That’s the question that many online retail marketers want, nay expect, to be answered in the positive.
It’d be nice, wouldn’t it?
If all we had to do to sell stuff, was to take really beautiful pictures of our products, throw them up on our Instagram/Pinterest/Twitter/Facebook profiles, then wait for the money to roll in.
In June, this social media marketing dream lurched into reality.
- First out of the blocks was Pinterest, announcing its Buyable Pins
- Then it was Instagram’s Shop Now buttons
- And Twitter followed up with an announcement of their new capabilities that it says “make it easier to discover products and places”
Clearly these social media heavyweights want to make money off their huge established audiences. But they know they have to find a way to do it without compromising the experience of their users.
We're in the middle of a seemingly perpetual arm wrestle - do these platforms please their shareholders and take the big piles of brand cash on offer, or do they wait it out to work on less intrusive ways to monetise their audience?
Advertising is just one way to pay the bills (and the shareholders). Why not through ecommerce as well?
Of course, brands will be happy to oblige. It's a simple equation.
- Online retailers want more sales +
- The people who buy their products hang out on these social media platforms =
- You do the maths
So it’s happening. You’ll have the ability to get people to buy your products directly from their social media feed.
The big questions posed by social ecommerce
Let's cut to the chase. Here's what you all want to know.
Will this new ‘phenomenon’ revolutionise the online retail industry?
We think, no.
Do you need to come up with a new strategy to make the most of this change?
Our advice, you don’t.
What do you need to do different to prepare for social ecommerce?
Unless we’re horribly mistaken, not much.
I’m about to stick my gorilla neck out here. Prepare for some controversy.
This whole thing: it’s a trap.
These social media buy buttons have been sent express post through the worldwide public relations courier system right onto every ecommerce marketing manager’s digital doorstep. But the shiny new package should come covered in a big, bold, bright red sticker that reads:
“Caution, danger ahead. Proceed at your own risk.”
Why social ecommerce could be a trap for new players
It’s a lazy, short sighted, self-centred, and expensive approach to marketing.
There – I said it…
Explosive allegations, I know. Let me explain.
First off, I don’t want to label any marketer that uses social buy buttons in the category above – as long as it’s part of an integrated strategy designed to build long term customer relationships.
But, if you want to rely on your Pinterest, Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook profiles to grow your ecommerce business, I think you might be taking the easy (and ineffective) way out.
I think now is the time. I need to back up my outlandish statement.
There’s a few reasons why you need to tread carefully around the ‘buy buttons’ beast that’s about to be released from the experimental labs of the social media giants. When you finish analysing these dangers, you might think twice before joining the rush to sign up for social selling.
Else, this might happen...
You run the risk of annoying your customers
Most ads are irritating. Am I right?
When you’re trying to watch a movie, you’re sitting through your favourite TV show, or you’re trying to brave commercial radio – ads seem like a depressingly necessary evil.
But, the internet happened.
Now we can get the content we want without having to endure annoying promotions.
When we have to sit through a 15 second ad on the internet it’s infuriating. We don’t just accept it like we did with TV, print and radio, because on the internet, we got used to watching our videos, listening to our music and reading our stories without ads.
That’s a big part of the reason why Netflix, Spotify and Pandora can charge for premium subscriptions. Even YouTube are planning a subscription service for customers, allowing them to veto advertisements for a monthly period to enhance their user experience.
People want their content without annoying ads thankyouverymuch. They are prepared to pay money to avoid interruptions to their content experience. Some will go to even more drastic means to avoid losing that 15 seconds of their life. But seriously, don’t kill the puppy.
The internet gave your consumer the power to dictate what content they consume. The expectation has been set. The habit has developed.
Irrelevant content and/or advertising is not table stakes like it was in TV and radio. We feel like we shouldn’t have to deal with promo’s shoved down our throats when we’re browsing online. If it impacts our experience, we get angry.
It stands to reason that your social media ‘buy our stuff right now’ buttons will have the same effect on users. If you interrupt your target audience’s experience, you could do more harm than good to your brand and your bottom line.
Social media is about communities, not checkouts
Your potential customers don’t log on to social media to buy stuff.
They use social media to be social. With their friends. Or, at least, their ‘communities’.
They don’t want to be ‘sold to’.
Sure, your customers might be introduced to some of your products and services on social media. But are they ever compelled to want to buy, right then and there?
If you try to change this habit, by promoting through social media in an attempt to increase your sales, you will run the risk of irritating your fans.
Marketing works best when you think about the customer’s needs and wants before your own back pocket.
With that in mind, do your customers want to buy your products from their social media feed?
But that’s not the reason they use social media.
If people want to buy something, they go to a store.
That store might be a bricks and mortar shop, or an online marketplace. Very few purchases are made elsewhere.
