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How the pandemic is shaping the future of social commerce

social selling

For brand marketers, the pandemic has been a catalyst for social commerce.

The growth was so massive in 2020 that eMarketer had to revise its forecasted social commerce projection of 19.8% growth to the nearly doubled actual 37.9% growth. The company is now forecasting that U.S. retail social commerce sales will grow by 34.8% in 2021, to $36.1 billion.

Of course, companies have long been using social media to identify, connect with and nurture prospective customers with the objective of generating sales. But the past year has been something else. In the year since the start of the pandemic, social platforms acquired 5% more users, for a total of 3.78 billion users worldwide, with most of them using mobile to access their favorite platforms. Instagram in particular has emerged as a pandemic social commerce giant because of how it blends information and selling.

Research and Markets has some ideas about the timing of this shift.

“Although eCommerce and social networking have existed for so long, there’s still a growing need for reformation of the two,” it writes in new research. “The unification of these industries has taken the market by storm and is likely to impact the industry greatly in the upcoming years. Though both these markets are in their early maturation phases; the blend of these solutions is bound to drive their growth.”

Taken all together, we are witnessing a fundamental change in how social selling operates. Let’s explore the change.

Social media usage is up

The pandemic didn’t invent social commerce, but it did help grow it into a juggernaut.

According to research company eMarketer, “When US consumers started spending more time at home during the pandemic, they also started using social media more, providing an unexpected boost to engagement on these platforms.”

In its Social Trends 2021 report, Hootsuite reveals that Instagram was the platform that experienced the most growth between July and September 2020, outperforming its parent company Facebook. “Instagram’s advertising reach grew by 7.1% in the most recent quarter—more than three times Facebook’s at 2.2%,” says the report.

Instagram itself reports that 70% of consumers use the platform for product discovery, and 90% follow at least one business. In short, there is a very compelling reason for brands to sell on visual social platforms.

Lighting the spark

Driving social users to brands isn’t just about pretty pictures and social media marketing managers’ savvy hashtag usage. Brand perception is a huge motivating factor for consumers. According to data from Facebook, 78% of consumers perceive brands on Instagram as being popular, while 76% see them as creative and 74% view them as relevant. All of this can help to form a connection between customers and brands — and those connections are the sparks that can lead to enduring customer relationships.

Encouraging those embers to catch fire requires strategic approaches to customer support. Early on in the pandemic, many brands found value — and even direct sales impact — in providing a broader range of communication channels. For example, when self-care and cosmetics brand Tula Skincare trained its retail sales team to provide skincare advice via live chat, it was able to increase its basket size by 20%.

Bridging the gap between providing information and driving sales is where social commerce thrives. Giving consumers the option to “swipe up” to follow a link to a product page makes it easy for them to shop without leaving their place in the app, or having to search for something in a browser. This barrier breakdown is omnichannel customer service in action and is making shopping easy, which can be a huge boon to customer satisfaction and sales.

In-app checkouts streamline the buying process

Brands should also be looking to incorporate in-app checkout and shoppable ads (ads with a built-in checkout function) on their social channels as a way to help further streamline the customer experience.

Instagram Checkout, launched in 2020, enables users to make a purchase directly on the platform within a “shoppable post” and in-app checkout. Snapchat offers something similar with its “Shop Now” functionality. It also has shoppable formats that can be used to feature and sell products and services in-app. Pinterest and Facebook both offer shoppable ads, and on Facebook, brands are also exploring “chat commerce,” which blends the concept of chatbot-based customer care with online shopping, enabling customers to find and buy the right product or service on the spot. Twitter; however, did away with its “Buy” button a few years ago, but e-retailers can still use the platform for eCommerce by driving traffic to their product pages.

Asian social channels are really ahead of the game when it comes to social commerce, writes TechCrunch. Companies in China sold a massive $250 billion worth of products and services through chat and social tool WeChat in 2020. Western brands ought to take note and look for ways to leverage the app for their own customer base.

Best practices for a better social commerce strategy

According to content marketing expert Kevin Payne, there are five major benefits to social commerce:

  1. Reduced contact time
  2. Increased number of leads
  3. Deeper relationships with clients
  4. Improved lead conversion rate
  5. Shorter sales cycles

In addition to best practices like choosing the social channels where your customers spend the most time and personalizing your message, Payne notes the key to successful social selling is to “refine and optimize your customer support.”

Payne suggests paying close attention to what consumers are saying about your company or products. “If a customer is unhappy with your business and posts on your social media page… reach out via private message about their specific complaint and offer them some reparative action steps to help turn the negative experience into a positive one,” he writes.

In other words, social commerce is truly a blend of sales and support. It gives brands an opportunity to connect with customers. This can help to build rapport, boost brand awareness, increase loyalty and even help guide business decisions from merchandising choices to advertising and marketing strategies.

Brands that recognize the fact that social media is deeply rooted in consumers’ lives and leverage the channel by incorporating a social commerce strategy will see immediate benefits. By incorporating social selling, brands will enhance their overall customer experience, create enhance affinity for its products and services, and ultimately be rewarded with increased sales.

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