Social Commerce Comes of Age

From sales to service, social media offers brands an opportunity to engage consumers at the source and learn what drives certain behaviors so they may enhance relevancy and improve relationships accordingly.

Shopping has always been social in nature, as consumers frequently seek the opinions of family and friends. But, as social media becomes increasingly accessible, buying behaviors have also begun to evolve, opening the door to increased customer insights and engagement. Yet, while companies understand that they must tap into such sites accordingly, most have only grazed the surface of social commerce and customer service strategy.

Social commerce stands to become equal parts sales and service, as consumers look to these popular networks for input on both fronts. Thus, innovation and growth are on the horizon. One recent study reveals that 70 percent of brands expect to increase their social advertising spend across popular platforms, like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, while another 70 percent plan to increase spend on organic social efforts. However, before companies can properly invest their money and successfully expand their social presence, marketers must grasp what their customers seek and develop the foundation necessary for continued engagement.

"With so many social networks and new ones emerging regularly, most companies fail to step back and identify where their target audience actually congregates and engages," says Mark Harrington, vice president of marketing at Clutch. "Many brands look at social as a 'free' channel and feel they should be everywhere when, in reality, it often requires significant resources to manage an effective social strategy and can actually cause serious damage to brands if it's mismanaged."

Because social media allows anyone and everyone to share content, many brands opt to continuously broadcast without listening to customers, thereby missing a wealth of intelligence from the market. Harrington notes that listening remains essential for social success because, as with any conversation, if all the brand does is talk, few consumers will listen, as the road goes both ways. If brands pause to listen to their consumer base, customers will ultimately do the same with regard to marketing messaging.

Harrington also emphasizes that, before putting this intelligence to good use, companies must synthesize available data in order to understand the varied personas and segments throughout their customer base, as social strategies often fail if brands neglect to identify and align the appropriate networks with their goals. Doing so allows brands to centralize insight and eliminate silos, thereby creating an element of consistency that reaches far beyond social. Data hygiene will empower the brands to improve all commerce-related matters, as such universal insights will improve personalization and relevancy across channels.

Kristin Muhlner, chief executive officer at NewBrand Analytics, explains that, when establishing an effective social strategy, companies must overcome two primary obstacles: gaining long-term commitment at the executive level, and identifying their top goals and priorities. Companies must begin by integrating social feedback into their VOC programs to understand what aspects of the experience are the biggest loyalty drivers and fill in the holes left by existing data sources. Yet, while most gravitate toward the most popular social networks-Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram-online review sites also play an integral role with regard to Web presence and reputation. Muhlner emphasizes that brands must really come to understand the differences among audiences on various platforms. Online reviewers, for example, often include some of the company's biggest influencers, so engaging this group can be critical when cultivating loyalty and maintaining brand reputation.

In fact, to remain competitive, brands must look at where and who consumers turn to for trustworthy information and advice. Social influencers, especially, have the power to spark awareness, engagement, and sales throughout their personal networks. "By not promoting their brand champions, companies are missing a huge opportunity to reach new customers," says Lyle Stevens, co-founder and CEO of Mavrck. "Incorporating tried and true word of mouth marketing concepts into digital marketing-particularly within social-is extremely impactful and far more effective than display ads."

Companies must learn how to tap into these social influencers in meaningful ways that go beyond the awareness generated by display ads in consumers' news feeds in an attempt to drive actual sales. Leaders must identify and empower their most influential fans and followers to recommend the brand to their various networks. Of course, the term "influencer" means different things to different marketers, so it's important to define these differences, realize that they drive varied results, and map out specific goals from the start. Such individuals have the power to cultivate buzz and boost sales, ultimately advancing the company's overall social commerce strategy, for drawing from the brand's core customer base fosters community building and trust within this extended network.

Ovum's Keith Dawson, principal analyst, emphasizes that the social service end of the spectrum requires dedicated thinking and planning. His recent report explains that clients regularly turn to social because they've encountered negative experiences elsewhere. Thus, good social service has as much to do with effective brand management as it does with executing proper customer interaction protocols. While brands must act quickly in such situations, or risk harm to their reputation, companies also benefit from this public platform, as remedies can then be shared to proactively prevent future issues for other customers. Brands that prefer to bury their heads in the sand, however, and not engage with customers at all, are inevitably doomed, for negative sentiment will continue to permeate the social realm whether they acknowledge existing problems or not.

Paul Henderson, chief marketing officer at HeyWire, notes that one recent study found the number of connected devices across the globe is expected to increase from 1.2 billion in 2015 to 5.4 billion in 2020, with 46 percent of users reporting that "they couldn't live without" their smartphone. Hence, it's unlikely that social media will fade away anytime soon. New social channels, communities, and apps will inevitably emerge, meaning companies must be willing to experiment as the market demands. Identifying the right tools for the job will also require an ongoing analysis of the market and its gap, Henderson adds. Future strategies will depend upon responsive, multichannel strategies that aim to retain the competitive advantage in today's increasingly mobile-first marketplace.

But companies must be sure to look outside their personal client base, for critical insights often lie in the feedback of competitors' customers. "Social matters not just from an inward-looking position, but also from a competitive perspective," Muhlner adds. "While most companies are likely following what competitors are publishing on social, many are falling short of doing the same deep analysis of competitors. Competitors' customers are sharing insights about their experiences online, as well. Brands should be using these insights to identify competitive weaknesses and strengths, and then put programs in place to highlight them."

Domino's and Net-A-Porter Revolutionize the Social Sales and Service Space

Domino's, for instance, announced that, on May 20, the brand will allow its Twitter followers to use the platform to order pizza via tweet. Followers need only tweet the pizza emoji, in fact, and the pie will be delivered straight to their door. Customers will have to set up their Pizza Profile via the company's online delivery service and log their Easy Order favorite. Once users add their Twitter handle to this profile, they will be able to re-order their Easy Order by mentioning @Dominos and including the #EasyOrder hashtag or the pizza emoji. Domino's will respond via direct message so customers can confirm their order. This new strategy takes social commerce to an entirely different level, as it blends omnichannel customer service with social purchase power in an attempt to simplify the customer experience.

Similarly, Net-A-Porter, an online fashion retailer, launched its own mobile app-based social network on May 13. Referred to as The Net Set, the e-boutique's app will allow users to interact and share images just as they would on any other social network. But, in this case, Net-A-Porter will employ image recognition software that analyzes the images to find the closest match from their current inventory so they may offer the item to users for purchase. While the image recognition technology can identify identical or similar clothing matches, the app can also process colors and provide recommendations that align with the given hue. Ultimately, this venture will eliminate one of the biggest problems when it comes to social commerce-providing consumers with direct access to products they see so they may complete purchases simply and quickly.

Social commerce and customer service promise to persist, as the popular networks show no sign of slowing down. Thus, as social media continues to mature, so must strategic innovation. Companies are on the cusp of developing programs that allow them to tap into behavioral insights which, in turn, will foster commercial growth, for these brands will then be able to apply this data to sales and service strategies across channels.