f-commerceNearly every e-commerce site these days has a “like” button on its product pages. But what does that really do for increasing the bottom line? Is it the best way to engage your customers? Are there better ways for e-commerce companies to integrate social into their buying experiences? And how can brands fully leverage their fans on social to build loyalty, advocacy, and increase purchase frequency?

To answer these questions (and many more!), I went to the bleeding edge of social commerce. Based in Portland, Oregon and founded in 2009, ShopIgniter is a rapidly growing, social commerce software company that helps retailers and brands leverage the social web to extend their reach, promote products and generate revenue. I got the opportunity to speak with Marko Muellner, SI’s Senior Director of Marketing.

Ben Fowler: Let’s start at the beginning: How do you define social commerce? What are its components?

Marko Muellner: There are many different definitions of social commerce and the category seems to span from deal vendors like Groupon to social shopping sites like Fab.com to companies like 8th Bridge, who help brands put Like buttons on their existing eCommerce sites, all the way to companies like ShopIgniter, who’s focused on helping brands go from product discovery in social to purchase.

The key components of social commerce broadly are:

  • Uses social networks like Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Google+ and YouTube to drive product discovery
  • Drives to some sort of commerce either online or off
  • Or is invite-only and requires a referral/social connection to participate

BF: How do those components manifest on Facebook?

MM: Facebook itself doesn’t enable any transactions outside of their Facebook Credit offering. There has been much speculation about Facebook expanding their Credits program to include broader eCommerce offerings but they haven’t done this yet.

With the move away from FBML within the Facebook Pages and Apps worlds, brands and retailers are able to create rich experiences within Facebook and they can now easily include commerce functionality. There are vendors that offer easy to set-up and use Facebook storefronts for small businesses as well as companies like ShopIgniter that offer richer and more end-to-end solutions for bigger brands.

That being said, the first wave of f-commerce proved that most customers aren’t on Facebook to shop. It has also largely been proven that most people aren’t on your online store to be social. In the next wave we expect to see more vendors trying to bridge the gap between product discovery, which is happening more and more in social networks with the help of Pinterest, Fancy and Polyvore, for example, and the path to purchase.

In other words, you can do just about anything you want in Facebook and we think the next wave will include more brands getting serious about promoting products in new and interesting ways.

BF: In your Social Commerce Playbook you point out three elements to product strategies for brands and marketers: rich posts, social product experience and seamless purchase integration. Can you quickly define those and talk a bit about their importance?

MM: The purchase path from social looks like this:

  1. Awareness + Discovery
  2. Participation + Consideration
  3. Decision + Purchase

The strategy we outline in The Playbook takes each piece, dives into strategies for each and provides guidance for digital and social marketers looking to promote and sell their products.

In social, the most important part of the experience is the stream. On Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, etc., everything that’s important happens in the stream, whether we’re browsing or posting. This is where awareness and discovery happen. The networks know this and are hard at work making stream posts more and more compelling. Facebook has introduced Timeline and a few big and beautiful post types like the Gallery post, for example. Twitter has introduced their new Cards API and Pinterest is a beautiful photo world to begin with. The richer the streams get the better they are for promoting products. In Facebook for example, we can already enable buying directly in a wall post and that experience is going to get better and better. Executing rich posting plans are essential.

As you shared, what we call “social product experiences” are at the heart of how marketers need to think differently when promoting products. Instead of posting and linking to your existing .com or online store, social customers need a “transitional” experience to allow them to stay in-network, explore the products more, learn, share, comment, earn rewards and potentially buy. These experiences can come in many different shapes and sizes but must be focused on key objectives and must make it easy for fans to buy if they choose. Lastly, since 50+% of social customers are on mobile devices, these experiences must be optimized for both smartphones and tablets and must account for these different contexts, especially when it comes to checkout.

The last piece to the puzzle is making it easy to buy. This doesn’t mean that all social product experiences need to be full-function stores; in fact, integrating existing eCommerce carts is a great solution for many big brands and retailers. Regardless of the underlying technology, social customers expect that if they do finally decide to buy that it’s as easy as possible.

Generally, our recommendation is that where the experience lives is determined by where the customer accesses it. If someone is coming from Twitter or Pinterest, the experience can be a standalone web-based app. If they’re in Facebook keep them in Facebook, and if they’re on a mobile device make sure the design is responsive and that the experience is right for the device.

BF: Of the three elements, you say the key lies in creating good social product experiences. What does a good product experience look like and where should such an experience live?

MM: The recipe for success in social commerce is simple on paper:

Rabid Fans + Special Products + Special Experiences = Success

Study after study shows that social fans and followers tend to be a brand’s most rabid customers. Perfect.

But presenting the same old products you’re pushing on your online store just doesn’t work. The products need to be special — this is key. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to convince your company to create a whole new awesome product to sell on Faceobok, although that would be great, it just means you need to get a little creative. Can you get a famous designer, celebrity or influencer to make a small set of exclusive versions of a popular product? Can they sign it or wear it or have a special color made … The ideal situation is to have a series of exclusive products you can roll out over time, this builds anticipation and excitement — perfect for social.

Now you need to make the experience special. Do you have video of how the products were made; can you tell the story in photographs or do interviews? Do you have an existing loyalty program that you can integrate into your experience so people who share or comment or buy can get rewards? If not, you can build that into your experience, no problem.

Omaha Steaks Social Store

Regardless, your social product experiences should be driven by your overall business and marketing objectives. If you’re focused on acquiring new customers then experiences that are more focused on sharing and amplification are better. If you want a big burst of buzz, new fans and sales, then a flash sale would be great. If you want to sell exclusive products all year then you need a social store. There are many examples of great social product experiences, here are a few links:

Disney’s Vinylmation

Give with Target

Omaha Steaks Social Store

BF: I can see social media or community managers sweating over how much of their FB activity should be promoting social product experiences versus the brand engagement stuff. In your view, what’s the right mix?

