Millions of small businesses are watching online activity with bated breath as the last few rounds of holiday shopping clock in. For businesses who have ventured into eCommerce, these activities translate to real dollars and cents. They must do everything they can to introduce audiences to their products and then somehow entice them enough to clinch a purchase.
This process of nurturing from ad exposure to final purchase is certainly not easy, but a few retailers are hopeful that “Buy Now” buttons on social media platforms like Facebook, Pinterest and Twitter can help turn their fortunes around. Some shopper short on inspiration for their loved one’s gift discovers an irresistible product from a post shared by a friend. They click on the new “Buy” button and instantly have one less person on their list to worry about.
Only, that’s how it was supposed to work in theory. In reality, buying on social media — an activity being dubbed “Social Commerce” — is a rare occurrence. Thousands of festive “Buy Now” Pins, Tweets and Facebook posts sit neglected, like a mall store Santa with no one waiting in line to see him.
Why There Was So Much Hope for Social Commerce
Social commerce is a concept that is still relatively newborn compared to other, more-proven online channels. Yet, many were hoping that the act of tacking on a “Buy” button to an ad or product-related post would provide a real shot in the arm for the quirky or niche brands that online audiences seem to love sharing with one another.
Looking at Pinterest, a “Buy” button seems like a natural fit. Pinterest is often about sharing that one adorable handbag, or the beauty secret that can keep your skin glowing while still abiding by organic sensibilities. “Buy” buttons were anticipated to motivate peer recommendations into purchases handled via payment company Stripe.
For Facebook, the aim is to reduce the number of steps required for users to go from product discovery to purchase. “Buy” buttons mean that the entire process could take place within the Facebook platform. With stored payment information, ads could create a convenient method for users to buy on a semi-regular basis. Buying through posts could also place more importance on Facebook’s Pages for businesses, helping the company reclaim the small-business focus that Yelp and Foursquare have been pulling away.
Twitter had a similar story, but in addition to products, the sharing of Tweets related to concert announcements, sports news or movie releases could be accompanied by a way to purchase those tickets instantly.
The Bait Was There, But Few Nibbles
Despite the hope some had for these social commerce ventures, the response has been tepid. Pinterest, by far the platform with the most genuine interest in the program, seemed to be the one suffering the most visibly.
NBC News reports that, “since Pinterest introduced so-called buyable pins in June, more than 10,000 businesses have jumped on board, making over 60 million products available for purchase inside the app.” Yet, Re/Code notes that even though huge names like Neiman Marcus and Macy’s have entered the fray, “at least one of these big partners is seeing fewer than 10 purchases a day on Pinterest.”
For Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, the results are even harder to pin down. The “Buy” button programs are still considered to be in beta testing, with examples only popping up rarely. Facebook, for example, only serves up “Buy Now” ads if you are browsing on their mobile app, your traffic is coming from a pilot market and the ad in question comes from a Shopify partner. Twitter seems to be even more stingy with their “Buy” button ad program, with many power users reporting never seeing so much as one single “Buy” button-enabled ad.
NPR’s Alina Selyukh offers one possible explanation when discussing the role this social commerce buying behavior — or a lack thereof — plays for nonprofits: “When people are scrolling through posts, say, on Facebook, it’s incredibly rare for them to decide to click away to some outside website — let alone an outside website that’s asking for their credit card information.” Even though “Buy” buttons intended to integrate this experience, the mental barriers to buying while browsing are clearly still there.
For Social Commerce, Small Businesses May Need to Wait and See
The disappointing performance of current social commerce projects likely necessitates refinements, tweaks and more general momentum towards encouraging mainstream adoption. In the meantime, small businesses are better off saving their digital marketing budgets for where it counts most: Search engine optimization.
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