Can these social media platforms change the consumer’s mindset? Will the likes of Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram become a place where people go to shop?
If you think the answer is yes, you’re relying on these platforms to change the habits of their users.
Is social media content enough to convince people to buy?
It’s clear that social media is increasingly influencing purchase decisions. But this can’t be construed with the idea that people want to buy on social media platforms. Social media helps to inform and influence the purchase decision by facilitating the sharing of helpful information, not by persuading users to buy now.
Rick Keizers’ research supports the view that social media is useful for research and sharing of info, In his report titled, ‘The impact of Social Media and Customer Reviews on Product Choice and Customer Retention in the Netherlands’:
“Social media platforms, together with customer reviews have become an important mean to search for information or to share information with other customers about a product or company. The findings presented in this study also confirm the uncertainty, transaction cost and agency theory, because people want to reduce uncertainty by searching or sharing information.”
People trust friend and peer group recommendations. Before buying, consumers want to be armed with as much information as possible. Ecommerce marketers can use social media to facilitate these activities. Social media is about conversations, sharing content and information. That’s why social media is having an impact on purchase decisions.
Does that mean people want to make a purchase on a social media platform?
Users are happy to receive helpful information that might assist in their purchase decision. But they aren’t ready to buy straight away.
Privacy concerns, shipping details, product specifications and payment facilities are just some of the considerations that might prevent consumers from happily purchasing directly from a social media site like this.
If we take a step back, the bigger picture appears. We need to first develop trust before we try to sell. Especially if we want to develop a loyal relationship.
“If a business has a history of just pushing sales-based content, it reduces the likelihood of any mechanic driving clicks and conversions. Adding a buy button without any special incentive can possibly alienate the people who are your biggest online advocates.”
If we are to convince users that social platforms are a legitimate commerce destination, we are tinkering with the fundamental premise of these social media platforms.
- Do you think the ‘Twitterati’ would be okay with a mini mall crashing their cocktail party?
- Will the ‘Grammers’ accept a gift shop plonked into the middle of their gallery?
- Are the ‘Pinners’ going to accept a bunch of sales assistants continually asking them to buy in the middle of their window-shopping browse?
Kfir Gavrieli, founder of Tieks, a fashion brand with a large social footprint, has pinpointed the risk of the buy button while discussing the issue with Adweek (oh and take careful notice her use of the term ‘performance advertising’ rather than ecommerce):
"We always felt Instagram could be a really useful platform for performance advertising, Honestly, it wasn't clear that they ever would do this, because Instagram was all about beautiful photos and imagery. So this was a surprise to us."
Can we retrain social media users to the habit of buying through their profiles? The platforms are well established and people aren’t accustomed to this concept.
Vice President and Principal Analyst at Forrester Research, Sucharita Mulpuru, is not bullish on that proposition according to her Forbes op-ed:
“Given that more and more eCommerce traffic is organic (i.e. shoppers typing a company’s URL directly), I don’t think we’ll see a major shift in how shoppers buy anytime soon, at least not with the executions that have been announced to date. Merchants that are intrigued by these offerings are wise to test and learn but to have low expectations.”
Jason Del Ray illustrates the great unknown in one of the most intelligent articles written on this issue for Recode magazine:
“Present them (buy buttons) to the right people at the right time and the new business could flourish. Push them too aggressively and in contexts that don’t make sense and the Pinterest faithful may revolt.”
These social media platforms are walking a delicate tightrope.
Are you prepared to take the gamble and go along for the ride?
Chances are, if they fall, they will recover.
But you’re not in control.
The brands could be the ones to take the fall.
You’ll have to change habits if you want social media buy buttons to work in the long run.
You’ll have to pay to play - repeatedly
In an analysis of Instagram’s buy button announcement Hootsuite’s Olsy Sorokina gives some contentious advice to ecommerce marketers, albeit symptomatic of the sentiments shared by a vast collection of supporters within the industry:
“So what can your brand do to prepare for the investment into advertising on Instagram? Grow your follower base for increased reach right out of the gate, learn from successful advertisers on the network, and keep an eye out for the official launch date.”
If you want to keep paying for your sales, this is rock solid advice.
If you’d prefer to invest in marketing with a compounding return over time, Instagram is best used as a tool to bring potential customers back to your website, so that you can sign them up for regular email updates.
Instead of paying Instagram to talk to your audience, you’re growing an owned marketing asset. Your email subscription list allows you to communicate with customers for free, whenever you want, however you want.
Sure, it’s possible that each social media platform might leave all profits with retailers. But these guys are running a business. Their shareholders want to find a way to make money off their huge audiences. These buy buttons have been developed as a way to ‘monetize’ the crowds.
Why shouldn’t Pinterest, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram start charging brands to sell on their platform?
