For those of us who have been in the industry for some time, the idea of social commerce is not a new concept. In fact, it was 2005 when Yahoo! first coined the term and discussed bringing social’s power of influence together with commerce. Yet 14 years later, many still consider the idea of an entire online purchase taking place solely within a social network to be a novelty.
As with any technology that requires a change in long-lived habits, social commerce has already gone through multiple cycles of big bets, widespread skepticism, wins, losses and ongoing debates. While some industry experts believe the marriage of social and commerce will never move far beyond the research and recommendation phase, others, like me, are eager to watch it evolve into an all-encompassing, efficient, enjoyable experience.
And my instincts tell me that Instagram could be the platform to lead that charge into mass adoption of social shopping. (Full disclosure: My company’s platform integrates with Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest.) All of the most popular social networks have dabbled in the commerce game, some with better outcomes than others, but I believe Instagram has consistently stayed the course.
The Nature Of The Platform
Back in 2014, Twitter — seemingly way ahead of the social commerce curve — introduced its Buy It Now button for retailers, but the network abandoned the button. Then Instagram introduced ‘shopping on Instagram.’
Was Twitter just far ahead of its time? A more fitting explanation may be that some social platforms are ideal shopping destinations, while others are venues for different types of customer engagement. Both Twitter and Instagram made informed strategic decisions. Twitter recognized that the textual nature of their platform wasn’t conducive to e-commerce-led interactions, so they course-corrected. Instagram, which is designed for visual-forward content, seems perfect for telling brand stories and showcasing products.
Since day one, Instagram has followed a strategy timeline that has kept the social platform at the forefront of the e-commerce evolution. It launched as a simple mobile photo-sharing app in 2010, so the visual-first aspect of the platform already positioned it as a place to share pictures of wish-lists and product recommendations.
After Facebook purchased the app in 2012, it introduced sponsored posts, and the retail love-affair with the social network began. Soon Instagram Stories rolled out, along with location tagging, which allowed posts to link back to brand websites. The success of brand promotion and Instagram’s elevation to a strong social network for influencer marketing seems to have cleared the path for a low-friction entry into social commerce.
In my personal opinion, making Instagram and other platforms shoppable changed the face of social commerce. Social commerce makes the path to purchase shorter and less complicated. The recent launch of Instagram Checkout in particular now allows users to purchase products they discover without leaving Instagram.
These features allow merchants to deliver tailored content and personalized engagement, along with a simplified purchase process, which I believe will make consumers’ time spent interacting with brands on the social network worth their while — the ultimate marketing goal.
How Instagram Can Stay On Top
I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that Instagram’s parent company, Facebook — the world’s largest social network — likely offers the platform some major advantages in the industry. Facebook may be facing its share of challenges as it strives to retain users and sits at the center of the global privacy discussion — and I’m still waiting to see whether its marketplace will pay off — but it can still offer vital resources and support for Instagram.
Furthermore, I believe that part of Instagram’s success in social commerce stems from its ability to offer a shopping experience that feels authentic and native to the brand. While the app does incorporate sponsored and advertorial content, I feel that it’s seamlessly integrated into all the user-generated content a consumer would scroll through. This makes it feel additive to the experience, rather than intrusive. That said, as Instagram — and its parent company — seek new revenue models and ways to continue to add value to its business partners, they will likely explore additional advertising opportunities. This is where I think the company needs to be careful. Moving too far away from what drew consumers to an app in the first place can put continued consumer use of the app at risk. Instead, I believe Instagram — and all social platforms looking to engage consumers through commerce — should invest in understanding the factors that bring consumers to the channel and then double down on maintaining those elements of the experience. Keeping the core customer top of mind every step of the way is one of the best ways any platform can continue to flourish.
Will Instagram be the only network that achieves notable success in social commerce? No, I certainly hope not. Both Snap and Pinteresthave seen some notable wins in the social shopping category, and the possibilities for new players to emerge are endless. From where I stand, though, Instagram has made a series of smart business decisions that have securely positioned it as the leader in the social commerce landscape, and I am eager to see what they have in store for us next.