Talk is cheap: the state of Social Commerce 2013

Talk is cheap: the state of Social Commerce 2013

We originally wrote this article as a guest post for socialmouths - one of our favourite blogs covering social media. We'd strongly recommend joining their mailing list for insightful advice and commentary.

Last year, the blogger Francisco Rosales wrote a brilliant piece asking whether we were ready for Social Commerce. It was a strange time: on the one hand, research companies like Gartner were saying brands were about to start generating 50% of their web sales via social. On the flip-side, F-Commerce (ie, bolting old-fashioned e-stores onto your Facebook Page) had crashed and burned all over Zuckerberg-land, making social selling about as sexy as a yardsale in a cemetery.

So, it's high time to take a look at the state of Social Commerce today. And where better to start than New York, where the great, the good and the bountifully expense-accounted recently gathered for Business Insider's rather grandly-titled Social Commerce Summit. Shall we take a look at who spoke?

Well, there were retailers from the likes of the Home Shopping Network, Sears, Walgreens and True&Co (an online bra store, it turns out - which made researching this post a time-consuming chore). There were pundits, thinkers and writers. There were VCs & investors, marketing gurus & agency whizzes. And there were a whole host of online explorers from flash-sale sites, social networks, mobile apps and UGC portals.

And here's the thing. None of them really do Social Commerce.

They do amazing things - some of them have changed the face of social media, others have profoundly reinvigorated retail - but they don't do Social Commerce. And that's the state of Social Commerce in 2013: it's a seriously misused term. Let's take a look at why.

Social Commerce Examples

Here's a couple of recent Facebook posts by two Summit attendees: FedEx and Shopafrolic - the latter actually referencing a third attendee, the social recommendation site, OpenSky. FedEx's post follows a standard social media trope (and almost seems to 'apologise' for doing so): if you ask for a 'Like', you'll probably get a 'Like' - and this video has garnered thousands of them, so it's definitely done its job. Shopafrolic's post is what conventionally passes for Social Commerce these days: it's essentially an advert (albeit an upbeat one, with exclamation marks!), on a social network, for a product.

FedEx are chasing the elusive Social Media metric of 'engagement'. Engagement is actually a relatively new metric, constructed to misdirect CFOs who have started to question the logic of investing millions in an army of 'Fans' who couldn't give two hoots about the brand. Engagement - 'Likes', shares, comments - aims to disprove that, to demonstrate value, as though engagement in and of itself is a kind of soft ROI. The problem with engagement? The metric becomes the goal and, quite understandably, stressed-out social media managers focus on their new KPIs rather than delivering real value. So you get a lot of pictures of cute kittens in party hats on corporate Facebook Pages. Cute kittens and a disproportionate interest in how audiences are going to spend their weekends.

What you don't get are any sales. And sales continue to be the only ROI metic which really matters in business.

Shopafrolic, meanwhile, are baldly chasing sales with a clearly commercial message. But this isn't Social Commerce, either. It's Social Advertising - a message on social media about something commercial. To say that an advert on Facebook is Social Commerce is like saying Roger Ebert's review of the new 'Die Hard' movie is a night out at your local AMC theater. It might direct you there, but it ain't the thing itself. That's why...

✘ ...Pinterest isn't Social Commerce. It's a place where people post links to your products.

✘ ...Epinions isn't Social Commerce. It's a place where some people talk about products while others research possible purchases.

✘ ...TripAdvisor (another Social Commerce Summit speaker) isn't Social Commerce. It's a place where people discuss vacations and locations. Those discussion may fuel sales - and there's a lot of affiliate links to book hotels and cars and flights - but that's still not Social Commerce. It is, at best, a route to commerce.

Social Commerce isn't engaging about transactions. Social Commerce is the transaction that results from engagement.

✓ When someone buys Green Day's new album by replying to a Tweet using Chirpify - that's Social Commerce.

✓ When a group of friends club together to buy a gift using Wrapp - that's Social Commerce.

✓ When someone shares a Moontoast deal and it hits their friends' Facebook News Feeds, generating direct sales - that's social commerce.

✓ And, of course, when someone joins a buyapowa co-buy, that's the very best kind of Social Commerce. It also makes them prettier and helps them live longer.

So, let's take a look at what the speakers at the Social Commerce Summit are actually doing. This is entirely unscientific*, but we examined the last five Facebook posts from each respective brand.

Five most recent facebook posts from the speakers at the 2013 Social Commerce Summit

Out of 75 posts surveyed (across 14 brands), we saw 40 which marketed products or services you can buy elsewhere (such as the Shopafrolic example above), 24 which attempted to 'engage' (such as the FedEx example above), 10 which would be more fairly described as traditional community management and just one which was arguably true Social Commerce. A round of applause, then, to the jewelry retailer BaubleBar, who gave their Fans a choice of three deals, then ran the most requested deal for 24 hours. Admittedly, there was no direct transactional element to the follow-up Facebook post (you couldn't buy there and then), but this was a deal which had been curated by Fans, existed for Fans, was promoted to Fans and, we have no doubt, was well received _by _Fans.

So, one out of 75 means we have a long way to go before Social Commerce really becomes Social Commerce, as opposed to a mislabelling of Social Marketing or Community Management. But that's not to say that every single one of the conference speakers couldn't start moving towards doing real Social Commerce. Here's a five-point plan to ensure success:

1. Find people within your organisation responsible for both Social and Innovation

Increasingly, companies are recruiting in-house Social Media Managers, or outsourcing their social to agencies. But these people rarely feel empowered to try anything outside of the traditional. By ensuring you have someone in place to sign off on experimentation, you can take your first steps into true Social Commerce.

2. Begin taking your social audience on a journey towards buying socially

Your aim is to transform your social audience into a body of people who do things together - a real social community. But, before you start selling them things socially, you should begin to ask them more meaningful questions than 'what are you doing this weekend?' or 'do you like this kitten?'. Ask your Fans something pertinent to your business, then act on what they tell you. Show them that, when they speak, things happen. A great example of this (which was arguably Social Commerce in and of itself) was Walkers Crisps' Do Us A Flavour campaign, where Fans were given the chance to create a new flavour of snack for the brand.

3. Before you invest in a platform, try some analogue Social Commerce

Just like BaubleBar did in the example above, offer a bespoke deal to your Fans in exchange for their engagement. Ask them which of a number of deals they'd most like to see, encourage them to share the question with their friends, then act upon the most popular choice for a limited time / quantity.

4. Explore the technology that's already out there

I've listed some superb Social Commerce providers above, so I won't repeat that here (not even a plug for my own platform!). But this is pretty key: you probably already use external platforms for your competitions, your polls, your analytics, your social media management, etc. Whichever Social Commerce platform you choose should be able to integrate with your existing ecosystem in exactly the same way. There are some good options out there; find the one that fits you and your needs.

5. Don't delay

This might all seem new to you but, before long, it's going to seem pretty old hat. Right now, I'm working on Social Commerce campaigns for the likes of PepsiCo and Sony - massive global brands. If they're doing this stuff (with phenomenal success), you can be pretty sure that everyone else is going to catch up soon. But it's still a relatively new world, there's room to make an entire sector yours. Think what Zappos - another of the conference speakers! - achieved by reinventing Customer Service in social media. Now think how your business could be transformed by reinventing shopping in social media. Exciting, isn't it?

Robin Bresnark

*Unscientific since the brands we've examined might not be conducting or referencing their Social Commerce endeavours on Facebook, and we've only taken their five most recent posts into consideration. This is just a rough and ready finger in the air / toe in the water...