There was a time when platforms like Facebook and Instagram offered little more than ‘vanity’ metrics for retailers, rather than tangibly affecting their bottom lines.

A few years ago, an over-stretched finance director might have been cynical about money spent on advertising and marketing on social media.

Building brand awareness was seen as relatively fluffy compared to more impactful investment on matters such as sprucing up the store estate.

However, that narrative has shifted in recent years as social platforms continue to bolster commerce capabilities.

Last month, Instagram launched its Shopping capabilities in the UK, which enable users to click on pictures in the app and receive product and price information, and even go directly to the buying page should they choose to purchase items.

“The brightest developers in the world are working for Facebook and Instagram, and they are all trying to get people to spend money on their website”

Tom Ollerton, We Are Social

The photo-sharing social network follows its parent company Facebook, as well as Pinterest and Snapchat, all of which have developed equivalent commerce capabilities on their respective platforms.

It’s gone from an arguable vanity exercise to undeniably big business – and We Are Social innovation director Tom Ollerton says its high time retailers got on board.

“Retailers need to really double down on how they can market, advertise and sell on those social platforms, because they’re dominant and will only become more so,” he says.

“There is relentless investment in social commerce, which will undoubtedly pay off. The brightest developers in the world are working for Facebook and Instagram, and they are all trying to get people to spend money on their website.”

Is Instagram Shopping a game-changer?

For many retail newcomers, social platforms have been crucial for driving brand awareness and revenue.

Footwear etailer Public Desire has leaned particularly hard on Instagram as a means of pushing sales. It launched its Instagram page before its ecommerce site in 2014 in order to gauge reaction from the 16- to 25-year-old female shopper that makes up its target audience.

For this reason, Public Desire’s social media executive Sophie Hunter says the launch of shopping capabilities on the platform will be “massively game-changing” for the etailer.

Public desire

Public Desire launched an Instagram page before its own ecommerce site 

“It’s the main way we’re hoping to drive [sales on Instagram],” she says.

“Instagram obviously generated revenue before, but we’ve already seen an uplift since the launch of Instagram Shopping and we’re expecting really big things.

“Before it was so hard to get the customer to complete the journey to the actual purchase page and now it’s only a tap away.”

“Instagram Shopping will definitely drive discovery of garments, so it will be interesting to see how the user journey develops from using Instagram as an entry point”

Josie Cartridge, River Island

River Island’s customer director Josie Cartridge agrees that Instagram Shopping will likely drive a tangible uplift in sales via the platform.

She says the retailer has already seen a boost in engagement traffic and sales since its launch.

“I don’t think it’s revolutionary for the channel, but I do think it will make it a lot easier because the user journey before was quite clunky,” she says.

“It will definitely drive discovery of garments, so it will be interesting to see how the user journey develops from using Instagram as an entry point and if they will explore other things or just come for the item they clicked on.”

Social sway

Cartridge says that, for River Island, Facebook and Instagram have been “by far” the most impactful social platforms when it comes to customer engagement and sales.

However, Catherine Chappell, paid social account director at digital marketing agency iProspect, is not convinced that Facebook will maintain its level of influence over spending habits in the future.

“I think platforms such as Instagram and Pinterest will continue to grow and own this demand space,” she says.

“Not only are people looking for inspiration, but they want a seamless experience once they have found what they want, and both platforms are expanding to accommodate social commerce.”

Indeed, Pinterest’s retail vertical strategy lead Amy Vener says the website exists in the sweet spot of being a source of inspiration for customers who are on the cusp of making big life decisions, such as getting married or moving house, and are looking to spend.

“People come to Pinterest when they are actively considering what to do or buy next,” she says.

“Because people are open to new ideas, content across categories – from home decor to fashion and beauty – all perform well.

“When people shop in-store, the store merchandising guides them to the right decision. Pinterest recreates that experience online through visual discovery features.”

Pinterest Burberry

A Burberry Pinterest board 

The platform’s shoppable adverts in the US and Canada have delivered real returns for retailers, with home and DIY chain Lowe’s seeing a 76% higher return on investment from its ad spend on the platform than it had anticipated.

If you try to sell it, they won’t buy it

The very thing making social platforms so potent a sales channel may be the fact that those scrolling through them are not there to be sold to.

For pureplay activewear retailer Gymshark, Instagram has been key to brand awareness and sales. So one might naturally think news of Instagram launching shopping capabilities in the UK would be music to its ears.

“Social media is all about humanising the brand. When you turn it into a shopping window, it actually has a detrimental effect on engagement”

Elfried Samba, Gymshark

Not so, says Gymshark head of digital community Elfried Samba.

“First and foremost, to put a shopping cart all over your posts makes the platform feel like a transactional relationship, whereas we want it to be an emotional one,” he says.

“Social media is all about humanising the brand.  When you turn it into a shopping window it actually has a detrimental effect on engagement and therefore has a detrimental effect on your reach.”

Gymshark insta

Gymshark has long used Instagram to drive brand awareness

Samba explains that Gymshark trialled Instagram Shopping in the US, but found that offering multiple calls to action for shoppers to buy product saw the etailer’s engagment and followers on the platform actually start to fall.

“We became very stagnant from a sales perspective,” he says.

“The more and more you’re serving product and prices, the more turned off the user is going to be.

“By seeking to drive a sale, you lose interest, which ultimately means you lose the sale.”

Authentic content

Hunter agrees that the social content that feels most authentic to Public Desire’s 1.2 million followers is that which drives the most revenue for the etailer.

“The content we put on our Instagram feed from bloggers that we shot ourselves does far better than anything that looks like a traditional advert, because people don’t want to be sold to,” she says.

“They want to feel like they’re having the Instagram experience, so sales are generated from the more organic things. Social is massive for us in that way.”

Ollerton believes this perception is why social platforms face an uphill battle to be accepted as out-and-out shopping platforms by their users.

“People don’t go to social to shop – you’re at a very different part of the purchase journey at that point,” he says.

“You don’t go to Amazon to hang out with your mates, you go to buy a kettle you know you want. Google helps find it, Amazon helps you buy it – Facebook is not in the mix.”

Nevertheless, in a world where the internet is the most viewed shop window, getting noticed on social is a guaranteed way to improve sales and engagement.