Can social commerce ever rival the best shopping experiences?
As part of The Drum’s Deep Dive into The New Customer Experience Economy, we look at why platforms need to understand the pivotal role of customer experience in social commerce.
Social commerce has seen enormous growth in the past two years, emerging as a game-changer for brands. Globally, consumers are now spending almost 4.2 hours a day using apps, with almost half of that on social media.
In South East Asia, social shopping accounted for 44% of the region’s $109bn e-commerce market in 2021 alone, according to management consulting firm Bain. In addition, social commerce is overtaking traditional retail as a preferred shopping method, especially in countries such as Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Singapore.
According to Accenture, meanwhile, social commerce is a $492bn global industry that is expected to grow three times as fast as traditional e-commerce, reaching $1.2tn by 2025.
This has seen platforms such as Facebook and Instagram launch shopping functions integrated into their channels, enabling e-commerce businesses to reach a whole new generation of consumers that they could not have reached earlier.
Aimone Ripa di Meana, founder and co-chief executive officer of Crea, tells The Drum: “Social commerce platforms are moving towards creating a seamless shopping experience that consumers can enjoy without the need to be redirected to traditional ecommerce platforms.“
He says: “This new customer journey enables brands to engage with their consumers from the get-go on one platform. Through social selling, brands can be more alert about the various interests, needs and wants of their customers, thus enabling them to create more tailored content for their target audiences.
“For content creators like KOLs [Key Opinion Leaders], the creation of a seamless customer experience on their social platforms will provide greater visibility into a campaign’s success and result in sales conversions. For the consumer, this set-up offers real-time interaction, helping them to connect with a KOL – or brand – and increase their loyalty over time.”
Social platforms such as Sharechat, Trell and Roposo in India are also gaining traction on their social commerce efforts by using insights to make decisions to improve customer experience, explains Yash Reddy, the chief business officer at customer engagement company MoEngage, who works with all three platforms.
“Building a social commerce experience into your social platform is not enough,” he says. “It is all about creating personalized micro-moments. You need to identify the affinity – the likes, the dislikes, the interests, and the preferences – of your individual customers and then lead them to the product or brand you know they’ll love. Social platforms can achieve this by creating customer cohorts based on these factors, identifying when these cohorts are most active on your platform and then adding nudges that introduce them to your social commerce experience.
“Social platforms also tend to use an omnichannel approach to gain visibility and get more digital-first consumers to their platform via multiple touchpoints. They execute this by orchestrating customer journeys and automating the actions to be taken. This automation also helps brands experiment with user experiences at scale by personalizing for multiple cohorts and control groups.”
Customer experience pain points in social commerce
While social commerce is on the rise, shipping costs, a lack of or unclear exchange or return policies and poor customer service are the biggest pain points for social commerce customers in South East Asia.
Globally, social commerce platforms also face challenges in managing service level agreements and prioritizing conversion-based messages, as well as poor user experience when integrating customizable options for products of varying size and limited shipping options.
There is also incomplete data capture for brands using in-app checkout, along with questions about data ownership. This results in lost sales as a cart filled on Instagram that does not stay populated once a user is asked to check out on a website may be abandoned.
Additionally, there is also social platform fees (like Amazon) charged at in-app check out, which may increase at any time, as well as search functionality differences.
Lisa Khatri, the Asia Pacific and Japan head of customer, brand and design experience at experience management software company Qualtrics, says the root cause of many of these challenges is not having a complete view of the customer, which results in frustrated shoppers because of the friction and inconveniences this can cause.
“Having a single platform helps companies address many challenges they face in creating great experiences. They can do this by centralizing all data, which also improves the security of such programs. They should also connect all data, which helps remove organization silos to boost collaboration, enabling fast, targeted action to close the loop.”
Hanif Thamrin, the social commerce lead at GroupM influencer marketing agency Inca Indonesia, points out that payment limitation is still a challenge for platforms such as TikTok, where users are not given installment options or flexibility in payment options.
However, he says these platforms are working towards integrating third-party e-wallet services within the platform to give users convenience and options. This means there will be more flexibility and more payment gateway options open for social commerce.
“Livestreaming still poses some challenges for sellers who are offering wholesale bundles to connect with buyers,“ says Thamrin. “Previously, transactions were done manually, where buyers would comment and sellers would connect with them through messaging apps. Shopee recently introduced a feature that eliminates this manual experience through ‘auction’.
“The auction allows buyers to bid for the product within 30 seconds and the top 20 bidders will be announced on the stream, giving a more convenient and automated experience between buyer and seller.”
Building capability for digital customer experiences
In more established markets, super apps such as China’s WeChat offer brands their multifunctional Mini-Program – essentially a sub-app within WeChat offering all the functionality of an e-commerce store without ever leaving the platform. Since payment details, customer details and shipping addresses are already integrated within one’s account, it makes the CX extremely smooth and enables unlimited opportunities for online promotions.
To support the expansion of affiliate marketing partnerships into WeChat Mini-Programs, Rakuten Advertising is building its own tracking solution that offers third-party tech service to enable WeChat Mini-Program for its clients in 2022.
