Social Commerce: An Idea Whose Time Has Come (Again)

With all the buzz about Social Commerce these days, you’d likely be able to convince most people that it’s a brand new idea, something so unique and different that companies are undergoing massive change in order to accommodate this new friend-influenced shopping model. All the social networking technology that’s available out there is enabling consumers to share and gather opinions, feedback and proffer influence over product selection. The fact is, the technology is fairly new, but the social aspect of shopping isn’t.

Some companies have implemented the technology side of the equation and are still trying to work out a larger social commerce strategy. Others, it could be argued, are in exactly the opposite situation. And let’s be honest about what Social Commerce is:  Is it just placing a Facebook “Like” button on a product page or allowing shoppers to “Tweet” about something they like?   I don’t think so. That’s a good idea, but it’s just scratching the surface.

Social Shopping has been around for years and has been pioneered by companies that don’t have a mainstream approach to business. Consider Tupperware. Founded in 1946 by Earl Silas Tupper, the company rose to prominence based on a unique direct marketing strategy, the Tupperware Party.  The party selling concept was actually developed at Stanley Home Products, but was refined and made truly successful at Tupperware. Brownie Wise, who left Stanley Home Products to join Tupperware in 1951, said it best:

 “If we build the people, they’ll build the business.”

These parties, usually of several friends and acquaintances, occur at the home of the party’s host, and include product demos, conversation about the products and the opportunity to purchase products that are delivered at a later date. I’ve had the opportunity to witness one of these parties that my wife hosted in our home many years ago. There was a lot of commentary about products with most people openly expressing some degree of like or dislike for products. This type of interaction is very similar to what should be modeled online. The advantage to the online model is that the experience can include thousands of people, perhaps millions, instead of just a few close friends.

It is interesting to note that Tupperware began to sell their products at some big box retail outlets and it reportedly hurt sales. If this isn’t proof of the value of selling certain products in a social setting, I’m not sure what is. Let’s take a look at what Tupperware did with their 65-year-old social commerce strategy:

  • Products were sold in a casual, comfortable setting
  • A shopping atmosphere was created where feedback from other shoppers could be instantly heard and discussed.
  • Invitations to purchase products were received from a friend or acquaintance
  • The only way to purchase product was through a party invitation
  • Hosts shared in the benefit received from sales

So, these aren’t actually new marketing concepts. The medium is newer, but the concepts have been proven, time and again by companies like Tupperware. The challenge is how to implement these concepts in new media and overcome the urge to use technology to limit the experience, instead of enhancing and expanding the shopping experience. Learn from companies like Tupperware who pioneered an early social commerce experience:

  • Make your online shop a friendly and informative place. Endeavor to build an expanded community, not just an expanded audience.
  • Allow positive and negative commentary to be shared on your site and product pages. This is invaluable to demonstrate to your customers that you care about, and respond to, critical feedback.
  • Consider Private Event Retailing to encourage shoppers to step behind the “velvet rope”. Make the shopper as important as the shopping experience.
  • Consider compensating shoppers for attracting other buyers through credits, free product, etc.
  • Integrate with social networks that engage a high percentage of your target market. Study your online analytics and how shoppers are responding to campaigns.
  • Interact with current and potential customers through social networks, social apps and plug-ins. Offer a variety of avenues for social interaction and focus on those that work best.

When thinking about Social Commerce, it’s important to approach the topic from a perspective that is inclusive of proven process and not solely from the technological perspective. Choosing to exclude or ignore social shopping behavior prior to the invention of the technology-based social network could come at a high cost and prove to be rife with trial and error. This isn’t to say there aren’t fresh new ideas for Social Commerce but Earl and Brownie had some pretty good ones, too. The point is simply to avoid being blinded by the glare from the bright-shiny Social Commerce object causing one to head down the road with their eyes shielded.

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