How (and why) to implement social commerce

Social media is no longer simply a place to escape, communicate or seek distraction, it’s now a major retail channel too. So what do brands need to know about social commerce?
A screen shows final sales figures after Singles Day 2019. Over 38.3 billion US dollars were spent on Alibaba platforms during the 24-hour shopping festival

During the long and anxious months of the first national lockdown, use of social media in the UK soared. People collectively logged on to online networks as a way to communicate, connect with the outside world or find temporary distraction. But also, to shop.

According to research by ParcelHero, a fifth of all consumers indulged in social commerce during the initial lockdown. And by the end of 2020, it is predicted nearly 11 million UK shoppers will have discovered a product on social media, an increase of 95 per cent compared to 2017.

For these consumers, shopping via the likes of Facebook, Instagram and YouTube injected joy back into the shopping experience, says Julie Atherton, consultant, strategist and author of Social Media Strategy.

“What we’ve seen during the pandemic is people of all generations embracing social media in its truest sense, using it to bring themselves closer together. What social commerce does is allow you to shop with others too and bring back some of that experience of browsing a physical store with a friend. It puts pleasure into ecommerce.”

It isn’t only the shoppers themselves who stand to benefit either. For the platforms, it keeps users safely contained within “the walled garden” of their network, without ever being directed to a third-party site.

And for brands and retailers, it accesses the 96 per cent of UK consumers who frequent social media channels at least once a month, with the average user logging on for two hours every single day.

“You can see why there’s an impetus from all of us to get involved, whether we’re a consumer, the brand or the platform,” says Atherton.

That said, for brands and retailers keen to take advantage, it’s best not to simply jump straight in without some preparatory steps, advises Jake Knowles, senior retail consultant at BJSS. “Yes, it’s a strong option, the numbers speak for themselves, but diving feet first into TikTok just because it’s all over the headlines isn’t the way.”

How to design a social commerce strategy for your business 

Start by getting clarity on what you’re looking to achieve. Is it to use social media as a platform for discovery? To pull engagement away from rival brands? Or simply to convert more clicks to sales? “Then compare that strategy to what the different platforms can offer and take a more strategic, considered approach,” says Knowles.

Conduct a little data analysis too, BJSS head of industries David Gore adds, to establish exactly who your core demographic is, which platforms they tend to frequent and how they currently use the different channels.

With this insight, brands and retailers can then start to think about which platforms are the right fit. Don’t spread yourself too thin across all the options either, but opt to “excel on a couple”, says Tamara Littleton, chief executive of The Social Element.

Currently, Instagram remains the most popular choice in the UK. According to a 2019 Stackla report, it’s the preferred platform with 92 per cent of retailers, a preference Littleton says she sees reflected across her own clients. In large part that’s thanks to the introduction of its Instagram Checkout function in 2019, which allows users to find, purchase and pay for a product, all without leaving the app.

Yes, [social commerce] is a strong option, but diving feet first into TikTok because it’s all over the headlines isn’t the way

“That has been a game-changer,” she says, paving the way for “incredibly quick” transactions, which caters to those brands that rely on impulse purchases. To access the tool and offer purchase options both on their feed and Instagram stories, brands and retailers need only set up an approved commerce account.

Then there is Facebook. The most established, and arguably most straightforward, of the platforms, in May it made social commerce even simpler with the introduction of Facebook Shops. The free tool enables any sized business to display, customise and sell direct to consumers with a minimal investment of resources or expertise. “It’s a great shop window,” says Littleton though, unlike Instagram, the UK platform still funnels users to complete a purchase on a business’s own ecommerce site.

For larger brands and retailers, YouTube can also provide a compelling way to reach potential consumers, she adds. Approved platforms with 10,000-plus subscribers, unless they are targeted at children, will automatically be entitled to a “merch shelf”. This sits underneath their video content and allows them to showcase up to 12 products for purchase.

