The Social Commerce Playbook

social commerce
​​​​​​​As marketers build out their social commerce strategies, here are five tips for brands to maximize their share of an industry estimated to hit $1 trillion in the next three years.

What do water-resistant Post-It notes, a mini trash can for cars, a cosmetics spatula, a bug bite suction tool and a stylish new pooper scooper for cats all have in common? These were among the reams of handy little items that people claimed to have purchased recently because #TikTokMadeMeBuyIt. The question surrounding the exploding social commerce phenomenon is just how many items will people buy on TikTok?

Right now, the answer is unclear. For all of TikTok’s marketing power, the platform is still relatively untested as a vehicle for social commerce, which is defined as purchases that are made entirely within the confines of a social network. Facebook and Instagram will account for the majority of the estimated $45.74 billion in social commerce sales in the U.S. this year, according to eMarketer. Those numbers are approximately one-tenth of the social commerce sales generated in China, by far the leading market in a global social commerce industry that Accenture predicts will reach $1.2 trillion by 2025.

Still, TikTok is undeniably effective at driving purchase intent. A January 2022 Bazaarvoice survey found that people who shop on TikTok browse and buy goods more frequently than other social platforms. More than one-fifth (20.6%) of TikTok shoppers worldwide said they bought goods on TikTok “all the time,” ahead of all other platforms measured, including YouTube (16.6%), Instagram (16.4%), Facebook (15.8%) and Twitter (15.4%).

TikTok has worked with Shopify to bring organic product discovery and shopping tabs to the platform. Shopify merchants can add a shopping tab to their TikTok profiles and create a mini-storefront that links directly to their online store for checkout.

TikTok’s emergence as a budding social commerce player is just one example of the deepening relationship between social media and e-commerce (a trend that goes both ways, as evidenced by Amazon’s foray into livestreaming with services like Amazon Live). The underlying forces are clear. Consumers prefer to buy products and services based on recommendations from people they know and trust. The social networks allow users to receive feedback from friends and family members in real time while gathering in digital communities to share all kinds of experiences. It’s
an open-source marketplace where content creators and influencers can inform and entertain audiences about new products, which in turn drives interest and purchase intent.

Because social commerce is a rapidly evolving business model with new technologies, shoppable features and marketing opportunities emerging all the time, the practice requires substantial testing and learning from marketers. Experts often advise brands to tailor their approach to content creation, marketing and advertising to the specific audiences and unique environments of individual social platforms.

social commerce

But while there is no universal set of best practices, there are some rules of the road that both marketers and industry observers say will maximize a brand’s return in the social commerce space. Based on their insights and recommendations, here are the top five tips to add to your social commerce playbook:

1. Just because a social platform offers a shoppable feature doesn’t mean it’s right for your category or brand.The bedrock categories of e-commerce may not have an analog solution in every social commerce outlet. But according to marketers at Coca-Cola and Procter & Gamble, there may be a natural fit for some brands with the right profiles.

“Social commerce is of different value depending on where our brands are in their life stages,” says Katie Neal, director of connected commerce at Coca-Cola. “We’ve tended to lean into social commerce more with newer or emerging brands, as well as new flavor variants for our established brands. It allows us more time to give the brand story some length versus the more abbreviated way that other types of media offer it.”

Everyday products can find new ways to introduce themselves to consumers through social commerce. Last December, Procter & Gamble teamed up with Walmart on a Facebook livestream hosted by former NFL player Deion Sanders and his son Shilo Sanders to introduce its new Gillette Razor with exfoliating bar product from GilletteLabs. The 42-minute conversation featured coaching and grooming tips, with product integration and shoppable links provided within the frame of the livestream.

“Where the consumer goes, our brands will follow,” said Jacques Hagopian, SVP, North America Brand Operations at Procter & Gamble, during an April 12 presentation on social commerce that was part of the Path to Purchase Now webinar series. “Our responsibility as brand marketers is to delight consumers and be good stewards of the money we spend. … We think that social commerce can achieve both [of these goals].”

2. Consider the value of smaller, micro-communities of people that are trusted.Recent social media efforts are drifting away from celebrity endorsers and mega-influencers with huge followings, which can be explained in a couple of ways, says Eric Dahan, CEO and co-founder of influencer marketing agency Open Influence. “The less visible the influencer is to brands, the fewer the impressions. As a result, advertisers have more pricing power,” he says. “Smaller communities also tend to be more engaged and offer a more personal connection.”

How Big Brands are Tackling the Metaverse

In May, Coca-Cola Zero Sugar Byte appeared on retail store shelves in the U.S. after an extended virtual launch phase in the metaverse. The gaming-inspired drink, which is said by the company to “bring the flavor of pixels to life,” first appeared within the video game Fortnite as part of a promotion featuring Pixel Point, a custom island where players can try out coke-themed mini-games and “sample” the new drink.

