Over the last few years, social media’s value in e-commerce (and for that matter ALL commerce) has been hotly debated. Today, there are increasing examples of retailers seeing significant traffic and sales from social media sites. Visual discovery sites like Pinterest and Wanelo are bridging the gap between social sharing and shopping. Skepticism remains, but most digital marketers would readily admit that most all campaigns today contain some social element, and that they believe there’s value in it, regardless of a direct correlation to sales.
But what about the role of social on the merchant’s site itself? I recently took a pass through a large number of e-commerce sites and quickly concluded that many online merchants are “anti-social” when it comes to their shopping experiences. While their marketing might have social components off of the site (Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, YouTube channels, Pinterest pages, the list goes on), the sites themselves often do very little to bring the customer’s presence and voice to the shopping and buying experience other than via ratings & reviews and the obligatory “share” buttons on the product page. We’re doing a lot more in social marketing than we are in social merchandising.
My view is that we’re missing opportunity. When social components are well executed on e-commerce sites, they can bring a whole new level of benefit to the shopper, and help merchants sell more in the process.
Though some of these are not new, here are a few of my favorite examples of unique, helpful social merchandising features:
1. Rent the Runway’s customer photo gallery: Lots of sites invite customers to post photos of themselves, but not that many have a meaningful population of customers that actually do it. And, many sites don’t do a great job of making the customer photos contextual and useful in the shopping experience. Rent the Runway is a rare exception. I can sort customer photos by height, age, bra size and dress size to see how people of a similar age/size/shape look in their rented garments, and immediately click to rent the dress in the photo. There are a number of reasons why this feature works so well for Rent the Runway. Mainly, customers wear these dresses to special occasions where photos tend to get taken, so there’s a natural content source at the ready. Renting a dress for a special occasion is daunting. Seeing how it looks on “real” women is a helpful reassurance for the shopper to go ahead with the rental.
2. Sur la Table’s customer collections feature: For those of us that love our kitchens, there’s a seductive lure to a site like Sur la Table. There are always more things that you want than that you can ever afford or fit in your kitchen. There’s no way that even the best category navigation (and theirs is very good) can provide the level of inspiration and discovery that the assortment deserves. By letting customers create their own merchandise collections (from the serious to the whimsical) and displaying them contextually on product pages, customers become merchants, and shoppers have a helpful and engaging way of discovering products that they might not have ever found or looked for. Sur la Table merchants get the benefit of seeing how their customers think about pairing up products, and of knowing what items their customers want; valuable insight that can be used in email messaging, re-targeting campaigns, etc. It’s all good.
3 .Online Shoes’ use of customers’ product attributes in faceted navigation: It’s great to offer your customers the ability to write a review. Even better if you let them rate the product on specific attributes like comfort, style, and quality in addition to letting them make free form comments. But Online Shoes take this idea one step further and allows shoppers to navigate the site via attributes assigned by customers. In the examples below, you’ll see how Online Shoes lets me filter my results based on how customers use the shoes, and why they like them. While this information typically lives on a product page, surfacing it higher in the customer’s browse path brings a whole new level of helpfulness.
4. Modcloth’s “Be the Buyer” feature: It’s received plenty of press, and rightfully so, so I won’t dwell on it. For the fashionista/stylist wannabe, this is a totally engaging and fun way to cast your vote and get a glimpse of upcoming trends in the process. For ModCloth, it’s a huge win. What fast fashion retailer wouldn’t want to minimize the risk of buying the wrong inventory? And of course, there’s the just as powerful data collection about individual shopper preferences, which has an ongoing payback factor.
5. Wal Mart’s trending page: Remember the old days when sites used to actually put the date and time in the header of their home pages to indicate that the site was “active” and that someone was managing it? Or worse, those awful “traffic counters” that appeared at the foot of so many infrequently visited sites? So glad those days are over. But the concept of showing immediacy and customer activity on a site is absolutely right. The flash sale sites of course do this well, with limited time offers, countdown clocks and disappearing inventory. For the more “traditional” e-commerce sites, drawing shoppers in with teasers of what others are looking at, buying and reviewing sends a message that you have what’s hot and that this is a place that people are shopping at and talking about. Who knows, what customers have picked out might be a whole lot more interesting than what you decided to feature on the home page carousel. Wal Mart shows what’s trending on various dimensions (best selling, recently bought, recently reviewed, recently pinned) but also shows me what trending items are available in the store near me, if I’ve got to have it today.
If you think that social is all about marketing, think again. By selectively bringing the social conversation into the shopping path, online merchants can create unique, brand appropriate and helpful experiences that pay off at the cart.