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eCommerce IS Social Media – so step up to the plate

By George Eberstadt

The essence of social media is that the content comes from users.  A social graph is important for some types of social sites, like Facebook, where posts tend to be of interest only to people who have a connection to the poster.  But it’s not essential.  I can lose myself quite happily in Pinterest without following or being followed by anyone.  It’s the UGC (user-generated content) that’s the key.

So by that definition, should eCommerce sites be considered social media?  Emphatically YES.  On many eCommerce sites, most of the content is user-generated.  On this page on Backcountry.com (I don’t know if it’s representative – it’s the first one I clicked on), the word count for reviews and Q&A is 1,125, while the combined Description and Technical Specs word count is 179.  On this page on Adorama.com, the word count for Social Q&A is 6,116.  The word count for customer reviews is 1,302.  And the combined word count for Overview, Features, and Tech Specs is 478.

And yet eCommerce sites rarely think of themselves as social media sites.  Most of the larger brands and stores we work with have separate teams for “site experience” and “social media marketing”.  That makes sense.  You want to organize your teams around the 80% of things they focus on uniquely, not the 20% of things where responsibilities overlap.  But a consequence of this way of organizing is that the social aspects of the site experience often get too little attention.  The site experience team needs to focus on page design and navigation and check-out and cross-sell/recommendation and branding and loads more; social interaction is just a small part of their mandate.  The social media team, on the other hand, has become the center for expertise on how the store interacts with its customers, and how to encourage customers to interact with each other and spread the good word.  But the social media team’s domain is everywhere on the web except the store site; that belongs to the site experience team.

With the social mojo focused off the brand/store website, and the store site team spread thin, it’s not surprising that the user experience on most store sites is not very social.  But just ’cause that’s how it is doesn’t mean that’s how it should be.  In fact, by ceding the social arena to the social media sites, most stores are missing huge opportunities to create value.  A different approach, which recognizes that eCommerce IS social media and makes social a high-priority responsibility of the site experience team, can address many of the toughest challenges that online stores face.

Challenge #1: Differentiation.

If other stores also sell the same products you sell, then your product detail pages probably look a lot like theirs.  Likely, you both get the same product descriptions from the manufacturer and use the same images.  Not only does this leave you competing solely on price (yuck), it means you have little chance of generating search engine traffic organically.  Whatever margin you have left is going out the SEM window.

But social content is unique.  Build social engagement on your storefront and you can generate content no other site has, increasing the value you bring to your shoppers as well as your performance with search engines.  (Jack Kiefer, CEO of BabyAge.com, has a great discussion of this point in this recent webinar.)

Challenge #2: Customer Support.

Pre- and post- sales, customers have questions.  Sometimes these questions get posted on social media sites.  But  more often, those customers come to your site, and one way or another (email, phone, livechat) they end up in your call center.  That costs you $, and it doesn’t always make your customer happy.  While many inquiries need your staff (e.g. “where’s my order?”), many others can be handled at least as well socially.  Past customers are often more accurate, faster, and more persuasive than your own team.  Really.  Here’s some hard data.

And here’s a little illustration:  I stumbled on a customer question recently at Overstock.com about a chair I had bought from them.  This person couldn’t figure out how to make it recline.  Since I sit in it all day long, I had a pretty good idea what the problem was.  AFTER I sent in my answer, customer service posted a vague “We want to help you…” non-answer.  Then, to my gratification, the asker wrote back that my post indeed solved the issue.  (See it here.)  Social (1), Customer Support (0).

 Challenge #3: Loyalty

Shoppers who engage deeply with your site are more likely to direct-navigate back to your site the next time they need to buy something, rather than just typing the thing into Google and going where ever that leads. So what opportunities for deep engagement do you provide?  Social interaction is the most powerful tool you’ve got in the engagement tool kit.  In fact, in a recent study, we found that first-time buyers who interact with Social Q&A while shopping are 15-40% more likely to make a repeat purchase within a year than first-time buyers who don’t.  (Blog post on that coming up.)

Further, social gives you an opportunity to reach out to your past customers and invite them back to your site that is completely different from the usual promotional material you send.  For example, past customers click through on shopper question emails and return to the store site to answer at a 10% rate.  And the unsubscribe rate on these emails is typically ~ 0.2%.  Most stores using the TurnTo Social Q&A system tell us that, by these measures, this question email is one of the best performing marketing emails they send.  Period.  Not to mention that the purchase conversion rate for these past customers who come back to answer is 2-4X higher than that of normal shoppers.

With benefits like these, it’s time for site experience teams to recognize that eCommerce IS social media and start prioritizing projects that socialize the on-site experience.  Leaving social to the social media team is leaving money on the table.

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