MM: There’s no set ratio. Product promotion should be driven by seasonal and brand calendars and when there’s something special to share. Many marketers have gone too far the other way, not mentioning products at all because they think fans will revolt. We encourage them to ease back in and be more thoughtful and interesting in how they promote products. At this time of year it makes the most sense to start thinking about holiday. If you’ll have special promotions, sales and products start planning now. Those plans will help you find your messaging balance.

BF: In the Playbook you also indicated that engagement drives amplification, loyalty and purchase. A lot of retailers have had challenges establishing the link between engagement and sales. Can you show how community engagement (via comments, shares, etc.) connects to a purchase? And what types of engagement are most effective?

MM: When fans engage in a poll or contest they are not in a product discovery or consideration mind set and getting them on that path is impossible. As we’ve learned in eCommerce, when customers are shopping things like rich product imagery, reviews and merchandising impact conversion rates. In social product experiences, the goals are usually to both amplify (shares, comments, likes, retweets and repins) and to drive consideration and purchase. More product-specific actions like “want” buttons, add to cart/wish list and watching product videos, for example, are much more likely to drive sales.

BF: Retailers and brands sell tons of products. How can they most quickly determine what’s worth promoting on social? And what product promotion method seems to work best?

MM: There are a few ways to figure out what products to promote and how to promote them:

  • Think special. Any product or collection that has a story you can tell is great. Either how it’s made, who it’s made by, the designer, where the ingredients come from, etc.
  • Take a small set of your most popular products and make them special. They’re already popular and you’re going to build on that.
  • Do some research. Take beautiful pictures of some of your best products and post them to Pinterest, Twitter and Facebook and see which get the most engagement. Run polls to your Facebook fans around product ideas. Or get deeper and work with your consumer insights team or an outside agency to better understand who your fans are and what they like.

Once you have some products in mind then planning the experience should flow from key objectives. If you want to reward fans with exclusives across your seasonal calendar, build a social store where you’ll update products, let fans vote and earn rewards, etc. If you want a big burst of buzz and sales then consider a flash sale, etc.

BF: From your experiences have flash sales worked well on FB? If so, what sort of tools or services are out there to help a retailer or brand implement a flash sale on FB?

MM: Flash sales with special products can be amazing in social. Not only do they drive sales but the buzz and lift in new fans and customers can be great too. ShopIgniter is the only vendor I know of that can create, manage and measure flash sales of significant size. There are smaller storefront vendors like Ecwid but they’re not built for large brands and retailers.

BF: What’s the best advice you can give to social media managers trying to integrate product experiences into their current FB content stream?

MM: Here are a few things:

  1. Work with someone in your eCommerce or retail team. They can help with product selection and merchandising, commerce systems and the basics of selling.
  2. Don’t be afraid and get excited. If you’re excited about a great set of products then you’re going to create a great and successful program. If you think the products are dull, they probably are.
  3. Social and commerce are complicated, unfortunately. Make sure you have a partner, either an agency or a solutions vendor, who has done this before. Rely on them for guidance, best practices and to solve creative and technical challenges.
  4. Think long term. One-off product promotions can be successful but you have products to sell all year long so think of programs that can be somewhat repeatable.
  5. Focus on inspiring your fans not selling your products. They love you because of your products and if you give them something they want and make it easy to share and buy, they will.

BF: Are there tertiary effects from successful social product experiences? For example, have you seen a brand’s overall SEO improve or see them get a boost in customer satisfaction ratings from such efforts?

MM: We’ve seen a few interesting tertiary effects:

  • When cross-referenced, we’ve seen brands find that more than 50% of their fans and followers aren’t in their CRM database. For some it’s even higher. When social product experiences include opt-in tactics then these efforts can jump start or accelerate existing retention programs.
  • We’ve seen an increase in buying by loyalists in some cases. When fans feel special or have access to exclusives they tend to buy more. This also drives higher Net Promoter Scores (NPS) and similar satisfaction ratings.
  • We’ve also seen improvements in awareness. The magnification of social and the ability to target sponsored stories and promoted tweets, for example, can increases a brand’s reach and frequency in interesting ways: “Why are all my friends liking Target all of the sudden,” “I’ve been seeing these guys everywhere,” “That movie Jodie posted was really funny.”

BF: Anything else you would like to add?

MM: For what it’s worth, here are some numbers we’re able to share on ShopIgniter’s social product experiences:

  • Better Engagement – Up to 75% of users participating & sharing content vs. avg Facebook post engagement of 0.11% for Retailers.
  • Higher Amplification – Up to 2.5 stories and shares generated for every user vs. share buttoned Product Pages, only 0.36% have even 1 Like.
  • Increased Conversion – Up to a 28% conversion rate for products sold via a social showcase vs. avg convert rates of 0.6% for Facebook & 0.4% for Pinterest linking straight to a .com.

BF: On better engagement, when you say social product experiences can bring 75% of users “participation and sharing” vs. 0.11% avg FB-post “engagement” for retailers, are we really talking apples to apples here?

MM: Not apples to apples but more an indication of the increases in participation, amplification and conversion that can be achieved with a more full-featured strategy. Relying on stream posts and links to .com just isn’t enough.

As I touched on a little bit, social product experiences can have all sorts of engagement actions from the standard Likes, shares and comments to voting, “wanting,” playing, adding to wish list or cart, capturing opt-in or lead info, etc.

[This post originally published on Facebook Advanced.com]

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