“The affiliate solution will unlock 100% of the social commerce potential in China with opportunities like friend referral, group buying, live streaming campaigns, product recommendations and content commerce,” explains Stuart McLennan, senior vice-president for Asia Pacific at Rakuten Advertising.
“Meta has been slowly integrating commerce into Facebook and Instagram for years and allowing brands to have a more organic, commerce-driven approach that was previously only available through paid. Facebook and Instagram shops have been their main driver by allowing users to check out fully via the platforms or to shop via the platform and checkout on a brand’s site.
Brands partnering with creators to build hype around a product is also looking like a proven tactic for success with Gen Z and millennial audiences. To capitalize on this opportunity and streamline the user experience, Instagram announced in October 2021 that it would begin US testing of its in-app affiliate program, Shops for Affiliate Creators, which allows influencers and creators to set up curated shops or storefronts within their profiles.
Josh Campo, president of Razorfish and executive lead of Publicis Commerce, notes that although still in beta, it’s clear that more of these types of products will emerge in the coming year – products that work hard to remove barriers between social discovery and purchase.
“Razorfish recently built an Instagram storefront for Ram Trucks,“ he tells us. “To drive awareness of the brand’s merch, we showcased a mix of photos, videos, creator content and event updates that fans could click to shop or continue browsing. Leveraging the platform’s shoppable functionality, we gave millions a peek into Ram culture plus the ability to purchase products that help them handle the day’s toughest moments.
“That said, we cannot stress enough that these new social commerce products and functionalities are nothing more than tech without the right editorial strategy rooted in the passion points, key interests and ’mindsets’ of the audiences we’re trying to engage. A strong content strategy and creative approach is critical to making these platform offerings game changers from a consumer shopping experience perspective.”
Meanwhile, e-commerce platform Lazada is also getting into the social aspect of commerce. It has observed a trend of social sellers turning to marketplace platforms as their businesses scale, directing sales and transactions to facilitate purchases.
The platform says these sellers recognize that they can leverage the technology capabilities and logistics network of marketplace platforms to manage increased sales volumes.
Raymond Yang, group chief operating officer at Lazada, points to the example of Thailand-based fashion brand Loonnystore. “The seller behind the store pivoted to Lazada in 2019, selling on our LazInStyle platform in Thailand, which was originally launched in 2018 to help local brands that sell on social media platforms boost their business. Loonnystore relies on Lazada’s sellers’ tools to manage its inventory, and our data insights and analytics to understand its consumers’ preferences and buying patterns. In the past 15 months, the number of local merchants on LazInStyle has increased by 60% to more than 5,000, reflecting the trend of social sellers migrating from their social media platforms onto e-commerce platforms.”
Will social commerce replace e-commerce?
Even though social commerce will eventually get the customer experience strategy in order, industry leaders have mixed reactions on whether it will replace e-commerce. Gijs Verheijke, the founder and chief executive officer at fashion platform Ox Street, argues that as social commerce is just a sub-bullet of e-commerce, it is just a sales channel.
“You can compare it with customer reviews, which have been used for a long time,“ he says. “Only now it’s in video format and more professional. Personally, I believe that there will be no tilting of scales. It’s an evolution, not a revolution.”
Eli Finkelshteyn is the chief executive officer and founder of search and product discovery platform Constructor. He agrees with Verheijke, explaining that it is not good for the shopper or for the brand to always have a social platform in the middle of their relationship, saying that social platforms have not engendered trust with either.
“A social platform just isn’t as ideal for e-commerce as a dedicated e-commerce website is, even if you optimize the customer experience. Part of the relationship the best brands want to have with shoppers is curating the shopping experience and giving it the right look and feel. Social commerce, as it stands, commodifies that experience and makes it bland.”
However, Mohammed Sirajuddeen, the growth and digital commerce lead for growth markets at Accenture Interactive, disagrees, saying that social commerce fundamentally represents a real shift in power from retailers and brands to people.
In contrast to the relative anonymity of big-box retailers and transactional emphasis of e-commerce behemoths, he says social commerce thrives because people choose to spend their time cultivating relationships with brands and meaningful interactions are underpinned by the authenticity and trust that social connections provide.
He says: “It could soon become so prevalent as a destination that it converges with e-commerce and all commerce will be social commerce. For social commerce to take flight, brands must get their basic growth pivots right for a seamless commerce experience that is tailored to the needs of consumers.
“It will be a journey that brands and platforms must embark on as they will need time to align the different conditions and create a single ecosystem.”
In agreement with Sirajuddeen is Varun Sharma, the vice-president for APAC and Japan at CX platform Emplifi. He says the next generation of consumers will dictate how and where the brands should engage and notes that e-commerce, as we have known it, has always been a static experience – a product image, some text and a buy button. Social commerce, he says, is much more interactive and seamless, causing retailers to converge their presence across social and e-commerce.
“In addition to this, purpose and empathy play critical roles in brand loyalty, while social and conversational models are key in driving customer experiences,” he says. “People expect relevant, easy and personalized service, and digital self-service is huge for scaling availability across channels.
“Consumers expect to solve issues quickly with the right degree of autonomy. Having said that, the right mix of virtual and live care – e-commerce and social commerce – and anything that reduces barriers to resolution will be crucial for brands to thrive in the digital-first world.”