Modern retail and e-commerce have become nearly synonymous in recent seasons.
While online shopping was on the rise pre-Covid, the pandemic pushed even brick-and-mortar devotees to turn to their mobile devices for a retail fix. Social shopping—or the facilitation of commerce through social media platforms like Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat and TikTok—has also accelerated as homebound shoppers desperately turn to these apps for entertainment and connection.
This rapid digital evolution hasn’t always been smooth sailing for some heritage brands, especially luxury players that have relied heavily on exclusive, expertly choreographed fashion shows and artfully curated stores to drive their labels’ cachet. Their popularity wasn’t built on SEO or the calculated deployment of hashtags. In fact, the accessibility that social media touts as its most prominent advantage undermines the very premise of haute couture.
Just last week, Bottega Veneta’s social channels went dark, with the Italian luxury fashion house’s Instagram—which boasted more than 2.5 million followers—suddenly vanishing from the site. Whether the move was a public relations stunt or attempt to drum up buzz about a sparkly social media relaunch is yet to be seen, but a December interview with the brand’s creative director, Daniel Lee—a veteran of Celine, Donna Karan, Balenciaga and Maison Margiela—revealed that some fashion players may be skeptical about the rising role of digital.
Following a decision to showcase its latest collection at a small-scale London salon in October instead of participating at a virtual version of September’s Milan Fashion Week, Lee opted to release his work to the posh and privileged via a physical mailer containing a tote bag and look books featuring show imagery and inspirations. “I think the strength of what we’ve done so far really has been focused on the product and really focused on the physical objects that we’ve made,” Lee told Vogue last month. “So for me, I kind of started the idea really thinking product first.”
Social’s here to stay
But while Lee and his ilk may already be more focused on creating beauty in the physical realm, digital shows no signs of slowing. According to social media marketing firm Socialbakers, consumer and brand reliance on social commerce is on the rise.
“If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that massive disruptions can happen overnight across industries,” Socialbakers president Yuval Ben-Itzhak said. Social media is playing a greater role in overall brand marketing, and social commerce in particular is poised to “take an even bigger bite of the e-commerce pie.”
Socialbakers’ forecast for 2021 is wholly reliant on the channel’s acceleration in 2020, which saw Shopify adding 62 percent more stores to its platform between March and April—when the pandemic truly took hold across the globe—compared to six weeks prior. “Now that social media platforms are building more features to manage everything from product discovery to in-app purchasing, post-purchase customer care and customer management,” Ben-Itzhak said, “it’s a no-brainer for businesses to take advantage of the reach and infrastructure offered by social media platforms.”
Shoppers have responded with gusto, he added, saying that consumers are “more receptive to buying products via a brand’s social channel” than in previous years. Social platforms are quickly picking up on those cues, and “are getting more savvy when it comes to designing tools that accelerate the path to purchase,” like simple checkout processes and the ability for brands to respond quickly to customer service inquiries via direct messages or comments. Building social commerce into the customer journey can safeguard brands’ earning potential in this new retail landscape, Ben-Itzhak said, as no one knows when or if the shopping experience will ever return to status quo.
For now, many brands are banking on a digital future, and have already begun augmenting their ad spend on social channels, according to Socialbakers’ data. Q3 saw brands doubling down on Facebook and Instagram investments, spending up to 61 percent more than in Q2, and reaching pre-pandemic levels despite Covid’s manifold disruptions. “We account these major lifts in ad spend to brands gaining an elevated confidence in social ad campaigns with consumers spending more time on their social feeds and more money online,” Ben-Itzhak said, adding that he fully expects the trend to continue into 2021.
And as the role of social media in e-commerce continues to grow, so too will the role of influencers—specifically “micro-influencers,” or personalities with “smaller, more niche followings,” he added. That pivot began in early 2020, as this group “emerged as high-value resources, bringing high impact without the high-dollar price tag of macro and mega influencers” like fashion models, reality television stars, musical artists and athletes. Data from Socialbakers revealed that more than 60 percent of the collaborations between brands and influencers were with tastemakers who have less than 50,000 followers.
While tens of thousands of followers seems like a massive reach for any regular Joe, Gen Zers across the globe are quickly and organically growing sizable followings on viral platforms like TikTok. Brands can and should take advantage of this homegrown star power, according to Traackr co-founder and CEO Pierre-Loic Assayag.
Brands that are interested in working with micro-influencers should seek to partner with those who have “cross-platform power,” he said. “A great way for brands to get started with TikTok is to utilize partnerships with influencers who have strong followings on TikTok and Instagram Reels,” the Facebook-owned photo-sharing platform’s short video creation feature that is also quickly gaining traction, especially with young users.
Assayag advised brands to “give talent creative freedom,” as popular TikTok users likely have a strong understanding of what kind of content performs best on the app. “They’ll know what kind of videos their audience wants to see from them and what kind of trends to utilize,” he said, and unlike Instagram, “it isn’t as critical for your influencer partners to have an identical aesthetic as your brand.”
TikTok is a powerful platform for organic trends and viral content, and brands that are looking to play without paying too dearly should consider “trend hacking,” he said, or latching onto existing hashtags and movements. The trend and hashtag #OOTD, which stands for “outfit of the day,” is already a hit on TikTok, he said by way of example.
The platform has become an enticing one because of its “mass user base and high engagement rates,” Assayag added, but it’s still important to “test, measure and iterate” when it comes to strategy.
“People are still relatively unfamiliar with social commerce,” he said, adding that it has been more widely and deeply adopted internationally than stateside. In the U.S., many social shopping features are still new to shoppers, he argued, so brands should ramp up their spend as consumers familiarize themselves with shopping socially and become more trusting of the process.
A slow-yet-steady adoption timeline may be in the cards for most brands anyway, as many were forced to pull back on budgets for marketing, among other business functions, during a year filled with operational headaches. “One interesting thing we found in early holiday data is that while paid influencer collaborations were down from last year, the number of engagements increased slightly,” Assayag said, by 5 percent. “This may mean that even though brands pulled back on spend this year, audience appetite for branded influencer content is still there.”
That’s because social platforms like TikTok and Instagram “were built for visual content consumption,” making them a perfect fit for industries like beauty and fashion. “People want to see what a swatch of lipstick looks like on real skin before buying it,” he explained. “They want to see how a piece of clothing hangs and flows on a person as they walk.”
Social platforms also act as optimal vehicles for storytelling, which is becoming increasingly important as consumers display greater interest in and concern about the sustainability and ethics behind the products they buy. “There are a lot of sustainable fashion brands that use social media to show how [they create] sustainable products, and visually illustrate the impact this process has,” he said. As consumer demand for eco-friendly products continue to rise, brands will “pop up” to fill that demand, he added. “I expect we will see a higher density of those products on social media too.”