The Evolution of Social Commerce

Social commerce even includes activities you have no control over.
Social commerce even includes activities you have no control over.

The term “social commerce” isn’t new, but new expressions of it are emerging. Yahoo first used the concept of social commerce online back in 2005 when they introduced the “Shoposphere” and “Pick Lists,” where users could create lists of products available through Yahoo Shopping and provide their personal thoughts.

As social media platforms emerged, social commerce grew to encompass the various ways businesses used social media to support the shopping experience, drive sales, and draw attention to their products.

So how has this evolution shaped the way we see social commerce today?

What is Social Commerce?

Social commerce is the process of using digital social spaces to sell, discuss and shop for products. While some definitions isolate the term to describe how social media platforms are transforming into marketplaces, it has included a much broader range of activities for well over a decade. 

Digital advertising that caters to individual users (such as Facebook Ads or Google Ads) is social commerce. Posting photos of your products on social media is also social commerce. Linking to your product pages and sharing videos that promote your products are too. 

Social commerce even includes activities you have no control over. User-generated content such as forum threads, reviews, posts and tweets all fall under the umbrella of social commerce when they serve to influence how people think about products and help people make decisions about them.

It’s a broad term. And if you work in e-commerce, you’ve probably heard it conflated with another broad term: shoppable media.

Social Commerce vs. Shoppable Media

While the two phrases sound the same, they are very much different. Shoppable media is a function within social commerce that enhances the customer journey. It allows consumers to choose their preferred retailer and allows brands to control the path to purchase. Shoppable media makes it all possible from any social commerce content, whether it be a video, image, review — really any shared content. It gives viewers all the context and functionality information they need to shop. 

Just as social commerce blurs the line between social media and shopping, shoppable media blurs the line between traditional content and shopping, and it’s not isolated to social media.

Shoppable media can appear anywhere: in a blog post, on a landing page, on a social platform — where it would also be an example of social commerce — even on physical product packaging.

Social commerce and shoppable media both refer to the convergence of shopping and social media, where content merges engagement with sales. However, when social commerce is enhanced with shoppable media, so much more is possible.

[See also: Top 10 Retailers for Social Engagement]

Take an Instagram post with tagged products for example. While the comments that advocate for or recommend against these products are social commerce, they are only considered shoppable media if the consumer can click through, shop retailer choices, and act on the urge to buy.

So even though these two phrases sound interchangeable, they’re not. Remember that social commerce is an entire category, while shoppable media is but one function within that category — just as apples and Asian pears may look the same, but one tastes completely different than the other. 

How Social Commerce is Evolving

Social commerce has come a long way since Yahoo’s Pick Lists. In recent years, there are three major ways that it has evolved.

Native Checkout

Checkout on Instagram opened the door to a brand-new form of social commerce: native checkout. By facilitating the entire checkout experience within Instagram, the social media app empowered its users to buy products right from their feeds. Instead of simply providing a platform for brands to interact with customers, Instagram effectively became a retailer. 

Initially, Checkout on Instagram was only available to a handful of elite brands, but it’s becoming increasingly accessible for ecommerce brands of all shapes and sizes. And while Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest were the first social platforms to experiment with this form of social commerce, they won’t be the last.

[See also: Evolution of How Consumers Shop]

Brands that want to utilize native checkout experiences need to rethink their relationship with social platforms. And since social platforms simply leverage existing distribution systems and supply chains, brands need robust direct-to-consumer channels to use native checkout as well.

User Marketplaces

In the old days, someone who wanted to sell their old sneakers on Facebook had to offer them up in a post to all their friends, hoping someone they knew might be interested. In recent years, they’ve introduced a dedicated marketplace for that. Now consumers can resell products to locals they don’t know, or even ship their items further away. 

This “Craigslist-ification” of social platforms has created new backchannels for third-party sellers who don’t want to attract a brand’s attention on a marketplace like Amazon or Walmart.

Like it or not, these marketplaces are part of modern social commerce, too. 

Shoppable Media

Shoppable media is one of the more exciting ways social commerce has matured. Today, brands can use technology to provide consumers with more choice and context before they click through a link. Instead of merely driving everyone to their D2C store, the brand can link to several retailers from a single intuitive menu, along with pricing information and ratings pulled right from the corresponding product page. 

When consumers see the brand’s products, they already have an ideal path to purchase in mind, and factors like price and ratings can lead them to choose one path over another. If they want a product but don’t see their preferred path to purchase, they’ll often hop over to Google or a retailer’s search engine and continue shopping there.

A brand can’t tell when someone deviates from a narrow, predetermined path. And if they buy, the sale is untrackable.

Surfacing the information consumers need to shop and highlighting more than one path to purchase gives brands greater control over the shopping experience. 

Sean Reiter
Sean Reiter

As the chief marketing officer at PriceSpider, Sean Reiter is responsible for conceptualizing and executing comprehensive marketing strategies to put PriceSpider top-of-mind and grow sales opportunities. He has more than 20 years of marketing and strategy experience for SaaS, software, technology, B2B and B2C companies, ranging from hyper-growth to Fortune 500. Born and raised in Orange County, CA, Reiter earned his bachelor’s degree in sociology followed by a graduate certificate in organizational leadership from Chapman University.


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