Next to socialising activities in online social media networks for leisure or work, in business or politics, users also engage in shopping activities on these platforms. In particular, consumers search and check information there on their prospective purchases. Moreover, consumers tend to spend more time in social media websites, especially the younger ones (i.e., Generations Y & Z), at the expense of other Internet websites of various types. Social media may change and expand the meaning of ‘online shopping’ beyond visiting and buying in e-commerce websites (‘online stores’), or through mobile apps.
Consumers have multiple options for seeking information on products or services they are interested in within the social media arena:
- First, they may look for information in the ‘profiles’ of companies on their offerings (e.g., suggestions or recommendations, special deals for the week, and other updates);
- Second, information may be obtained through peer recommendations and opinions (e.g., as ‘second opinion’ on a brand or product item one is considering);
- Third, consumers may capture information from advertising banners that can appear on the screen while dwelling anywhere on the social media platform, whether they visit a profile related or unrelated to the company offering the product, and may proceed from the ad banner by clicking on it to wherever it leads them within or outside the platform;
- Fourth, users-consumers are given more often the option to enquire more information on products of interest by interacting with a company through its social media channel (e.g., in ‘open’ posts or discretely via chat with a human agent or robotic ‘smart’ agent, or both as needed).
However, there are two additional forms of interaction between a company and its customers that may be or ought to be available through a social media channel. These interactions may not be part of actual shopping before making a purchase but they are strongly linked to shopping and are essential to the relationships between companies and their customers. One form involves service and support ‘calls’ that are likely to arise post-purchase (e.g., settling matters regarding the purchase such as payment, delivery or installation, and requiring technical guidance or assistance). Another form of interaction is an open line of conversation between consumers and a brand that allows them to give feedback, make suggestions, or lets consumers learn more and increase their familiarity with their favoured brand. Both forms of interactions, if positive, can help to strengthen the attachment of consumers to a brand.
A study of shopping in social networking platforms in the US, conducted by research firm Alter Agents as part of their Shopper Influence programme, has found that 63% of American shoppers use social media to research products intended for purchasing. Especially interesting is their characterization, revealed through the research, of the background of shoppers more likely to use social media and their shopping patterns: these are households with annual incomes higher than $100K, with stronger tendency to carefully consider their purchases and not shopping by impulse, and being greater spenders rather than savers (they also tend to be ecologically conscious in shopping). It suggests that sources in social media are used for complementing and confirming information as opposed to using them as a short-cut for making faster and less deliberate purchase decisions. Yet, there could be a mixture of shoppers who differ in focus on the kinds of information they check and compare in social media. For instance, the more affluent shoppers might be less concerned if their shopping journey in social media platforms leads them to making more expensive purchases (i.e., they might actually less engage in price comparisons while double-checking information on quality-driven attributes).
- Alter Agents further found a ‘striking gap’ between generations in using social media particularly for shopping: 78% among the Gen Z and 74% among the Gen Y (Millennials), followed by 60% of Gen X, and lastly just 23% among the Boomers. The consumers of Gen X, whose lives bridge between the pre-PC age and the following digital age, seem to accommodate well and catch-up with the new practices, but the Boomers are those exceptionally staying behind in this regard.
Social media platforms that are built around pictorial images and video clips deserve special attention. They include YouTube, Instagram (by Facebook-Meta), Snapchat, and TikTok. Beyond promotional videos, YouTube is additionally advantageous for demonstrational videos that consumers can consult for learning about products before purchasing and for instructions of using and operating products after purchasing. Social media networks like Instagram and TikTok may be used both by companies and by consumers themselves to demonstrate products in use (e.g., fashion garments). In some settings, users-consumers may also be able to place product orders through social media channels of companies.
- Alter Agents reports that YouTube is more popular for shopping among Millennials than Gen X; Facebook (which is rich with images but distinct from Instagram) is employed as a source for shopping more by Millennials than Gen Z (Boomers also gravitate more to Facebook); and TikTok and Snapchat are the social media networks more strongly used in shopping journeys by Gen Z.
One may still wonder how much information can a shopper find in social media about any specific product. There can be no comparison to the variety of products and detailed information (e.g., models, features) that would be located in a website of a retailer or a manufacturer and brand owner — the ‘online store’ website is much better built and designed for that purpose. Therefore, a question remains in what ways a ‘profile-site’ of the company in social media can help shoppers in considering more carefully their purchases, and shopping more deliberately rather than impulsively.
We may find some hints through the expectations of consumers from e-commerce websites; these expectations have heightened and shifted during the tougher periods of the coronavirus pandemic. Consumers prefer foremost online stores of retailers displaying clear pricing information that is easy to find and understand, accompanied with clear discount and sales prices displayed when available, and clear and accurate product information (i.e., on attributes or features). Consumers also want to see high quality images of products. They are more likely to abandon a retailer’s e-commerce website if they cannot find the kind of product they are looking for (navigation, search & screen), as well as when the check-out process is too long and cumbersome . A profile-site in social media can help shoppers by providing suggestions and references with efficient links to webpages where they can find more detailed information. Inversely, shoppers should be able to enquire and verify information on products and their prices in social media that they retrieved initially on a store website or mobile app.
Retailers give updates in posts (e.g., on Facebook) about new products, special offers, and events (e.g., temporary or new ‘exhibitions’ in their physical chain stores or department stores). To these posts consumers-visitors occasionally respond and comment. This important and welcome channel of communication is also suitable for allowing consumers to pose queries on products, services or stores in relation to information or experience encountered in the social media channel itself, website or app, or one of the retailer’s physical stores (i.e., at different ‘touch-points’). For example, the shopper journey of a customer may start from an announcement in the social media profile-site of the retailer, transfer to the retailer’s website or app for seeking further detail, and then return to pose a query through the social media channel. Consumers can of course try to verify or consult with their peer-connections about their own knowledge, experiences with or impressions of the retailer with respect to the issue at stake. Not in all matters can a retailer provide effective and specific assistance through its social media channel, but it may give a hand to consumers by providing direct links to product pages, and quick & easy pathways to check-out for ordering products the retailer promotes through the social media posts, photos or videos.
Digital platforms of social media are useful arenas for consumers to perform shopping-related tasks, engaging with retailers as well as brand owners of any business type, but also among their peer-connections. They can be mostly helpful for getting updates, and for complementing and confirming information. For the businesses, the social media arena offers a powerful meeting point with consumers. Their content can trigger some impulse purchases, but consumers may otherwise use the information in a more comprehensive way. Importantly, companies should establish friendly and useful linkages between social media, website and app platforms to create a wholesome shopping experience.
 “Shoppers & Social Media: How Your Customers Use Social to Shop”, Alter Agents, Winter 2022 (Introduced in a Quirk’s article: “What Role Does Social Media Play in the Shopper Journey?”, 4 April 2022.)
 “The Shopper Never Stops: Consumer Preference Report”, Adobe with Magento Commerce, 2020