Get advice and support about the rising costs of doing business on the Find Business Support website.

An introduction to social commerce

Recently, we’ve seen the rapid development of “social commerce” by several social media platforms. Find out what options are available to you and how to get started.

Guide

10 min read

1. Overview

Many ecommerce businesses selling tangible products recognise the importance of using their social media presence and social ads to reach their target audience and drive traffic to their own ecommerce website.

Recently however, we’ve seen the rapid development of “social commerce” functionality by several social media platforms. This is where some - or all - elements of selling directly to customers are handled within the social media platform itself, including browsing a catalogue of products and selecting a purchase. In some platforms even the checkout process can be completed without users needing to exit the social platform to go to the sellers’ websites - however this functionality is not live in the UK yet (Spring 2022).

In this guide, we will look at the social commerce options currently in development across the primary social platforms in the UK, with details on how to get started.

2. The growth in social commerce

The growth has been driven by a number of factors:

  • The pandemic boosting online shopping overall
  • The increasing number of customers using social platforms to find new products
  • More customers relying on user generated content, images and reviews to give them confidence to purchase
  • Customers benefitting from a more seamless experience (with quicker page load times) if they don’t have to leave the platform to make a purchase, meaning businesses can also benefit from improved conversion rates.

It’s clear that social commerce can offer a big opportunity for businesses. Indeed, to stay relevant to some audiences in future, many businesses will need to actively explore this option.

However, on the other hand, it’s important to wave a red flag at this point. Putting control of the commerce side of your business (and not just the promotion of it) entirely within a social media platform, means your business could be far more vulnerable, for example if a platform changes their functionality. Therefore, even if there is eventually a growth in small businesses selling only through social platforms, most businesses will still prefer to have their own ecommerce website as well.

3. Before you begin

Before looking further into selling on a social platform there are a few things to think about to determine whether this could be a fit for your business.

  • Access to your target audience. You need to have clear evidence that your target audiences are active on that platform and that they use it to engage with brands.
  • Propensity to buy. End-to-end social commerce is still up-and-coming and it is currently younger audiences who are leading the way in adopting this way of shopping. Consider whether your target audience is likely to buy on social.
  • Appropriate products. As you are entering your customers’ social space, the sort of products that are more likely to be successful are impulse purchases, lower value simple items that are easy to understand from an image, or fashion and accessories. More complex and higher value items are often less suitable to this method of selling as customers generally do more online comparison and research.
  • Imagery. High quality images and video will be critical to success.
  • User journeys. If customers will still have to complete part of the transaction on your own site, ensure that the journey is as seamless as possible when people land on your own pages.
  • Different levels of functionality across platforms. For most social platforms, social commerce functionality is still in development and being rolled out in phases in different countries, therefore, some businesses will want to wait until it is more established.
  • Potential risks. As with anything, there are risks. By relying heavily on social media platforms, you hand over control. If platforms change their policies of how they operate and engage with audiences and businesses, then that could have a serious impact on your business.

4. Social commerce platforms now live

The main platforms with social commerce functionality in the UK market are:

  • Pinterest, the visual search engine, which can link directly with your website to provide a shop front on their platform (free of charge), with checkout transactions still completed (for now) on your own site.
  • Facebook and Instagram social networking platforms which offer a few different selling options for businesses, including the launch of their new 'Shops' functionality. This enables businesses to present their full catalogue of products within their Facebook or Instagram profiles, which shoppers can browse and select, and then be taken to the business’s own website to complete purchase.

(Please note that although Facebook and Instagram are separate platforms, Facebook acquired Instagram in 2012, so the two platforms share some of the basic technology in the background. Therefore, when it comes to registering and then setting up your sales channels, even if you are just setting up for Instagram, you do this via the Facebook commerce manager and then select whether you want to use Facebook, Instagram or both.)

5. Pinterest

Pinterest describes itself as a “visual discovery engine” and is where people (described as “Pinners”) search for inspiration for styling almost anything (including interiors, fashion and events) as well as ideas for gifts, hobbies and recipes. Many Pinners are looking for ideas of what to buy, so making a purchase is the next logical step for users when curating their own boards of image-led “pins”.

Selling on Pinterest

With its new commerce functionality, Pinterest can work as a storefront for your business by pulling through data from your own ecommerce website. The new ‘Product Pins’ are formatted so it’s clear to users that they are displaying items for purchase (in other words, they’re “shoppable”). People on Pinterest can see the real-time product description, cost and availability of these products (which is pulled through from the metadata that is applied to it). Users are then taken to your website to complete the transaction.