Alexandra Samuel, writing for the Harvard Business Review, can see the writing on your Pinterest wall. She forecasts the bait and switch on offer to brands in this article analysing the web’s ‘new shopping mecca’:
“For now all the revenue earned through buyable pins will go straight to retailers — though Pinterest stands to make good money by charging companies to promote their now-buyable pins.”
Only the most foolish or inexperienced ecommerce marketers could walk blindly into this proposition.
The social media platform has control
Leaving your audience on the platform of another business is fraught with danger (and expense). There’s a good chance you’ll be up for a rental fee if you want to use social media to talk to your community if you decide to build it on someone else’s land.
We’ve seen the whiplash suffered by unsuspecting brands at the end of profit hungry social media companies. The continual alterations to Facebook’s algorithm have seen the organic reach of retail brands drop to an average of 6% or less according to Adobe and eMarketer.
Those who invested in growing an audience exclusively on Facebook are faced with a horrible conundrum. Suddenly, it costs money every time a brand wants to communicate with more than 6 in 100 of their followers.
Only the most trusting/naïve marketers could contend that social media platforms will keep their buy buttons free to use.
Jason Del Ray has written that Pinterest is already trialling a mechanism to allow brands to pay for promotion of their buy buttons too:
“Retailers and small businesses will also be able to pay Pinterest to show the pins to more users than would otherwise see them. Again, it makes sense to think of these Buy buttons as sophisticated ads.”
The dangers of relying on these buy buttons to generate sales is evident. Be prepared to open your chequebook. It's an expensive strategy. You'll be squeezed for cash. And with these social media monoliths, the house always wins.
A more sustainable, cost effective approach seems like a prudent investment. Instead of using social media to sell, use it for its intended purpose.
Share conversations with your community. Offer valuable, entertaining and helpful content to people who share similar interests with your brand. Lure those users to subscribe for more regular content updates to help you develop a long term relationship. Develop their trust, establish your authority, and you’ll have yourself a bunch of loyal repeat customers.
I’ve pretty well outlined the premise of ecommerce content marketing, and if you’re a reader of our work, you’ll know that we are unapologetic in advocating this approach.
Among the most outspoken industry voices on the dangers of building your audience on a social media platform is the man who coined the term 'content marketing'. Founder of the Content Marketing Institute, Joe Pulizzi, has said it better than anyone.
This quote is a long one, but it’s some of the best advice an ecommerce marketer can hope to receive on this subject.
“We cannot own our audience, but there are different levels of control. If you have your choice, email subscription is the most important type of relationship you can have with your subscriber, simply because we can control that connection the most.
Our fans on Facebook or our followers on Twitter should be viewed as they are – temporary subscription opportunities with whom we can try to build relationships. Those connections are controlled by Facebook and Twitter, and the platforms can do whatever they want with them.
We’ve obviously seen the changes Facebook has made, and the millions that brands have lost by focusing too much on these types of connections. Tread lightly.”
There’s some logistical issues as well
Even if we set aside all of the reasons why social media buy buttons may not work, there could still be some problems if they do.
How on earth do Pinterest, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram manage ecommerce transactions in partnership with millions of different retailers?
Jason Del Ray, again for Recode, looks at these questions from the social media player’s perspective:
“Among the challenges these Goliaths face is integrating inventory and payments systems from retailers big and small that have little experience selling stuff outside of their own storefronts.
They also face the challenge of convincing the people who use their service to get used to, and trust, buying stuff from their site for the first time.
What’s more, they have to allay fears of retailers that they will steal the customer relationship, banishing them to glorified warehousing and shipping partners.”
Are the impending logistical nightmares worth the occasional sale?
You don’t want to deliver a substandard post purchase experience to your social commerce customer. Once that buy button is pushed, you need to be sure that you can respond effectively (in a way that works for the customer, and for your bottom line).
Some of the logistical question marks lie outside of your control. It’s unclear whether these social platforms can find a manageable process to sell your stuff.
Drew Woolley explains the challenges facing Pinterest and friends in the quest to make this thing work:
“The network is home to millions of product images and they can't all be buyable. Setting up those relationships with retailers can be challenging and, even then, items go out of stock—so what's to compel shoppers to turn to the service regularly if only a fraction of products will be available.”
There’s 3 significant grey areas plaguing this concept. You need to be sure and confident that your business cope with the following vagaries. Or you need to wait until the social media platforms themselves solve these problems for you:
#1. How does payment work?
You need to be sure your social media partner can get you your revenue. Your customers need to be sure their payment details are secure.
#2. What about inventory levels – do you have stock?
It’s not clear how each social media platform intends to control stock management. If you run out of a certain item while Pinterest takes an order, someone is going to be upset. Controlling older or archived offers could be a nightmare.
