In Depth

Are Social Networks Really Ready For E-Commerce (And Do Users Really Want It)?

Have you heard? Social commerce is going to change the lives of everyone, everywhere. Want to look at pictures of other people’s cats—buy cat care supplies while doing it. Think that girl from the 10th grade looks fat in that dress?  Good news—it will soon be possible to purchase a high school rival’s entire wardrobe and then send post pics of oneself looking infinitely better in it.

This is the future—and everyone is getting in on it.

Since the beginning of summer 2014, Twitter has experimented with adding a “buy” button, shelled out $100 million for mobile payment system CardSpring and noted (during a late July analyst call) being “very excited about the opportunities” that E-Commerce will bring the company’s way. CEO Dick Costolo was rather vague on that call about what Twitter’s specific intentions and timeline for tweet based shopping are, which matches the tightlipped overall corporate approach—but at this point it seems almost without a doubt the company will be upping its eCommerce involvement.

More shadowy are Facebook’s intentions. Recently the news of their “buy” button broke. What will likely be their marquee payments move in 2014 will be having  lured PayPal’s president David Marcus to run its new (and expensive) Messenger App—which CEO Mark Zuckerberg said will be the eventual home of Facebook’s eCommerce hub. They’ve since gone one better and made downloading that app essentially mandatory for Facebook mobile users.

There have also been rumored pair-ups with ride-sharing powerhouse Uber—a baby-step for Facebook into developing an eCommerce platform. Other toe-dips into eCommerce this summer include integration with PayPal and a foray into enabling “out-app” purchases.

Although he alluded to a longer end game for E-Commerce, for now, Facebook’s payment ambitions seem measured and even slightly drawn back—the company recently announced a mild unfriending of E-Commerce with the discontinuation of it gifts giving service.

While summer 2014 has been particularly active for social media’s two biggest and best known players, the move to integrate E-Commerce into the web’s social hubs has been a persistent drum beat that seems to be actively getting louder. Pinterest is gearing up for an E-Commerce expansion, myriad innovations are launching to leverage people’s social media followings into new customers—at least one new service is paying cold hard cash for those influencers who convert clicks into closed sales—and while the race to be the service, app or platform that can finally transform the virtual social hangouts deliver unto social what is apparently its truest and highest good—an opportunity to be a digital mall.

On one level, the draw is so obvious it barely mentions a comment— the social media site’s eternal struggle is to monetize its (presumably) large user base, social big user platforms that are ideally suited to E-Commerce and human beings like to shop socially—everybody wins, everybody makes money and everyone is off to bed happy.

Unless of course, consumers aren’t actually made happy by this at all.

The problem that seems to be frequently overlooked in these discussions is that the only group of people who think malls are a good place to interact socially also buy Justin Bieber albums for their artistic qualities. (For an examination of why E-Commerce—as opposed to social—sites are far better suited to deliver actual commerce, see Karen Webster’s column.

More than just an opportunity to take a potshot at the subpar tastes of pre-teen girls, the larger issue here is that there might be something wrong with the assumption that users have even the remotest desire to incorporate E-Commerce into their online social milieu.

And, in fact, it seems the data stands against it. According to a Gallup poll released earlier this summer, Social Media has exactly no effect on 62 percent of its users when it comes to purchasing, indicating that perhaps when people are using Facebook or Twitter, they are not actually secretly thinking about commerce—they are actually thinking about socially interacting.

How to make the move from pure social—where purchases are occasionally discussed—to a social environment where sales are more effectively integrated is so very easy to get wrong. How hard is it for retail marketers to become that nuanced? Listen to Rachel Youens, Wanelo’s Social Commerce Evangelist, explain some ways to try.

Facebook had a reply, of course, noting that their internal tests of ad efficacy on their system were much better than Gallup’s self-reported poll, but they didn’t offer much in the way of concrete examples of how their system was better—other than to compare it with the process used in medical trials. Some wrote this off as the social network with $10 billion a year resting in their ad revenue protesting a bit too much.

Other studies have demonstrated that consumers will quickly abandon social media when they feel overly deluged with inducements to shop. One report commissioned by Pitney Bowes Software noted 65 percent of consumers said they’d stop using a brand that upset or irritated them via its social media behavior.

What to a business seems like a remarkable opportunity to reach out and touch consumers across the world wide web can easily look like an irritant in a world choked with advertisements to that business’s customer—and the data could at least be taken to indicate that when using social media to push commerce, one runs much better odds of irritating a user than inducing them to buy anything at all.

“Social shopping has been a really long time coming. There is a social network for pretty much everything in our lives now. We have LinkedIn for our jobs, Facebook for our friends, Twitter for news and there really hasn’t been a social network focusd on shopping. So consequently what’s happened you’ve seen a lot of social networks kind of trying to wedge in social shopping in a weird awkward way…It’s kind of solution in search of a problem. Me personally and I would bet a lot of people would agree—they don’t come to Twitter to shop. I don’t think Twitter is the place you first went to search for that flower-girl dress. I’m doubting Facebook was the place either Even when it comes to Pinterest it is really an inspiration driven place and doesn’t really fill the gap when it comes to finding products.”

That is Rachel Youens, Wanelo’s Social Commerce Evangelist. Wanelo is an online mobile shopping app that is distinctly designed to be the “Facebook of shopping,” so Youens isn’t, broadly speaking a social commerce hater.

She does, however, point out, that individuals do like associating certain things with specific  places—and at the end of the day, if they aren’t there to shop, then all the buy buttons in the world and integrated payment methods won’t matter. Moreover, the data is increasingly indicating that those who try and force consumers run the risk of losing them.

There is an unspoken rule of commerce that perhaps bears more outloud mentions in the age of the social: don’t annoy the customer. Is there room in the world for social commerce—it would seem there would have to be. Is it more likely to succeed parceled out in specialized sites like Wanleo—that intend specifically to build a social shopping experience—or as an extension of mega-brand looking to monetize, remains to be seen.

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