Also, once you’re registered and verified, when people visit your own website, and they then “Pin” a product direct from your site, it will appear in their boards as a Product pin with all the relevant information to support future purchase.

These services are free, but most businesses will want to commit some budget to advertising their new product pins to raise their profile, which is why the platform is happy to offer the basic service free of charge.

A summary of what’s involved when selling through Pinterest follows below, and full detail is available on the Pinterest site.

1. Setting up a profile

It’s fairly straightforward to set up a business account on Pinterest (which offers different functionality to a personal account). Branding up your profile properly will take some time, as you need to set up well presented cover and showcase boards. Your profile image could be your logo or your personal photo if your business is centred on you as a brand. Make sure you use relevant keywords in both your profile and pin boards to support your search rankings.

From there, you will link your business account with your main website. Pinterest uses the terminology of “claiming your website” which means you add a Pinterest meta tag or upload their HTML file to your own website. They have instructions on how to do this for a list of different website providers including Squarespace, Wix, Weebly and WordPress.

Once that’s been done, your business profile picture will appear beside Pins that come from your site, people will be able to follow your account and you will be able to access analytics for Pins you publish and on Pins that people create from your site.

You can also “claim” or link up your online marketplace and social media including Instagram, Etsy or YouTube accounts which will mean content from these accounts will be shared directly to Pinterest and automatically attributed to you which will help people find more of your content.

2. Becoming a verified business

The next step is to apply for Pinterest’s Verified Merchant Programme (VMP) to achieve free organic listings. If successful you will receive a blue “Verified Merchant” checkmark on your profile and pins so that people know you are a vetted and approved business. (Verified creators receive a red check mark.)

You will have price and availability information on your product Pins and a Shop tab from which people can browse your full range of products.

To apply, you need to meet the Merchant Guidelines (eligible products, high quality website, proper processes relating to shipping, refunds and contact details) and you need to “connect your catalogue”. What this means is having a feed of product information direct from your eCommerce site that can be sent to Pinterest daily and maintains the quality and accuracy of pricing, product descriptions and availability. This is a technical task you may need support with and Pinterest integrates with a number of ecommerce platforms.

3. Setting up product groups

Once you are able to pull through product data from your catalogue/website, you need to work out how best to use “product groups” to filter and organise your product Pins.

Product groups can be featured on your profile under your Shop tab, and you can pay to promote them as “Shopping ads”.

There’s two types of product groups:

  • Automatically generated by Pinterest. They will display as “Auto-created for you” beside the product group name. These are suggestions that can’t be edited or deleted but you can ignore the suggestion if they’re not helpful. At the moment, Pinterest offers six auto-generated groups based on level of engagement, availability and price of your products and the products they include are updated daily based on the feed from your catalogue/website:
    ○ All products - covers everything
    ○ Top sellers - highest converting products in terms of sales
    ○ Most popular - products that people are engaging with most across all sellers
    ○ Back in stock - items that were out of stock and now available again
    ○ New arrivals - products that are new to your catalogue
    ○ Best deals - biggest drop in price when looking at the sales price field and standard price field
  • Manually created by you. You need to set up at least one manually created product group, and select it to feature on your profile if you want the “Shop” tab to be on your profile. You use filters such as category, product type, brand and custom labels to set up your groups and then choose a group name that reflects those elements - this name is that people can see. E.g. if “handbags” is your product type and “most popular” is the custom label then the group would logically be called “Most popular handbags”. The filter name you choose must always be reflected in your data source or they won’t be pulled through into your product group. Once set up, you can edit and delete these groups when you need to, for example if they are set up for a specific campaign.

4. Promotion

Pinterest offers a couple of approaches for business to run paid-for advertising to augment their organic listings:

  • Single image product ads
  • Personalised collections ads with multiple images

Sellers can also use retargeting to reach people who have previously visited your website.

5. Interacting with Pinners

If you opt-in, your profile will include a “Message” button so Pinners visiting your page can message you direct to your Pinterest inbox. You can also add your phone number and email address - in which case, the button will be “Contact”.

6. Analytics

Don’t forget to make full use of the analytics offered by Pinterest to see what approaches are working best and to continue improving.

