There's more to social strategy than a robust platform, or so says Kim Celestre, social commerce analyst at Forrester Research. Data-driven insights into how customers engage with the company website are a must for choosing a technology approach and a social platform that fit the organization's needs. In other words, companies that want to tap into the power of social commerce will have to do some up-front research. Businesses need to carefully evaluate third-party capabilities and services, particularly their ability to help optimize and integrate features that operate across devices.
E-commerce companies competing in today's environment must incorporate both mobile and social as an integral part of their strategies.
In this article, five technology vendors discuss their strategies for developing social platforms that both engage customers and integrate with enterprise systems. Their different approaches demonstrate the variety of services that are available to organizations interested in experimenting with social commerce. Their expertise will also alert beginners to some problems that may crop up along the way.
Most vendors have made sure their platform is easily integrated with existing systems, Celestre said, and companies will likely have to rely on this infrastructure to simplify the development process and focus on what matters: customer experience. A key selection criterion is how well the social platform will operate on mobile devices. "E-commerce companies competing in today's environment must incorporate both mobile and social as an integral part of their strategies," said Michael Quoc, CEO of ZipfWorks, a Santa Monica, Calif.-based media lab that specializes in online shopping. Celestre agreed, noting that social platforms should simplify and optimize usability across many different mobile devices. After all, that is where people spend most of their time.
"Obviously, mobile is a huge part of the changes we're seeing in online purchasing behavior. Consumers are increasingly using mobile apps on smartphones and tablets to shop, do research and ask friends for recommendations when making purchase decisions," Quoc said. However, device constraints like slow connectivity and small screen size seriously complicate development. Sacrifices need to be made to build a mobile app that is both attractive and operational. That is why ZipfWorks takes a user-guided approach to the design process: "We begin with the target user and examine their shopping behaviors across devices and social networks. This becomes a topographical map that guides how we design our app -- what devices to support, how the experiences across apps should connect with each other," he said. Quoc calls this process iterative design. It works like this: ZipfWorks builds a basic prototype, obtains user feedback, builds a new prototype, obtains user feedback and so on. "We iterate in this way until we have an end product that resonates with users, and we do this across the different device platforms we're supporting," he added.
This U.K.-based social marketing company has developed a platform that establishes customer relationships through the collection and analysis of social data. Richard Jones, CEO of EngageSciences, believes that targeting and segmentation based on social data make a rich profiling tool, once they're integrated. "Once you have implemented your social tracking and your social marketing database, you need to ensure that this data is integrated into your [customer-relationship management] platform. There should be no silos of data." In other words, the cohesion of your marketing strategy depends on the cohesion of your architecture. Only then can you target the fans who matter.
Rosh Singh, managing director at Gamaroff, sees interoperability as a key player in social commerce. "We're not a traditional, native-mobile-app-building company. We look at ways that we can deliver experiences cross-platform, across mobile, desktop, Web and native." He gave the example of their work with Stella Artois. As part of their promotion, customers with the mobile app got a free beer. Once they went to a bar to get it, the mobile app broadcast a message to their friends, who, in turn, received vouchers. Singh says that the integration challenge of such a promotion is significant. "It would be hard to push this in bar promotion to their whole network, so we work on a small level. We do a lot of the work for them. We develop something that doesn't have to touch their internal systems." So, the goal is device agnosticism and by extension, simplicity. Oftentimes, this rules out native apps as a viable development option. "We want people who are on Windows phones, Android, iOS and BlackBerry and whatever other operating system to interact with what we're doing, and we want it to be simple. We want the steps between them seeing a call to action and engaging with our platform to be as minimal as possible. A native app has just a few too many barriers."
"The essential issue that all online retailers wrestle with is, shoppers have questions," said George Eberstadt, CEO of TurnTo. To tackle this issue, the New York-based company provides social Q&A platforms for online merchants. As Eberstadt pointed out, no one knows more about a product than the person who owns and uses it every day: "You can use purchase behavior as a pretty good proxy for expertise." Routing customer questions to previous customers has the added advantage of raising conversion and SEO, he added. Two TurnTo clients said that the integration challenges of implementing social Q&A were minimized by its flexibility. "There is a lot of flexibility with the application, so the hardest part is dictating how you want it to look and feel and layer into your existing integration," said Zachary Ciperski, vice president at Coffee for Less. Anthony Bucci, CEO of Revzilla, an online retailer that sells motor sports gear, said that scalability was his main concern: "Tools, teams, processes and technology need to be scaled to meet the demands of the organization without losing an inch of customer satisfaction or reputation."
Luckily, TurnTo has a low-impact approach to integration that makes it a more manageable choice for a growing company like Revzilla. TurnTo is particularly simple in its mobile app philosophy. Eberstadt believes that because social Q&A is automated and instant, it is well-suited for mobile devices: "I think when all the dust settles around trying to figure out how to make mobile shopping work, the simplified version of the mobile shopping experience is going to look like this: There's going to be two big buttons. The first one says, 'Know what you're looking for? Click here.' The second one says, 'Need help? Click here.' And social Q&A is going to be what powers that second button."
Fluid Inc. is a San Francisco-based digital agency that focuses on e-commerce. Amy Lanigan, its vice president of client strategy, believes that when ecommerce is done right, it is a fundamentally social transaction. "We're starting to see people drop the social in front of commerce because social's becoming so engrained in commerce itself." That said, organizations need to strategically use technical and social tools to reach the potential of this up-and-coming strategy. Steve Reichgut, Fluid's director of engineering, said that people are beginning to move away from responsive design as a means of emulating a Web experience on mobile. Instead, they're reimagining mobile's role in social commerce: "There is a new viewpoint that mobile is a different experience and needs completely different iterations depending on the context of what the person is doing."
One of the advantages of mobile is something Lanigan calls "in-the-moment buying." For example, someone caught up in the excitement of a concert is more likely to buy the band's merchandise then someone sitting in their living room. However, developing an app that is simple enough to use mid-concert is a demanding prospect. This kind of development requires the ubiquity of a Web app and the complexity of a native app. According to Reichgut, this is why hybrid tools have been growing in popularity in the social commerce space. "I'm seeing a lot of popularity with hybrid tools, which let you develop using Web technologies but also interface via APIs to the actual functionality that's available on the device so you can build out a much more robust experience."
This was first published in November 2013