The end of social commerce 1.0?

Written by
Justin Benson
Publication Date
February 22, 2016
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I recently saw the news about CosmicCart being acquired by PopSugar (full disclosure, CosmicCart is a Spreedly customer). That came on the heels of PayPal acquiring Modest last August. Consolidation appears underway in the social commerce technology space. In addition, there's been stories about disappointing traction for Pinterest's commerce initiative (buyable pins), with large retailers reportedly seeing less than 10 transactions per day. Social commerce initiatives at Twitter and Facebook have also experienced stop/start existences (mostly stop?). Messenger apps like SnapChat flirt with commerce but, given the lack of traction experienced by others in the US, seem to be wisely holding back. 

So what went wrong? It seems to be driven by one major tactical and one major strategic consideration. Tactically, managing payments and inventory is hard. Companies like Spreedly, Stripe and PayPal are trying to help solve the payments piece. On the inventory front, the launch of Stripe Relay, and PayPal's acquisition of Modest, are designed to help solve a wide range of issues around displaying and fulfilling inventory across sites. It's too early to tell if they're going to be successful or not, but the challenge is certainly very large. 

 The second critical reason, and harder to solve than even hard tactical challenges, appears to be intent. The explosion of mobile use vs desktop might be a bit of a head fake when it comes to social commerce. Ben Thompson at Stratechery covers this well- Secondly, though, while using a PC required intent, the use of mobile devices occupies all of the available time around intent. It is only when we're doing something specific that we aren't using our phones, and the empty spaces of our lives are far greater than anyone imagined.All that time on mobile on social sites equates to browsing, creating tremendous advertising revenue opportunities for social networks. 

Purchasing, even with wonderfully frictionless single click checkouts and mobile payments, requires intent. And intent appears to be no more present (and due to the challenge of small screens perhaps less so?) on mobile than desktop. And mobile + social, at least today, appears to be very unconcerned with intent to purchase. One way to test this theory is to look at mobile apps that are doing well with commerce. Uber, one of the earliest and best mobile payments experiences, starts with a very clear intent to purchase a service. SeatGeek? Clear intent to purchase tickets. Amazon, clear intent to purchase,well just about anything. 

Apps focused on intent to purchase from the very beginning, and thus branded in the mind of mobile users as designed for such, are currently succeeding at mobile commerce. Perhaps starting with meta-search (vertical mobile apps focused on optimizing search results) and then branching into commerce is also a viable road given how close search and buy intentions can be. What does that mean for social commerce 2.0? The continued adoption of simplified payment options like Apple and Android Pay will help improve conversions. Solutions like Relay or Modest might help ease the challenges around inventory management. Without intent though, none of that matters very much. 

The way Facebook does payments well is if Messenger (its stand-alone messaging app) becomes a significant player as a customer service tool ("how would you like to pay for the plumber visit tomorrow?"). Or if Twitter can create a stand alone service with the customer support that is already happening in a massive way on its platform. These examples all rely on new apps or services from existing social players to drive or capture intent. Without it, there's just a lot of browsing which, at best, might result in an Amazon price search and one click buy.

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