Why Social Commerce is so hard

I was recently on a Social Commerce panel (photos here) for Social Media week hosted by Digitas in NYC.  (Thanks Beth McCabe, Noah Mallin, Jonathan Burg, and fellow panelists Matty de Castro of Facebook and Bob Tuttle of 8th Bridge!).  One of my fellow panelists put up a screen shot of the Levi’s Friends Store as an example of Social Commerce and provided an opening I couldn’t resist.

Look in the lower right: Levi’s has 2.9m Facebook fans.  That’s 2.9m people who have agreed to allow Levi’s to send them messages in Facebook.  Not bad!  Now look at the Original 501 Stonewash jeans.  450 people have liked this.  Only 450 people.  How many people do you think own these jeans?  And Levi’s Friend Store was Facebook’s poster-child ecommerce partner when they launched the Like button.  In fact, for several months, Levi’s entire online store was the Friends Store.  (Even now, the Friends Store is one of the main menu options.)  So it’s not like the feature was hidden.

Thank you Levi’s for providing such a clear illustration of the main challenge of Social Commerce.  What’s working well for Levi’s is leveraging Facebook to enable dialog between the brand and their customers.  That’s the 2.9m fans.  But that’s not Social Commerce, it’s Social Media Marketing.  Social Commerce is encouraging commerce-related conversation between customers.  That’s what the Like button next to the individual products is for.  That’s the 450 people who have Liked the 501 Stonewashed.  And that’s what’s not working.  (You can define the terms differently if you like – I don’t really want to provoke an argument about definitions; the distinction between customer-to-brand vs. customer-to-customer is what’s important.)

Why is it so much harder to get people to share product and purchase information with each other than it is to get them to accept marketing messages from a brand?  The biggest reason is this: the stigma against shilling has not disappeared just ’cause now we share on social networks.  Any time a statement can be (mis)interpreted as “trying to get your friends to buy something”, all sorts of alarms go off.  Not to mention all the other baggage that goes along with sharing on wealth-related topics.  (She can afford that?!  Is that the best he can afford?!)  Content sharing on social networks has been a runaway success.  But when the subject of the sharing is product/purchase/commerce, the sharing rate falls off a cliff.  (Acknowledging some exceptions: discount offers, especially deep ones, get shared.  And commerce objects of exceptional interest get shared – I’d argue that this is better understood as content sharing, tho.)

Does this mean that if you sell stuff, you should forget about trying to connect your shoppers and your customers with each other?  No way.  You can try the discount-offer and too-cool-not-to-share end-runs.  You can even go the full-on viral content route where your brand/product message is just a low-profile passenger.

Or you can try a radically different approach we call Contextual Sharing.  More on that in a later post.