Charting the future of public relations
Social Commerce: The 'Holy Grail' For Communicator
Arun Sudhaman
Holmes Report
President/Editor-in-Chief

Social Commerce: The 'Holy Grail' For Communicator

Arun Sudhaman

As the latest attempt to connect social media to sales, Twitter's  new 'Buy' Button is a development that should be of particular interest to public relations pros. This may seem a strange conclusion to make in a week when the digital skills gap in the PR industry again came to the fore. Yet, when comms agencies are deciding where to focus their digital investment dollars, the case for social commerce is very hard to ignore. "For communications, the idea of being able to drive commerce from conversation is the holy grail," points out MSLGroup account Matt Dickman. The rise of social media has seen comms departments and PR agencies typically focusing their efforts on the content and relationship opportunities that the various platforms offer, in line with their existing earned media capabilities. The importance of paid media skills has begun to shift that equation, a process that is only likely to be accelerated by the rise of social commerce, which finally offers communicators the ability to 'close the loop' between social media engagement and sales. It is a beguiling proposition for an industry that would dearly love to prove it can deliver concrete results, rather than the vanity metrics that have come to dominate social media marketing. After all, what is more tangible than actual sales metrics? As Zaheer Nooruddin, VP of Waggener Edstrom's Studio D unit in Asia-Pacific, explains, social media has so far largely existed at the top of the marketing funnel — potentially helping a brand's awareness, amplification and engagement. Among savvier marketers, he adds, that role has extended to the middle of the funnel, going beyond engagement to create brand affinity and advocacy. Meanwhile, a number of newer Asia-Pacific social platforms, most notably China's WeChat, offer an e-commerce system with social engagement capabilities layered on top — the 'socialization of ecommerce' as it is often described. "Through WeChat you can book a car, order a pizza and have a conversation about a TV show with a friend," says Dickman, helping to explain why so many Chinese PR firms are keen to invest in or partner with e-commerce specialists. The launch of Twitter's 'Buy' Button, along with similar initiatives at Facebook and Instagram, approach this from the other direction. "In the US, early social networks began with a focus on social engagement and are now layering on commerce functionality, but have a way to go before they parallel the APAC networks," explains Dickman. Nooruddin is more bullish, believing that this trend has "the potential to disrupt retail, online and mobile commerce businesses, and marketing in so many ways." "What is happening now, for the first time at scale, is that social is setting itself up to bring commerce directly to its audiences, in-site and on-platform," adds Nooruddin. "By closing the loop between time spent on social and buying/shopping, social media takes on a entirely new meaning and ROI value for brands." In particular, says Nooruddin, the rise of social commerce sees a shift away from search and display advertising as the primary digital means to "buy audiences." There are, he believes, clear implications for a marketing communications industry that can now use realtime digital content to prompt sales. "In my opinion the significance of these new social commerce developments cannot be understated." As everyone in the comms world is only too aware, offline purchases have proved difficult to link to PR efforts. In the online world, Dickman believes that the "elusive target" of linking brand engagement to commercial transactions may finally be within reach. "By allowing for close integration with the right messaging, communications agencies can test messages, refine techniques to drive sales and take more advantage of paid media spends to drive measured results." Not everyone, though, believes that social commerce has finally been cracked. "At the moment, I don't see consumers adopting Twitter as an everyday shopping destination," says We Are Social global MD Robin Grant, who also cites Facebook's struggles to develop a credible commerce offering. "Flash sales, one-off promotions or offers could perform well on the platform; sustained sales are a very different ball game," he continues. "When marketers tire of the novelty, Buy Now could well end up alongside Facebook Gifts in the social commerce graveyard." The transient appeal of social commerce options, furthermore, may not necessarily sit well with consumers that are attuned to approach buying decisions based on consistency, trust and experience. "There is a reason we buy candy as an impulse at the grocery store," says W2O Group president Bob Pearson. "It’s right next to the register, it’s not expensive and we think 'why not'.  But we don’t make impulsive decisions for the rest of our shopping trip. If Twitter can build an experience that is trustworthy, consistent and stands for something, eg great value, yes.  If Twitter is simply the conduit for others to sell, it will remain a random experience with random upside." Complicating matters further is the continued desire among many users to keep their social media experience free from commercial messaging. "Balancing the conversation with the bottom line has become an increasingly tenuous balancing act especially in the FMCG space," says Dickman. "This leaves brands and agencies having to deal with consumer demands to shop where they want to shop and be social where they want to be social." All of which probably means that communicators and PR firms will need to better understand buying behaviour rather than assuming that digital content and distribution skills will automatically drive purchases in the brave new world of social commerce. "We must understand how people actually buy, how they build loyalty towards a brand and what they define as a great experience," explains Pearson. "We need to go so far beyond the typical paid media model that it will take time to get this right. Expect many to fail on the road to success, but we’ll get there once we focus on the experience over time, not the transaction of a moment." Additional reporting by Aarti Shah
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