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Buying Outside of the Bricks: Shopping Shifts to Social Platforms

What does it mean to go shopping these days? For many, a trip to a store’s website has replaced the trip to the store. And for a growing number of consumers, especially the younger crowd, shopping is happening online—but increasingly at nontraditional destinations and on the social platforms where they spend so much of their time.

Technology and social media have all but dismantled what used to be a very linear, and fairly tidy, retail experience: the consumer has a need, goes to a store, and fulfills the need. Done. Rinse and repeat.

That process has now fragmented. Demand generation happens everywhere and customers are making it all too clear that they want to shop on their terms, at the moment of their choosing. Though the buzz around social commerce started years ago, a flurry of new announcements and partnerships indicate that selling through social is showing signs of maturity.

With its visual appeal and straightforward UI, Instagram has emerged as the platform of choice for many apparel brands. As users have flocked to the site—topping 800 million at last count—businesses have followed, totaling 25 million with profile pages by November 2017, a major increase from 15 million in July, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg revealed in the company’s 2017 fourth-quarter earnings call. The platform serves 2 million advertisers, a figure also on the rise, and encourages product discovery and inspiration. “About two-thirds of the visits to Instagram business profiles are from people who don’t follow them,” she added. What’s more, 80 percent of users have connected with a business on Instagram, and with 300 million daily, engaged consumers, the platform has emerged as a can’t-miss destination and natural storefront.

In recent years, Instagram has steadily increased usability, incorporating tools and features designed to improve engagement. Its Stories feature, seen as a direct response to Snapchat Stories, packages together a number of photos or videos and has been key in strengthening relationships between businesses and consumers. In fact, one third of the most-watched Instagram Stories were posted by business customers, Instagram COO Marne Levine shared at the NRF Big Show. Just this week, the platform took further aim at commerce, testing in its news feed—and with limited retail partners—shoppable Collection ads. Collection ads digitize a brand’s product catalog, positioning video content above a curated carousel of product images. Tapping on a product picture takes consumers to the brand’s website. Clearly, Instagram is experimenting with the best ways to put products in front of eyeballs for maximum impact.

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[Read more on social media: Snapchat Slides Into Social Commerce With Snap Store]

It’s worth noting that brands implementing Instagram’s shopping features can see an immediate impact. Soon after getting access to the platform’s shopping tools last fall, Ken Natori, president of lingerie label The Natori Company, said in a statement that the brand saw a 100 percent increase in revenue and a 1,416 percent jump in Instagram referral traffic to its e-commerce site.

Still other brands seek out more intimate engagement with customers on the social platform. Outdoor Voices, an active apparel brand that aims to be the “anti-Nike,” relies on Instagram to forge an emotional connection with customers who increasingly offer feedback in the comments section of brand posts. Because followers are so engaged, Outdoor Voices sees the need to have social staffers reacting in near real time to foster a two-way conversion. That kind of high-energy interaction drives significant value, CEO Taylor Haney said at NRF.

J. Crew has also had success leveraging Instagram to inform product development, using a teen-friendly polling sticker to generate feedback on the right colorway in which to manufacture a sweater.

For the busy holiday shopping season, British fitness apparel brand Gymshark ran Black Friday campaign ads across both Instagram Stories and Facebook videos, targeting lookalikes and custom audiences on the road to a 9.3x return on investment over a two-week period, Sandberg told analysts.

While large apparel companies have partnered with Instagram to great success, there’s growing proof of the platform’s power for small- and mid-sized brands and startups. Some brands have been able to scale as a result of their dedicated social followers, such as iELM, formerly a mom-and-pop children’s wear startup that credits Facebook for half of its sales. As a result of its growth, the founders left Sweden and moved back to Romania, where they opened a factory that now employs more than 100 workers and fulfills orders to Austria, Germany, Romania and Sweden, according to Sandberg.

Reading the news and shopping, too

In recent years, retailers have awakened to the need to go where the customers are instead of simply expecting them to come to a brick-and-mortar location. In the physical world, that could be a music festival or a sporting event. Online, e-commerce remains big business—just ask Amazon—and yet some brands are broadening the scope beyond their sites and even social.

Earlier this month, eBay and Mashable, the tech and culture media platform, said they’re working together to make Mashable’s content shoppable for eBay products. Leveraging readers’ trust in Mashable’s “expert recommendations” and the “consumer discovery power of eBay,” the partnership is yet another step forward for out-of-the-box thinking in retail as well as a desire to meet customers at the point of inspiration and tempt them to transact.

“We know a lot about how people shop on our site, but less about how they shop off it,” Dan Burdett, head of eBay EMEA Marketing Lab said in a press announcement, “so we wanted to bring a simplified shopping experience that brings products to Mashable’s passionate audience rather than expect them to come to us.”

The partnership is designed to be a test to gather consumer data for the Marketing Lab on the factors—from seller reputation to order delivery time—that most influence shoppers when they’re purchasing off the eBay platform.

The pilot should yield actionable insights to drive future growth at eBay.

Instagram’s Levine echoed the need for greater experimentation in order to keep up with demanding and fickle consumers. “People are willing to purchase from mobile. What hasn’t kept pace is how that’s done,” she told the NRF crowd, encouraging retailers to “go faster” with new ideas.