6. Facebook and Instagram

Understanding the selling landscape on Facebook and Instagram

On Facebook and Instagram, there are a few options available to UK businesses to support their business presence and social commerce. These include:

  • Business profiles with Pages or accounts
  • Facebook Marketplace
  • The new ‘Shops’ functionality

Business profiles

Your business profiles are the main pages that you will set up when you create your business’s presence on Facebook or Instagram. You must have a business profile on Facebook and/or Instagram to use the new ‘Shops’ functionality

  • Facebook Pages (also referred to as a Facebook Shop Page or Business Page)

This is a great channel for businesses to build engagement and awareness of your business and products, and for communicating with customers, but it doesn’t go as far as facilitating ecommerce transactions. It is a Facebook Page for your business, as opposed to your own personal page (which Facebook refers to as a “profile”). Once you have a business Page, you can run advertising.

If your products are eligible, your business can go on to sell on Marketplace or use the Shops functionality (see below).

To set this up, you also need a Facebook Page (as above) to link to it - it makes sense if that is a Facebook Page for your business, rather than your personal profile. Once set up, your Instagram profile works in a similar way to a business Facebook Page where you can build engagement with customers you can drive traffic to your own website through your bio and clickable stories, and use paid-for promoted posts to reach new customers. The platform provides useful guidance on the basics for using your profile.

Marketplace

  • Facebook Marketplace
    This a product listing platform (rather than an e-commerce platform) which can be used by both individuals and businesses. Users (individuals with a Facebook profile and businesses with a Facebook Page) can list products to sell, and it allows customers to find the products and then contact the seller directly to arrange the transaction. For businesses, although it’s not possible to customise the look and feel to build a brand presence, Marketplace can be useful for:
    • selling a small range of products in small quantities (often, but not always, lower value items)
    • providing a highly personalised service
    • testing new products to see if there is interest and if so, from which audiences (although remember audiences on Marketplace may have a different mindset from those going direct to ecommerce websites - so what sells on one platform may not always sell on another)
    • It’s also possible to use paid-for advertising on Marketplace as well as simply listing products.

New ‘Shop’ functionality

The new ‘shops’ functionality has been developed as Facebook and Instagram’s social commerce offering. On Facebook, the new ‘Facebook Shops’ are an upgrade of the original ‘Shop’ tab within the Facebook business pages.

This is a recent development from Facebook to provide a more sophisticated ecommerce platform for businesses, where sellers can have an online store (with customised look and feel) within their Facebook Page. Facebook explains it as enabling businesses to have a “unified presence on Facebook, Instagram and Marketplace”. In theory, keeping users in the Facebook app should offer a faster load time than if they exited to an ecommerce website. In the US market, the functionality now enables online transactions right through to taking payment, but at the time of writing the payment facility has not yet launched in the UK market.

Just like Facebook Shops, this digital storefront enables shoppers to browse and select products within your Instagram profile, however for just now in the UK, as with Facebook, customers will click out to your website to complete the payment process.

Setting up Shops

Below we look at what’s involved to set up Facebook Shops and Instagram Shops as they use the same functionality.

1. Setting up Facebook and Instagram profiles

To begin, you will first need a personal Facebook profile if you don’t already have one . From there set up a Facebook Business Page. Note, you need this personal profile and business Page on Facebook, even if you’re just selling on Instagram.

If you want your Shop to appear on Instagram as well, you will also need an Instagram business account.

Businesses use their Facebook Page or Instagram business account (free of charge) to:

  • engage with new audiences and customers, through posts including photos, videos and polls, stories with short videos or groups for specific audience segments with shared interests
  • communicate publicly or privately through comments or Messenger which can be accessed in one place through your Inbox
  • review audience insights to help grow their presence and followers

Products can be featured in posts with links back to your own website for the full transaction, or manually added in your Shop (but information is not automatically pulled through from your site).

For a cost, businesses can also run advertising.

2. Becoming an approved business

Next you will use Facebook’s Commerce Manager tool to create your shop and choose your checkout method. (In the UK just now, there is no option to process payments within Facebook, so the options are for customers to click out to your website or checkout with messaging through Messenger or WhatsApp where you arrange a more manual process for managing payments and fulfilling orders).

You will then need to link to or set up a Facebook Business Account and Facebook will use this to verify your business ID. You will use this account to manage your Pages, ads and staff working on them.