Not to forget gaming platform Twitch, owned by Amazon and integrated with its application programming interface, or API, which means brands don’t need their own ecommerce platform to take advantage. The platform allows users to shop straight from video broadcasts, allowing companies to drag and drop widgets beneath.

TikTok too, though relatively new among platforms, “can be a wonderful place to tell stories about your product”, says Littleton.

Plus, in October, the platform announced its partnership with Shopify, paving the way for social commerce. “That makes it one to watch,” adds Littleton.

Creating a compelling shopping experience on social media platforms

Whichever platform a brand or retailer opts for, they’ll then need to think carefully about how to transition their existing ecommerce offer onto social media.

Chloe Cox, social media lead at Wunderman Thompson Commerce, recommends brands and retailers establish themselves first on the platform via traditional marketing content, to “capture consumers before you start to advertise”. And, once you do start to sell, use a diverse mix of content that moves between shots of products, to partnerships with influencers and shoppable posts. 

Prioritise educational content that signposts consumers on why and how to shop via social too, says Gore at BJSS. In addition, ensure those managing these accounts are well equipped for a shift to commerce, by providing “employees and influencers with toolkits that enable them to have the relevant technical skills, such as how to engage audiences through live streams”.

Remember, it’s about balancing the short-term gains, with longer-term brand loyalty, he adds, so integrate promotions and wider marketing campaigns on the platform “to embed this as a permanent content channel”. After all, all the signs are that social commerce will be a permanent fixture in retail going forward. Even without a global pandemic, there’s little doubt it was set to enter the mainstream. And now that’s likely to happen years earlier. For brands and retailers, this creates a new urgency. They’ll need to learn fast or face being left on the merch shelf.

Can China teach the UK how to master social commerce?

On November 11, China celebrated Singles Day. What began in the nineties as a day when unmarried people would celebrate their single status by treating themselves to a few small gifts is now the biggest online shopping festival in the world. 2020 was no exception, with $100 billion spent over 11 days when Chinese shoppers snapped up deals on food, fashion, furniture and even real estate. 

That’s in no small part thanks to the explosion in social commerce in China. Sales via social are expected to bring in $240 billion to the country’s brands and retailers this year, an increase of a third in just one year, with 30.6 per cent of the population purchasing a product via a social media platform, compared to only 16 per cent in the UK.

For the Singles Day sales, Chinese consumers were treated to thousands upon thousands of live shopping streams by brands, coupled with celebrity appearances, giveaways and discounts on Weibo, Renren and WeChat.

This turbocharged adoption of social commerce is partly due to China’s relatively new middle class, for whom retail first took shape against a background of digitalisation, says Young Pham, chief strategy officer at digital consulting firm CI&T. Partly too, it’s China’s dense, urbanised population. The country’s major metropolises, such as Shanghai and Beijing, provide platforms the chance to reach up to 50 million people in a 30 or 40-mile radius, who are therefore easy to ship and deliver to.

Whatever the drivers though, it’s clear the UK can learn plenty from China’s example. Take the “pomp and circumstance” that surrounds Singles Day, says Pham. “That experience element has been critical to success in China.” Brands and retailers in the UK should take note and ensure social commerce is as much experiential as transactional, he recommends. Be that beauty brands providing online consultations or fashion retailers working with celebrity ambassadors to showcase new lines.

Stay one step ahead by learning from emerging trends in China too, adds Jake Knowles of BJSS. That includes both live streams, but also peer-to-peer shopping, where platforms facilitate shoppers “socialising” in pairs or groups as they purchase. One Chinese platform, Pinduoduo, actually lowers its prices, the more consumers are browsing products together.

Don’t ignore the impact of China’s fulfilment capabilities either, adds Knowles, and the capacity for ecommerce operators such as Alibaba to distribute widely across a huge geographical area. “Yes you need the glitz and glam, but you have to have the infrastructure in place as well.”