Examining The Buy Button – Social Media’s Long-Delayed Saviour

September 8, 2015 Ben Myers

What If Facebook Was A Mall?

The Buy Button is a tool that will allow you to quickly and easily buy anything you see on a social media platform without moving to another site. It’s a concept so simple and so intuitively compatible with the purchase funnel that it’s intriguing that none of the big online companies – Twitter, Facebook or Google – have been able to effectively implement it on a wide scale.

The Buy Button is capitalized because over the past few years, it’s become more than a potential feature of a social network, it could become the saviour of Twitter and Facebook and many other social networks. Twitter won’t have to rely on ads – it can prove its work and directly connect consumers and products, creating a community of buyers and sellers on its addictive social platform.

Everyone – brands, ad platforms, and social media users – want The Buy Button to work. It might well be the saviour of social media, simplify the buying process, and consolidate those annoying profiles every retailer asks you to set up when you buy.

Fastcompany illustrated the conundrum using a familiar social media pattern:

“In mid-June, immediately after Golden State won the NBA championship, the Warriors’ official Twitter account offered its nearly 1 million followers $35 commemorative T-shirts via a Buy Button within the tweet. If retweets and favorites are any approximation of sales, then that single post, shared after midnight, moved around $125,000 of merchandise.”

If retweets and favorites are any approximation of sales… but they’re not. Likes are free. They express interest or appreciation for the thing, but probably not $35 worth of appreciation.

The process of buying something is much more complex than sending a tweet. But what if it wasn’t? What if Twitter had your address and credit card info and would send you any product you liked – and you didn’t even have to leave the app?

That’s the magic of the The Buy Button. Twitter revealed exactly this kind of purchase process in September 2014 (embedded below).

Here’s why it doesn’t work.

The big problem with social media is users don’t go to social media to buy things.

Social Media Has A Big Problem

Social media monetize their users by promising that the audience it sends to advertisers’ websites are more likely to buy because, through data collection and profiling, these users have a better affinity for the advertiser’s product than what other media can deliver. In 2015, that’s a simple principle of online advertising.

The big problem with social media is users don’t go to social media to buy things. In an e-commerce environment where retailers can track and attribute sales from a click on an ad to a single order, that’s not good enough. Twitter and Facebook know what topics we’re interested in and attempts to serve us ads related to our interests, but it doesn’t know the difference between what topics we’re generally interested in and what we will buy. We might even click and then decide not to buy. Because they pass us on to different websites (who probably feel like they share enough of their data with FB), these sites may not report back to FB. They will, however, adjust their ad budget based on the results.

This video demonstrates Twitter’s Buy Button as revealed in September 2014.

The Buy Button Is A Big Solution

The Buy Button could solve the mobile question and prove the value of social media by having the sale take place on Twitter or Facebook, rather than sending the user to another site where they may be lost.

So social media sites need a Buy Button to connect users with easy purchases. The only problem is that Facebook and Twitter have tried it before and ended the experiments possibly due to lacklustre results stemming from the lower e-commerce conversion rates on mobile. And that’s a huge problem for social media platforms that are most active on mobile devices.

The Mobile Problem

While mobile devices are where people prefer to consume social media, users on mobile devices tend to have a lower conversion rate and lower average order value on e-commerce sites, according to a report from predictive e-commerce analytics platform Custora. Mobile device users accounted for 73% of Facebook’s ad revenue in Q1 2015 and monthly mobile active users increased 24% compared to same period last year. Shopify’s data says that mobile now accounts for 50.3% of traffic on its stores, but only 33% of orders.

Shopify’s data says that mobile now accounts for 50.3% of traffic on its stores, but only 33% of orders.

“The increase in mobile phone traffic to online stores is partly being fuelled by another trend: the rise of social-fuelled product discovery and effective social ad targeting,” Shopify’s January 2015 blog post says.

While increasing mobile traffic is a good thing in a vacuum, the failure to convert these customers at the same rate as desktop must be frustrating for any e-com retailer, especially when they pay for the traffic. Are these poor-quality leads? Is the smaller screen harder to buy on? Or are customers distracted by other things while browsing out in the wild, rather than in an office or home, as they might on a desktop?

Though it’s hard to consider it their fault since they don’t control the storefront (for now), Twitter, Facebook take a hit (not to mention the retailer, who paid for the traffic) when a user visits a store on mobile.

Lingering Questions & Common Sense

At a Google Retail Breakfast in Toronto in August, I asked Rafe Petkovic, the Head of Industry, Retail at Google Canada about Google’s aspirations for the Buy Button.

“Just to put a buy button on that really great photo or that great experience won’t necessarily help you as a consumer to say that you want to purchase that product,” he said.

It’s a bit of common sense in an e-commerce world that’s always excited about the next big thing. Pinterest is awfully ambitious to depict a couple purchasing a $1,300 table in its Buyable Pins video. Would you really wait for delivery and unwrap a huge, heavy table in your living room before actually laying eyes on it? More likely, you might purchase clothes or small household items: things that can be easily delivered — and especially returned, if your quick and easy impulse buy doesn’t pan out the way you had hoped.

Just to put a buy button on that really great photo or that great experience won’t necessarily help you as a consumer to say that you want to purchase that product.

Other questions lie in the negotiation between the online giants and retailers. How much money from each sale would Twitter or Facebook want as a commission for facilitating the purchase? Would customers convert better on a social platform than they would in a store? Would retailers want more control of what their ads look like? Would buying on Facebook solve the mobile conversion rate problem?

A Little Thing Called The Other 93%

Data from the US Census Bureau’s Quarterly E-commerce report, as illustrated by Bloomberg, shows that online sales are steadily growing but still represent only 7 per cent of purchases. Even in clothing, a leading e-commerce sector, online sales comprise just 15 per cent of sales.

In other words, there are now – and will continue to be for decades – items that people simply don’t buy online. For big-ticket items, aspects of e-commerce like shipping systems and return policies need to change to reflect the value of the product. Until then, there’s no way people will make big-ticket purchases online in sustainable numbers, even with a highly optimized sales funnel.

It’s hard to blame them for addressing their immediate concerns by coming up with better ad units and customer targeting methods.

As much as consumers would like a Buy Button to make their purchases as easy as possible, Twitter and Google are ultimately servants to their big brand advertisers (the people who have their own shares of that offline 93%), so it’s hard to blame them for addressing their immediate concerns by coming up with better ad units and customer targeting methods rather than that magic Buy Button, which might only serve low-ticket items and low-value, single-item orders.

When The Buy Button Happens

It could be wonderful for social networks, retailers and consumers. Products and prices will be front-and-centre in our social feeds and the buying process should be down to one or two clicks. Social networks can use their hoarded data to present us with awesome, new products and timely services.

Like ads on Facebook, the Buy Button will appear suddenly and roll out slowly. Until then, we all wait and pray for the saviour of social media. Let’s hope it comes soon.

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