Businesses with a linked Facebook Page shop and Instagram profile can share their storefront across both Instagram and Facebook.

Then you select the catalogue for your shop. As with Pinterest, there’s two options:

  • If you’re also selling on your own ecommerce website on a platform like Shopify or BigCommerce, then you can link with this to import and sync your product catalogue. There is the option to create a test shop to check it works.
  • Using the catalogue Facebook creates in Commerce Manager and then manually add your items after you’ve completed your shop set-up.

Once you’ve agreed with the Seller Agreement, and completed the set-up, Facebook will then be able to check your products and set-up to approve your Shop.

3. Setting up collections

As with Pinterest you can create product groups (called “collections”). You create, arrange and customise these within Commerce Manager, using themes such as latest trends or seasonal collections to be relevant to your customers, and providing a name, description and cover media.

You can also tailor your shop style and use of colour, within “Layout”, and use preview tools to see how it appears in both light and dark modes, for Facebook and Instagram.

When you’re ready to publish your shop, Facebook will then review and approve it before people can see it.

4. Promotion

Once your Shop is published, it will be viewable on full-screen through the Facebook or Instagram apps, in a mobile-first design. Customers will be able to see your products via:

  • your “Shop”
  • collections as ‘personalised products’
  • their News Feed
  • notifications to prompt them to click to your Shop

New features make it easier to market products during live stream shopping videos.

Businesses with a Shop set up can then use Facebook and Instagram to create product posts and ad images which will be “shoppable” with relevant product details pulled through in “tags”, which helps increase customer engagement with your posts and ads.

You can use targeting to re-engage people who have previously shown interest in your products and also cleverly reach new potential customers by targeting people with similar profiles and interests to your existing customers using “Lookalike Audiences”.

5. Interacting with customers

Businesses can use Facebook’s other products - WhatsApp, Messenger or Instagram Direct - to communicate with and support customers.

6. Analytics

The platforms provide very useful analytics which you should use in tandem with your own website analytics. A useful feature is being able to use insights from A/B testing of different ads to find what works best for your business and products on the different platforms and for different audiences.

7. Social commerce platforms coming soon

New developments in social commerce and updates on other social platforms are rapidly progressing and change is constant. The following platforms are running pilots for social commerce developments, which should be launched to the wider business community in the near future.

TikTok

TikTok, the entertainment and short-form video platform, has just launched a pilot of ‘TikTok Shopping’ in the UK and US in partnership with the Shopify ecommerce platform. Sellers with a ‘TikTok For Business’ account will soon be able to leverage organic product discovery and the new shopping tab to present a mini-storefront synced with their product catalogues that links to their own online store for checkout. The TikTok community can also click tagged products in sellers’ videos to go to the sellers’ online shops to purchase.

YouTube

YouTube, the video sharing platform, doesn’t have commerce functionality in the UK yet, but in the United States, it is running a pilot where creators can feature products in videos and then click a “view products” bag icon to display the products the creator has tagged to the video. Viewers can click through to a product page and are then redirected to external seller websites, or to buy directly on YouTube from eligible retailers via Buy on Google.

Snapchat

Snapchat, the mobile messaging app, has moved into advertising and recently launched public profiles for businesses enabling them to create a store and place products. The platform is working on bringing a unique experience to social commerce where audiences experienced with engaging through a camera lens and using augmented reality (AR) will be able to try on a product and purchase it through the camera. As well as bringing a lot of fun to shopping, virtual try-on experiences have the potential to reduce ecommerce returns.

Want to speak with your nearest Business Gateway team?

Your local Business Gateway can offer you free 1:1 advice and online support to help you with anything to do with your business or if you are just thinking about starting up then we can support you with that too.

Fill in the form below and we will get back to you to help.

Enter your postcode

How we use your data

We will use the information you provide to respond to your request, and to provide business advice and support services to you. For more information please view our privacy notice.

You might also be interested in

Managing online reviews

Word of mouth recommendation has always been one of the most powerful ways to drive new customers to your business. Find out about the review marketplace, how to build and manage your presence, and when it might be right to use review management software.

Making your current website more sustainable

If you already have a website and want to know how you can make it greener, this is the article for you!

An introduction to customer service channels for ecommerce businesses

The support you offer your customers both during and after purchase is a vital part of your ecommerce business. In this guide we outline the role of different customer service channels to help you determine which could work well for your business and help you deliver the best service.