The surge in ‘buy’ buttons on the social networks is now providing an increasingly popular route to online shopping in the web 2.0 era.

E-commerce gaining ground on the social networks

Following the first digital shopping revolution embodied by online retail sites, could we now be witnessing a new stage, in which people increasingly shop on the social networks? Part and parcel of the Web 2.0 age, social networks have brought about major change in many people’s lives. Brands actually started some time ago to use them as a ‘happy hunting ground’ for customers, but until very recently the purchase process remained anchored to first-generation web technology, i.e. links posted on the social networks would lead, when clicked, to brands’ own websites, where users could then make their purchases. This process has always been particularly cumbersome on mobile devices: having to switch between sites, create an account on the brand website and then enter personal details and payment information has often proved enough to discourage the would-be shopper. So while mobile devices today represent 60% of browsing traffic on online shopping sites, they still only account for 15% of all purchases. However, the beginning of this year saw a radical change in the situation, with the introduction of ‘buy’ buttons on most of the social networks, together with a range of tools designed to promote and facilitate e-shopping. The ‘buy’ buttons enable you to order and pay for an item directly on the social network, without having to switch over to the brand website. And the main target audience for this new feature is the Internet user surfing on a mobile. The latest innovation in this sphere is the recent move by Facebook to introduce two new tools designed to make purchasing on mobile devices much easier. The first – called Canvas – enables a would-be purchaser, instead of being directed to the brand’s website, to click on an advertisement so as to display a page giving direct access to a list of chosen items. The second comprises a section totally dedicated to shopping on the mobile app, bringing together products from stores which have a Facebook page. Mark Zuckerberg’s social network, which has also been testing a ‘buy’ button for several months, introduced in spring this year a tool integrated into its messaging system to simplify communication between customers and merchants, designed especially for after sales service.

‘Buy’ buttons now on all the major social networks

Facebook’s recent innovations are just the latest in a long line of initiatives by social network providers. In June Instagram (which was acquired by Mark Zuckerberg’s giant in 2012) launched a ‘Shop Now’ programme, which has two features – a ‘buy’ button plus a new software platform that enables its marketing partners to automate the advertising process on the social networks. Brands will now, according to a report by technology, advertising, and branding magazine AdWeek, be able to target users according to their age, gender, plus their focus of interest gleaned from their Facebook profiles. With 400 million users, an engagement rate up to seven times that of Twitter or Facebook, and users who mainly access the site via mobile devices, Instagram seems to be the ideal platform for developing social commerce on mobile phones. Some commentators, such as social media news blog SocialTimes, have no hesitation in citing Instagram as the future of mobile and social commerce. In late September, it was Twitter‘s turn to make the news, announcing a partnership with the Shopify, Bigcommerce and Demandware platforms, which enables all brands using one of these online shopping platforms to add a ‘buy ’button to their tweets, an option which Twitter has been testing over the last year. In June, after the Golden State Warriors won the US National Basketball Association championship, the team’s Twitter account suggested that its one million followers should buy a T-shirt using a ‘buy’ button inserted into the tweet that celebrated their victory. Last but not least, earlier this month Pinterest announced an extension to its ‘Buyable Pins’ programme, which allows users to make purchases directly on the photo-sharing site.

Online commerce in the era of the social web

This boom in shopping opportunities on the social networks has of course been made possible by the development of online tools needed to underpin the process – such sales platforms as Shopify and Bigcommerce, as mentioned above, and mobile payment tools such as ApplePay and Stripe. Irish-run, US-based Stripe recently launched a new API called Relay, which is intended to connect merchants and software developers with a view to creating a better e-commerce experience for users. The idea is to provide a ‘buy’ button system that can be used by all the social networks rather than leaving each one to develop its own proprietary system, which would require brands to integrate their e-tailing systems into each of these. One of the main reasons behind the surge of ‘social commerce’ is that consumers can use the social networks to exchange product information and recommendations and tend to trust the recommendations of their friends and ‘social influencers’ more than the claims of sponsored advertisements and brand content. Given that the Web 2.0 era is all about communities, information exchange and sharing, this is bound to have an impact on online purchasing behaviour. New York City startup BlueCarat, on which L’Atelier reported earlier this year, already provides e-commerce sites with a means of offering their customers a social networking experience, with a view to increasing conversions and boosting sales.


By Charlène Voltat