E-commerce is coming of age

e commerceThe moment social networks became a thing, the e-commerce world knew it had to react. There was so much new data to be tapped, so many new platforms and methods to leverage.

For obvious reasons, Facebook has been a tent pole of this evolution – and has often stood on shaky ground. The importance of realizing the potential here can’t be emphasized enough: while we’ve thoroughly analyzed how committed we are to social networking, a thorough understanding of how to monetize this has somewhat eluded brands. The process of figuring that out has been one of trial and error.

That’s why Facebook’s new marketing and advertising infrastructure announcements have created quite a stir: social platforms are finally starting to unearth social e-commerce’s potential.

Open Graph and Timeline to F-commerce’s rescue

open graph launchWhen we were introduced to the Open Graph earlier this year, we quickly realized what it meant for Facebook and what it meant for brands. And it’s now clear that this is entirely how Facebook plans to evolve its e-commerce platform — at the sacrifice of the old model. The digital Facebook storefront is no longer an option.

A few years back when F-Commerce came along, brands like Levi’s, 1-800-Flowers, and Gamestop were understandably excited. Unfortunately, there may have been a little too much blind faith involved in this first attempt. “F-commerce failed because it was a virtual bridge to nowhere,” CEO and co-founder of Maximize Social Media Chris McLaughlin tells us. “Why nowhere? The fact is that users very rarely revisit a page after they click the Like button. It’s estimated that only 4 percent of users visit a Facebook page after they like it – instead they engage with the business through the popular newsfeed, where they can comment or click Like without leaving the newsfeed.”

So it was something of a wasted effort: creating a second digital storefront – one that rarely got any eyes. In recent weeks, they’ve been shutting down in handfuls. When asked about this, GameStop (one of the first to open its digital storefront) declined to comment. But the answer is clear: this method has been made entirely irrelevant.

It’s arguably going to mean more work for brands using Facebook. Creating the Facebook-facing online shopping locations was relatively easy, at least in comparison to creating a Timeline app (a process which is still entirely unclear). Hiring someone to develop a Facebook landing page and customizing it can be an endeavor, but it’s still not as involved as app development. Couple that with the expectations of becoming an app for Timeline, and you have some serious standards to meet. It’s just more work.

timeline exampleStill, with work comes reward. Brands’ and businesses’ time is better spent investing in immersive apps that gamify and socialize the shopping experience, rather than in simply creating a mirror of what they already sell on their online shops. “I think shopping Timeline apps are much more effective than putting up a ‘shop tab’ or adding a shopping cart on Facebook,” says Sneakpeeq founder Henry Kim. And now that Facebook has put landing pages and tabs out to pasture, they’ll have to be.

Not everyone will be able to leverage this new, hopefully more effective Facebook commerce model. “We think retailers will be the biggest winners with this enhancement,” says McLaughlin.

Brands also need to fill out their Timelines, and there are some companies which are naturally disadvantaged here. Older companies with rich histories and milestones will be able to create visually immersive, storytelling experiences – others will look comparatively empty.

But here’s one thing to get straight: while every business on Facebook can and should create robust Timelines, not anyone can create a Timeline app. That is a distinction bestowed by Facebook, and we still don’t know what the requirements are. “We were selected by Facebook, there was no application process,” Kim, whose Sneakpeeq is a Timeline app, tells us. He says these apps, unlike others, get to post to your Timeline – but we recently noticed non-Timeline apps are also able to do this. Confusion remains: Facebook hasn’t answered our questions about what precisely the difference is and what requirements an app must fulfill to be given the Timeline title.

Regardless, Facebook’s new approach might finally realize the site’s e-commerce potential. “[Timeline] should provide customers a deeper understanding of your brand and may increase the stickiness of the page itself,” says McLaughlin. “While most users still interact with businesses through the newsfeed, the Timeline will provide a better platform for companies to tell their stories.” And there’s been positive feedback for online shopping-focused Timeline apps. “Our traffic from Facebook grew by 50 percent after we launched our Open Graph integration,” says Lyst CEO Chris Morton. “And our sales from Facebook almost doubled.”

The silver lining for Twitter

Facebook may have made a big splash this week, but it’s not entirely overshadowing Twitter. The microblogging site recently unveiled its new monetization plans. The site has taken the wraps off its self-serve ad platform, which is partnering with Amex to get the service up and running. Now we don’t blame any skeptics out there: Twitter has infamously struggled to turn its incredibly popular site into something that makes money. Users have bristled at attempts and despite its incredible popularity, Twitter hasn’t quite been able to establish a business model.

twitter and facebook promoted adsBut Facebook’s new ad infrastructure takes heavy cues from Twitter’s platform – this hasn’t gone unnoticed. Both are now selling access to their content streams across various devices and giving brands a chance to make use of this promoted space (and it deserves mentioning that Twitter did this first). It should give Twitter a nice confidence boost: sure, the site’s struggled to convince everyone of its marketing structure, but Facebook seems to think it’s a good idea. It’s about creating ads that function and look like user-produced content, and both sites are ready to optimize and implement this.

Pinterest is nailing (pinning?) it

All the while, a newcomer is paving the way with disguised advertising. Yes, we’re talking about Pinterest. And it doesn’t even have to try to set brands and businesses on this path – it’s just naturally how the site functions.

It’s actually sort of hilarious. Here is Facebook – Facebook – holding a conference to diligently teach brands and businesses using its platform how to be more natural. Does anyone else see the irony here? Instructing marketers on how to make their content seem less-markety sounds like a backward concept. And of course we all know when we’re being advertised to on Twitter: given its fast-paced nature, fewer real-life connections, and limited text space, ads seem less out of place, less interruptive. They tend to look and sound like much of Twitter’s “natural” content. 

But Pinterest just does it. This isn’t to say the site doesn’t deserve plenty of criticism for its methods and lack of care regarding how some of this is leading to legal issues, but when it comes to e-commerce and e-marketing, Pinterest stumbled upon the most fluid, organic model the Web has seen. There’s no pretense: Facebook and Twitter both are pushing models that attempt to disguise ads as “regular” content. Of course, you don’t get analytics or measurable engagement with consumers on Pinterest (yet), and we’ll know soon enough how well the new strategies from Facebook and Twitter are working.

There’s certainly a lot of growing and experimenting left to be done, but it seems as if major social sites are finally tapping the resources they’ve accrued. And while this will all inevitably change the user-facing product, it’s more significantly changing marketing structure. Maybe this time, it will work. 

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not reflect the beliefs of Digital Trends.

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