Why Marketers Should Pay Attention to the Rise of Social E-Commerce…and Four Ways to Make It Happen

By Alex Mansell on 23rd March 2022

This month Twitter introduced Shops, following in the footsteps of Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok and Pinterest. But the trend towards social commerce has been growing steadily over the past few years.

The pandemic supercharged the shift to online shopping, as birthdays, anniversaries and Covid-commiseration packages were purchased and posted in the absence of in-person shopping. In fact, online retail spending was up almost 88% in March 2021 compared with 2019.

Online sales are expected to overtake those in bricks-and-mortar stores for the first time in 2022, so it’s no surprise that social media platforms are making e-commerce a bigger priority, aiming to capitalise on the thriving digital space. To date, the hashtag ‘#TikTokMadeMeBuyIt’ has been used more than nine billion times, and the pace isn’t expected to slow.

With so much momentum in this space, are consumers actually bought into social shopping?

A recent survey from Bazaarvoice suggests there is an appetite, finding that 65% of people use social media for shopping inspiration, with 38% actively looking for products there. Some 53% of users have shopped via a live-streaming event and one quarter via augmented and virtual reality. It’s also appears that social channels and influencers are having more sway on the decision to purchase than friends and family.

While social shopping won’t be right for the audience of every brand, it certainly has scope for those looking to diversify their comms strategy this year.

Below are four areas you can explore to make social shopping a reality for your business:

1. Shops

The Meta platforms are top of the tree when it comes to hosting a virtual store. Introduced in May 2020, the mobile-first experience enables the creation of a shopfront on Facebook and Instagram, complete with product collections and customer-messaging services.

Collections – be they ‘Spring/Summer’, ‘Bookshelves’ or a new range of lipsticks – can be created to segment your product base and enhance the browsing experience, effectively replicating the way your shop appears on your own website.

Pinterest also enables a shoppable experience and, like Facebook and Instagram, supports the ability to purchase in-platform via partner connections with the likes of Shopify.

2. Catalogues

For those businesses that aren’t ready or able to take the plunge into transactional activity on social media, virtual catalogues can offer a stepping stone.

While brands can connect their Facebook or Instagram catalogue to their Shop, they can also choose to allow them to simply exist on the page as a browsing experience for users to gain more information.

Pinterest too allows users to put products in front of people via catalogues populated with product pins. These contain pricing, product titles and availability, and could even see items listed as a Pinterest ‘best seller’ if it’s among the most-clicked pins within specific product categories on the platform.

We should point out that Twitter has, confusingly, named its iteration of catalogues ‘Twitter Shops’. This feature doesn’t enable in-platform purchasing, but businesses can showcase a collection of up to 50 items for customers to learn about, before being directed to the retailer website. It has been rolled out to certain brands in the US and will likely arrive in the UK this year or next.

3. Shopping Ads

While Facebook and Instagram will be of most interest to brands from an advertising perspective, it’s worth noting that Pinterest, Snapchat and TikTok all offer iterations of shoppable ads too. They’re too numerous to list here but, for anyone using those platforms, the ad capabilities are worth exploring.

Here’s a flavour of the variety of ad formats available on Facebook and Instagram. Experimenting with a combination could enable you to find the sweet spot for your brand:

  • Collection ads: A format that leads with a hero video or image, beneath which sit four key items from the catalogue. Users can find out more about the items via either the catalogue, an immersive full-screen experience or the ability to go directly to the retailer website
  • Dynamic ads: A way of promoting key items, designed with scale in mind. Rather than advertising all items in a brand’s catalogue, algorithmic learning means the platform will showcase those products and services to those most likely to be interested, based on previous activity on the channel
  • Carousel ads: You’re probably familiar with this multiple-creative format aimed at getting users to scroll through individual cards. Using a catalogue, the cards can be filled dynamically with items most likely to be of interest to the user
  • Collaborative ads: If your brand relies on participating merchants to sell your products, the good news is that Facebook enables said retailer to share a portion of its catalogue containing your products with your business, which in turn you can use to run dynamic ads
  • Product tags: While not an ad format in its own right, this feature enables the creation of ads with tagged products, enabling users to navigate to a product page to learn more about – or purchase – the item

4. Live Shopping

2021 saw an influx of live shopping events, concentrated particularly around the Black Friday window, but also key in the summer months, with Facebook’s Live Shopping Fridays for example.

This series was led by brands such as Bobbi Brown and Abercrombie & Fitch, and featured influencers, designers, product demos – and, of course, shoppable items within Live videos.

Indeed, live shopping was also prevalent across Pinterest, TikTok and Twitter last year, with entertainment-led formats (including Jason Derulo hosting a live Twitter showcase for Walmart!) the order of the day.

While your own version of a live event doesn’t need to be anywhere near as sophisticated as this, making use of a brand representative – be that via an influencer or peer in your industry – offers an excellent way to drive brand credibility and an incentive to purchase.

Going live isn’t a small undertaking, but it’s an achievable one. With the right levels of preparation and creative thinking, it can offer an exciting way to help your brand stand out from the competition, driving engagement and revenue.

5. Bonus: AR and AI

We know we said we’d outline four ways to make social shopping a reality for your brand, but we couldn’t close without mentioning the potential for AR and AI-related e-commerce – if not now, then in the near future.

This kind of activity is primarily situated in the US, with the major platforms really expanding their efforts, from technology such as camera filters through to physical items like Facebook’s glasses and in-beta smartwatches.

June 2021 saw the introduction of AR on Facebook and Instagram, meaning users could take photos of themselves to “try on” items such as clothes and lipsticks.

That same year Instagram launched a visual search tool powered by artificial intelligence, which saw users able to tap on images of products they like in order to find similar items.

Snapchat too is known for its shoppable AR filters (which go by ‘Lenses’) with the channel stating in January that Snapchatters engage with AR more than six billion times per day.

And it was also in January this year that Pinterest launched its own AR ‘lens camera’ to showcase what furniture from major retailers, such as Amazon, Ikea and Wayfair, would look like in your own home.

While such activity is clearly better aligned to certain products in the beauty, clothing and homeware space, it shouldn’t be written off for those in other sectors.

With Facebook and Instagram’s parent company Meta clear about its intention to build a digital ‘metaverse’, brand trailblazers should be factoring this into their future marketing mix as more and more options open up to UK businesses.

So, there you have it: a round-up of the ways you can introduce e-commerce to your social media efforts.

It’s worth acknowledging that bringing features such as Shops and Catalogues to your page is no small undertaking on the likes of Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest, with the platforms requiring extensive amounts of data and adherence to specific merchant guidelines that may see brands struggle to achieve this.

If you’d like WPR to review your ability to work with these features, or to find out more about e-commerce possibilities, please get in touch.

The author: Alex Mansell is a senior social media strategy director at WPR who specialises in using Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and Twitter to keep clients ahead of the curve when it comes to social media marketing.