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The social media gold rush is well underway and many retailers are still weighing up how best to approach social commerce.

With new tools being launched every month and audiences continue to grow social commerce is a tempting prospect for retailers but what sort of return can brands expect to see on their investment?

In this post, I'll explore the prospects of social retail and how retailers can capitalise on sharing.

Today, interacting with your favourite brand over social media is as normal as having a chat with your greengrocer would have been 20 years ago.

Be it ‘liking’, ‘pinning’ or ‘tweeting’ - sharing what we buy and don’t buy over social channels is an inherent part of many people’s day-to-day lives. However, retailers are still looking for ways to transform a share into a sale.

A number of brands have dabbled in social selling with mixed success. In recent years, Dell dubbed Twitter a roaring sales success but retailers such as Gap opened up F-commerce stores only to shut up shop a matter of months later.

These retailers represent only a few of those adventurers trying to find the social retail Promised Land. As tools and functions emerge geared towards retailers taking advantage of social selling, how to ‘do’ social is still a pressing concern.

As the scrutiny grows, so does the debate around whether users want to integrate shopping into social media. In the past, attempts to implement in-Facebook retailing were described as “trying to sell stuff to people while they’re hanging out with their friends at a bar” but with Facebook’s latest raft of developments for retailers many are taking another look.

Previously, in an attempt to monetise the social space, some retailers incorrectly treated social media platforms like a market place.

But with the draw of such large audiences, Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest do seem the perfect place for a retailer to set up shop. However an audience alone, and even the tools many social networks have begun to provide, aren’t enough for retailers to succeed.

Social commerce presents a new channel and a complete shift in approach for retailers. As Gap experienced, taking the in-store approach to selling and applying it to a new audience simply isn’t enough.

The ever-increasing influence of social media still represents an opportunity that retailers can’t afford to miss out on.

So how do retailers tackle the thorny issue of capitalising on social commerce?

One platform making retailers and consumers stand up and take note is Pinterest. With exponentially increasing user figures, and an ability to collect and curate your own particular style and taste, the channel seems inherently set up for retailers to use to exploit social curation, as well as develop recommendations and wish-lists.

Most compellingly, Pinterest users don’t just click over to ecommerce sites to window shop, they are 10% more likely to make a purchase than people who come over from other networks, according to data from ecommerce platform Shopify.

A glowing example of Pinterest best practice comes in the form of Etsy, a US-based website focusing on handmade and vintage items, as well as art and craft supplies. According to a Bizrate Insights study, nearly one in five online shoppers claim that their recent purchase via the online marketplace came after seeing an image on Pinterest.

With a range of boards featuring bright, beautiful creative pieces, Etsy is able to push consumers through to something relevant for them on their online store. The reason for this success is the following of a simple formula: selling is not forced on the user, it’s offered as a possible conclusion of social engagement.

Etsy uses colour and beautifully shot photographs to champion creative craft.

The ever-flowing stream of fresh, crisp content brings the followers, as the visually creative nature of Pinterest users means they are organically searching for inspiration. The ability to click through on a beautiful photograph is then creating the sales.

With the launch of business accounts for Pinterest, ecommerce functions for Facebook and a proliferation of analytic tools that allow you to assess their worth, social networks have become increasingly geared towards retailers. This is largely down to the networks themselves seeking to monetise their service and, correctly so, they see the opportunity their audience presents for retailers.

However the challenge for retailers, regardless of the services networks provide, is walking the thin line between conversion and social etiquette. As the Instagram terms of service debacle told us, users enforce the subtle laws of social platforms, not networks.

Thanks to burgeoning audiences retailers will find social commerce hard to ignore but is it worth investing in? With social networks and payment providers supplying new measurement and conversion tools at every turn, the challenge for retailers is finding the tone rather than technology.

James Cronin

Published 28 March, 2013 by James Cronin

James Cronin is Founder and Group CIO at Venda and a contributor to Econsultancy. You can follow on FacebookLinkedin and Twitter

9 more posts from this author

Comments (3)

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Nick Stamoulis

"However the challenge for retailers, regardless of the services networks provide, is walking the thin line between conversion and social etiquette."

It's not an easy line to walk. If you push the sale too hard on social media you're going to turn your audience off. You want to give them the opportunity to buy but you can't beat them over the head with sales messages.

about 3 years ago

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James Roberts

Social commerce is indeed a very tricky world to navigate. You promote too much, and you get kicked out, but if you promote too little, and traffic to your business slows down. It takes a lot of effort and skill to handle that.

about 3 years ago

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Justin Butlion

Social commerce is the future of e-commerce, there can't be any doubt about this. The entire Internet has become socialized and the e-commerce space is already moving in this direction.

Thanks for a great post Eric.

What are your thoughts on a social reviews service like Yotpo and how do you see social reviews fitting into the social commerce mix?

about 3 years ago

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