To a certain extent, it appears retailers are succeeding. According to Salesforce, 54% of millennials use social channels to research products before they buy. Similarly, Aimia says that 31% of shoppers use social to browse for new items.

But, does this mean they are actually buying through social?

Maybe not, because despite Instagram’s introduction of shoppable posts, plus shoppable features on Facebook, Snapchat, and Pinterest – research suggests that users are failing to actually purchase on these channels. A recent survey by SUMO found that 82% of shoppers have yet to use social buy buttons or other forms of social commerce.

So, is social still a source of pure inspiration rather than the place to purchase? Let’s get into it.

Making the leap from ‘like’ to ‘buy’

While Sumo’s survey results might sound like social commerce is stalling, it’s important to remember that it is based on the behaviour of just over 1,000 consumers. There’s no sales data involved.

Interestingly, other research suggests that sales on social are actually rising. According to BI Intelligence, the top 500 retailers earned an estimated $6.5 billion from social shopping in 2017, up 24% from 2016.

In this context, Sumo’s survey is more of an indication about current consumer mind-sets – not the potential (or even current state) of the market itself.

After all, there’s no doubt that social media plays a massive role in helping consumers find and research new products. In Sumo’s survey, 58% of respondents said that social media directly influences their purchasing decisions – a figure up from 45% in the same survey in 2016.

Perhaps what we can surmise is that, while researching products on social is commonplace, buying is not necessarily second nature. It seems that a lot of consumers typically make the decision to buy something based on their experience on social, but go on to actually purchase it elsewhere or another time (both online and offline).

The decision to buy something through social for the first time may be a barrier to overcome, meaning many have simply not made the leap yet. This is particularly the case for older demographics. Marketing Week (reporting on Aimia’s study in 2016) says that while 33% of 18 to 24-year-olds say they would like to purchase items directly from Facebook, just 10% of 54 to 65-year-olds say the same.

Friction and targeting

While some channels like Facebook offer a seamless shopping experience – allowing users to buy without being directed elsewhere – the experience is not quite the same across the board. Take Instagram, for example, with its recent introduction of Shoppable Posts. In theory, the tool is helpful, and very much aligned with user behaviour, specifically in researching and discovering new products on the channel.

But while users can click ‘shop now’ to view products, they are still directed to the retailer’s external website if they do indeed want to buy. This does feel a little jarring, and something that could be putting off potential shoppers in-the-moment.

There’s also the issue of ads – the shoppable route many retailers are choosing to go down. The drawback is that users are naturally put off by ads, with the format inherently signalling to the user that what they’re seeing is not a natural discovery, but a targeted (and therefore sales-focused) pitch.

Instagram shoppable

Personalisation elements might help this, but retailers will have to work harder to get consumers to click through on ads.

One solution to this, or perhaps more of a way to counteract it, is an authentic influencer strategy. By choosing influencers that consumers naturally trust and look up to, retailers can in turn appear more trustworthy and customer-centric. User generated content can also help, naturally instilling trust and prompting purchases.

The biggest success stories so far do indeed appear to involve influencer campaigns. Take Missguided, for example, which generated huge success this summer on the back of its partnership with Love Island.

Instagram was integral to its campaign activity, with the retailer offering users the chance to shop the cast’s outfits.

missguided love island

Capitalising on the red-hot popularity of the show, user’s real-time desire, and handy product information – Missguided saw sales surge 40% as Love Island aired. It’s likely that a significant portion of these sales were through social.

Other channels dominate

Not all retailers have found success with social commerce. Macy’s attempt to turn inspiration into purchase with Pinterest’s buyable pins failed to meet expectations in 2016 – although it’s important to remember that the feature was very new at the time.

It’s easy to point the finger at Pinterest itself here, perhaps assuming that it perform less well when it comes to conversions. Then again, Shopify reports that the average order value of sales on Pinterest is $50 (higher than any other major social platform, and perhaps due to Pinterest’s large volume of interior design content) – meaning successful campaigns can indeed reap big benefits.

With retailers like Macy’s investing in shoppable campaigns – the aforementioned example also involved cinematic pins (video ads) and promoted pins to point people towards products – it could be a case of channel overload. Especially when others, such as email, still dominate.

According to the DMA, 73% of consumers say email is their preferred marketing channel, with consumers trusting this channel (and how brands communicate within it). As a result, it’s a tried and tested conversion tool, and a continued positive influence on buying behaviour.

Oasis email
Email example from Oasis

Can we learn from WeChat and Pinduoduo?

As it stands, the journey from ‘like’ to ‘buy’ is still a big one in the UK and US.

This is not the case in China, however, where WeChat is continuing to generate success from its integrated ecommerce features (alongside social messaging). Unlike Facebook – where the path to purchase is fragmented and feels rather alien – WeChat’s ‘apps within an app’ model, plus its ubiquitous and user-friendly Pay model, makes it far easier.


Another app that has found success in China is Pinduoduo, which fuses together social and ecommerce in a more literal way, by allowing customers to secure low-price deals by rounding up their friends to purchase the same item. The gamification element means that users are naturally drawn into the buying mind-set, with deals and discounts incentivising purchases. Another bonus is that Pinduoduo is integrated into WeChat, which also allows new users to discover and use it there.

There is no single app that dominates the West quite like in China. Maybe WhatsApp and Facebook come closest, but they still lack the functionality and multi-faceted nature of WeChat.

There is a lot to learn, however, with a seamless user experience and payment process making buying just another form of social behaviour. The market here has yet to catch up, but with Mary Meeker recently noting that ecommerce referrals from social networks has risen 4% in the past three years – perhaps we’re making slow progress.

Econsultancy offers social media and ecommerce training.