chatting about the next big thing in the social space!

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