For over 20 years now, shoppers have used e-commerce sites to buy stuff. Throughout that time, marketers have worked in a paradigm of intention: figure out what people are looking to buy, then make it easy for them to do that. This paradigm ignores a simple truth: People like to shop.

Although buying something is a part of shopping, it's just the culmination of the shopping experience. Shopping entails the process of finding something, having that something spark some joy in you, and then building up enough desire to finally make the purchase.

At the grocery store, shoppers stumble upon cheese they can't pronounce and 8%-alcohol craft IPAs they'll pretend to like. Those encounters seem serendipitous, in part because stores make them feel that way. The aisles of e-commerce provide none of that delight and inspiration for shoppers. But social media does.

To explore why consumers find inspiration on social and how that translates to e-commerce shopping, we at Curalate conducted two surveys, in 2017 and 2019. We found that most brands are leaving a huge opportunity for improving product discovery untapped.

To capitalize on that opportunity, brands need to understand why and how consumers have shifted their shopping behaviors. Notably, they're not just purchasing online; they're now shopping online, too, and that's a critical distinction.

If the previous 20 years of e-commerce were about funneling intent, then the next 10 should be about fostering discovery.

The Rise of Discovery on Social Media

In March, when we compared the results from our 2017 and 2019 social commerce surveys, we found an important disconnect: Demand for shopping experiences online is rising, but e-commerce sites are failing to meet that demand.

Instead, product discovery is growing rapidly on social media: In 2017, 58% of consumers said they had discovered a product they were interested in buying on social; in 2019, 82% of consumers said they had discovered such a product.

At the point of discovery, consumers are most likely to pivot to research, not purchase. Shop tags on Instagram, for instance, are primarily used to find the product description (52%) and price (52%) or to learn more about the brand (38%).

The drive to learn more about products is positive on the surface, but outsourcing discovery to social media has several disadvantages for brands:

  • First, social media is an environment full of distractions: A brand gets a fleeting moment in the feed, and so do its competitors.
  • Second, social media accounts for a small fraction of e-commerce traffic: Most consumers never get exposed to inspirational social content in a way that fosters discovery while they're shopping on a brand's website.
  • Third, the social algorithms optimize advertising impressions rather than the purchase of advertised products.

If consumers enjoy discovery on social media, it would make sense for brands to offer e-commerce sites with a social twist.

What Needs to Be Done

If your brand is ready to pursue that untapped opportunity, here are a few pieces of advice.

1. Change the relationship between social marketing and e-commerce

Most companies have divided the work of marketing and e-commerce into two departments with minimal overlap and incentives that are not only different but also sometimes at odds.

For example, some social media marketers usually measure their performance by engagement. Their KPIs are about reach, clicks, likes, re-grams, and comments. Meanwhile, e-commerce teams optimize conversions: the percentage of visitors who buy a product.

Aesthetically, they may live on different planets. E-commerce teams favor product images shot on basic backgrounds and product descriptions that prioritize technical detail over emotional content. Social marketers are more likely to promote a mix of influencer content, user-generated content, and brand media that emulates the more informal, authentic feel of the social networks.

There's missed opportunities in both camps. With our clients, I often find that the hottest images on their social channels are not the images that get the most views and purchases on their e-commerce sites. If you think about the process of shopping, it makes sense: 38% of shoppers told us they click shoppable images on Instagram to see more items from the brand. In other words, engagement with social content doesn't necessarily reflect the shopper's intent.

Social and e-commerce teams need to become aware of what's blowing up on their counterparts' channels: If a product is going wild on social, the e-commerce website can funnel the hype; and if something is trending on the e-commerce site, marketers can promote the hell out of it on social media.

2. Think of discovery in new dimensions

We tend to think of product discovery as finding out about the existence of a new product. That's particularly important for brands that have tons of SKUs that change seasonally. But what if you sell only a few products that change infrequently?

Discovery needs to encompass learning about a product's diverse use cases and applications. A blender, for instance, is just a cheap, expensive, or reasonably priced blender to the price-shopping buyer. But the brand that can publish creative recipes and how-to videos from chefs and customers inspires the shopper to see more than a blender. They see a dinner party starting with Thai-spiced soup or a new morning routine of green smoothies.

That content fits the social-style presentation that consumers want to see more of on e-commerce sites.

Bed linens are another good example. Their colors and attributes don't change often. Even so, a creative brand can show bed linens in diverse color combinations and environments so that every shopper can see the full potential—and feel inspired.

3. Make community a discovery too

People have an innate drive to discover community. That is one of many reasons why they log onto social networks to hang out with strangers. They are looking for people who share their interests and empathize with their passions, perspectives, and struggles.

Brand communities have largely existed on social networks. Why not bring them to e-commerce sites? A social media feed is meant to hook attention and divert it to as many different dialogues as possible. An e-commerce site can be more like a subreddit that attracts a consistent group of people, defines the topic of conversation, and lays out rules of engagement.

I am not suggesting that your brand community will supplant the popular social networks. Being on the major networks is essential. Rather, an e-commerce site that fosters product discovery, inspirational ideas, and community gives consumers a reason to show up and stick around.

The e-commerce site becomes not just a place to click purchase, but a place to hang out.

Balancing Intent and Inspiration

The experience of product discovery took form in the brick-and-mortar era then colonized social media. There, social users want to research rather than buy products immediately; but, when they arrive at traditional e-commerce sites, the inspiration that sparked their interest is missing.

That disjointed shopping experience leaves billions worth of e-commerce revenue on the table. The shift to product discovery and inspirational shopping requires that marketers and e-commerce teams either collaborate or merge. It also requires brands to infuse e-commerce with social interfaces, content, and community.

Social media began as a conversational medium, grew into an awareness channel, and finally evolved into an engagement channel for brands. The culture and style of social media has reshaped technology in every industry. In the decade ahead, social media will redefine the experience of e-commerce, too.

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image of Apu Gupta

Apu Gupta is a co-founder and the CEO of Curalate, a social commerce solution, enabling brands to leverage their social media presence to sell more effectively online.

LinkedIn: Apu Gupta

Twitter: @apugupta