#3. How will shipping work?
You might need to put qualifications on your product offers in lieu or your shipping policy. Sure, geographic targeting may be possible, but what happens if a user based in a rural area makes 1 individual purchase of a low cost item? Will it be financially viable to ship the product to such a high cost location? You might end up losing money on your social commerce sale.
Before you rush in for some of that sweet social sales nectar, have a think about the logistics of doing business on social media. Don’t be promising something that you and your new business partner can’t deliver. That’s a fast track to chunky expenses and angry customers.
How to use social buy buttons as part of an integrated marketing strategy
Is this something your customers really, desperately, absolutely want?
Or is this just another way for retailers to try and make a quick and easy buck?
Sure, I get it. You need to make money. More sales equals delivering on objectives.
If this helps, why not? And if it flops, what’s the harm in trying?
If I haven’t convinced you by now that the perils might not be worth the effort, I’m not going to now. But I will stop with the negatives and try to offer some practical advice that might help you hedge your ‘buy buttons’ bet.
That advice, in 1 sentence;
THINK ABOUT YOUR CUSTOMERS
If you decide to test social media commerce, try to use it in a way that improves your customer’s experience. It’s not worth irritating the majority of your social media followers for a few cheap sales.
So before you run blindly into a potential marketing minefield, here’s 4 practical things that you can do to minimise your social commerce risk.
#1. Ask your customers
Sounds simple doesn’t it?
Why not ask your customers for their opinion. Test those murky waters. If your community screams out to you in a fit of unbridled fury, you might find that dabbling in social commerce is not worth the risk.
Conversely, your fans and subscribers might genuinely want the convenience of buying through their social streams.
Regardless, by collaborating with your community and involving your fans in your decision making process, you are showing them that you care. By giving your subscribers a voice, you form a stronger connection and solidify their trust in your brand.
Create a Facebook poll, email a quick question, or send a mini survey with a few prizes attached.
It’s a simple, low effort insurance policy.
#2. Be selective with your products
Have a think about the kind of products that are more suited to buying directly through social media.
Complex, expensive products might be a harder sell. Potential customers will want more detailed information, and trust considerations are amplified with higher volumes of cash. It’s likely that users would prefer to research these products in more detail and make their purchase through a secure and trusted designated marketplace.
For lower cost, replenishable, or regular purchase items, social media buy buttons may provide a convenience value add for your community. There’s bound to be less friction, as customers don’t need as much information to feel confident enough to purchase. But remember, lower cost items may present challenges for you depending on the cost of shipping requirements.
Lastly, visually beautiful products are likely to lend themselves to social commerce. High quality images are more socially sharable, and more likely to stand out in your potential customer’s feed.
#3. Use them sparingly
Just take it easy, yeah?
Don’t turn your social media profile into one giant shop window. Remember, the primary purpose of the platform has not changed. It’s still about sharing conversations and developing relationships.
Keep your sales to a minimum. Make sure you earn the right to make a pitch for your customer’s dollar by sharing valuable content.
Your buy button posts should be the exception, not the rule.
#4 - Make it an exclusive treat
Turn your buy buttons into a special added benefit for your social media community. Instead of taking advantage of this technology to mindlessly promote your products, come at it from a customer-friendly perspective.
Use your social media buy button posts as an exclusive treat for your community – a reward for following and supporting the brand.
Launch occasional special offers only available to your fans. This creates scarcity – your potential customers want to rush in for this one time offer. In addition, your customers will thank you for it. Instead of being irritated by your opportunistic attempts to squeeze out another buck, your followers will be grateful that you are rewarding their support.
You get a bunch of extra sales, more brand love, and a more engaged customer.
You need a mechanism to develop relationships
Banking on one off sales through social media buy buttons is not sustainable if you want to develop a community of repeat customers (Especially if these platforms start charging you for the privilege).
People go to stores to buy stuff, not coffee shops, parks or bars.
Online, things are pretty much the same.
Online marketplaces are designated. Internet users go to online stores when they are ready to make a purchase. Trying to hawk your stuff where in the wrong place might not be the way of the future.
Even if you do make a sale to a perfectly ripe buying prospect, how do you make the second? Will the customer stay loyal to you? Or will they return to their favourite social media platform without giving you a second thought.
Don’t get sucked in by the bright lights and the shiny new plaything.
Develop a sustainable ecommerce marketing strategy.
You need to focus on providing content that sparks interests, entertains, and excites social media users. Drive them back to your blog or website and sign them up for email updates. You can nurture the relationship, with more helpful content that establishes trust and prepares your subscribers with all the information they need to make a purchase decision. Then give potential customers a nudge to buy.
Create the best possible experience. Develop and maintain relationships. Meet and keep loyal repeat customers.
Don’t rely on a buy button.