In some ways, the metaverse is the next logical step after social commerce. The modes of currency and purchase will change, and iconic brands like Coca-Cola have to figure out how to represent — if not reinvent — themselves while taking the customer experience a layer or more deeper into the digital realm.

“Whether you’re talking about physical stores, digital and social platforms like TikTok or the metaverse, they all have very specific and strategic uses for how we apply them within the end-to-end consumer journey,” says Coca-Cola director of connected commerce Katie Neal. “It comes down to how do we make sure that we’ve got as many data signals as possible to have a cumulative experience with our brands no matter where we connect with people or where they find our brands.”

Dahan advises brands in social commerce not to confuse reach with engagement, or popularity with trust. “Getting a lot of people that kind of trust the message is not as good as getting a smaller amount of people who really trust the message,” he says. “We use relative engagement as a proxy for trust. For example, we consider when they talk about working out at home doing yoga, their engagement rate is 7%. When they talk about other stuff, it’s 3% on average, so we know the audience really cares about that [yoga] message.”

Giovanna Dimperio, senior director of digital marketing, social media & content at H-E-B, says the retailer is testing relationships with small business owners in local Texas communities as part of its evolving social commerce playbook.

“We’ve established how we can use brand experts and chefs in social commerce programs. Now we’re looking at how to marry that implied endorsement from an influencer with a smaller community focus with on-demand commerce,” Dimperio said during the April 12 Path to Purchase Now webinar. “We started doing a monthly community-building-influencer-shoppable experience where we bring together an influencer in the space with a few different small business owners to talk and engage with our audience while making the whole experience shoppable.”

3. When working with influencers, think about ways to tell a brand story, versus selling a product.Influencer marketing in a social commerce setting is a lot like traditional product placement. For some brands, the temptation may be to overload the influencer with information about the product and over-direct the commercialization aspects of the partnership.

Alessandro Bogliari, co-founder and CEO of The Influencer Marketing Factory, recalls how one of his clients, a North American footwear manufacturer, worked with an influencer on an organic TikTok video to promote its new flash-knit waterproof shoe technology. The influencer came up with the idea to put dollar bills in the shoes and test them in different environments, including a small inflatable pool, in the snow and a puddle. “When he came out each time, the bills were completely dry,” says Bogliari. “It was a great way to tell the brand’s story. You still had the promotion, but it was done in a style to present for a Gen Z audience that wants to be entertained.”

In that instance, the brand’s social teams engaged with user comments and answered technical questions during the video demonstrations, allowing the influencer to focus on creating a “wow” effect. Still, Bogliari says his agency always ensures that influencers study any products they represent. “Nowadays people can feel it and see it if they never used the product before or if it’s something they love to use in their lives,” he says.

4. Establish brand consistency across the social networks.The consumer’s path toward a social commerce purchase can start anytime and anywhere — from clicking on a Facebook ad to discovering an Instagram post or hearing a mention about a brand during a livestream conversation with influencers on YouTube or with gamers on Twitch. Experts believe it is vital for brands to maintain a consistent look, feel and voice across all of these different touchpoints and platforms.

Neal says that Coca-Cola pushes for “visually forward creative” in this context. “Social is all about discovery. People want to see themselves and the relevance that they have to that product based on what you’ve posted,” she says. “You’ve got to have a simple value proposition. The way you make that truth known is through simple animation and bold colorful images — you only have a second or two to capture them — and by making it easy for consumers to check out.”

As consumers have become bombarded by messages from influencers and paid social ads, marketers are experimenting with new types of content and ad formats — including user-generated content (UGC), viral videos and testimonials in ad campaigns — that may be perceived as more authentic. While only 41% of marketers regularly use UGC in campaigns, 61% want to incorporate more this year, according to the “State of User-Generated Content 2022” report from Tint, a technology company that works with advertisers to plan and execute UGC-based programs and campaigns.

5. Be guided by your organization’s appetite for risk. In the last two years, consumers have rapidly grown more comfortable with shopping in a social media environment. Watching livestreams and in-app shopping were the two most frequently cited behaviors related to social commerce that consumers planned to do more of in 2022, according to a recent report from Sprout Social. Those figures should provide some reassurance to marketers as they gauge the risk levels appropriate for their own experimentation in the social commerce space.

“We realized that we could learn, or we could wait four years for someone to teach us how to do it. We are interested in learning,” said H-E-B’s Dimperio. “If you want to do something new, there will be no handbook for you. There are some best practices, but a lot of it is up to interpretation. If that energizes and excites you, that’s awesome. If it terrifies you, that’s a good thing to learn going into it.”

Working with content creators is a “massive way to reach Gen Z,” assuming the brand is willing to think outside the box, adds Coca-Cola’s Neal. “We always want to provide creators with the space to create their own view and share with their communities,” she says. “You’ve got to have your brand proposition tight and compelling, and then you’re putting it in the hands of creators. It means pushing yourselves a little bit out of the predictable norms of where you might want to go.”