“E-commerce” is passe. Instead, give a warm welcome to “Viral Commerce”.

Gone are the days when Social Media platforms were merely a means of ‘expressing oneself’, ‘ordering online’ and each platform having a unique role in consumer habits… Facebook to connect with friends/ family, YouTube to watch/ share funny videos, Instagram to share nice photos, and Twitter to replace news channels.

Today, Social platforms are a destination for much more, including window-shopping, discovering niche products & brands, checking & validating trends, etc. Platforms, in turn, are feeding consumer appetite, by introducing engagement-inducing features, sweeping screens with ads and delivering personalized ads for each browsing occasion. eMarketer’s Insider Intelligence report expects there will be over 101 million Social commerce buyers, by 2023.

social viral commerce trends 2017-23

So How Exactly Does Viral Commerce Work?

The term ‘virality’ refers to organic or word-of-mouth information about a product or service, spread at a rapid rate; in form of memes, shares, likes, forwards. For instance, the TikTok algorithm is said to take into consideration various factors when serving content to users; including user activity, caption keywords, hashtags, geo-location and follower-count.

Recent evidence of virality of in-app shopping is #TikTokMadeMeBuyIt, popularised in wake of globally widespread lockdowns, during the early pandemic period. TikTok users fuelled a pandemic surge in at-home shopping. Having built massive follower-stats, users and influencers promoted a broad array of esoteric products. With ample time at hand, Instagram influencers began promoting even everyday-use products like decorative LED lights and water bottles.

“Screenshots are taken from Instagram

Viral Commerce was Always Around; It Just Grew Bigger. And Here’s Why…

This is not to say that Social Commerce is a new, Covid19-acquired phenomenon. It has been around in one or the other form for over a decade. However, it has witnessed viral growth in recent times. Large, established brands were already using Social as yet another channel for distribution. However, recent times have seen smaller, seemingly innocuous brands, leverage Social in a big way. Multiple factors have contributed to this democratization of Social Commerce:

  • A brand’s digital presence provides ‘social proof’ of a product/ brand’s popularity. Watching a celeb use a soap brand is engaging, memorable, perhaps even entertaining. However, watching a non-descript layman’s Insta-reel, where he’s having fun using a burrito blanket in everyday (family) contexts; provides social proof that the brand is authentically usable and enjoyable.
  • Users create digital properties (eg. handles/ pages/ hashtags) that help spread the word on Social platforms. Video content has made TikTok the home of Viral Commerce in recent years. #TikTokMadeMeBuyIt continues to enable products go viral. Brands and retailers look to cash into the hashtag, by using it when creating content to showcase their products. This makes products more discoverable, to a larger set of audiences.
  • Social platforms introduced several business-friendly features eg. customizable shops, Livestream shopping, shopping tags, curated storefronts, etc. These make their products visually stand-out, on users’ feeds. This makes it easier for users to discover brands (on their own initiative or by default) and showcase situations/ contexts in which they can be consumed. Recently, TikTok held an event to promote TikTok Shopping, which it describes as a “suite of solutions, features and tools that give businesses the opportunity to tap into the power of commerce on TikTok”.
Instagram shop feature social commerce
“Screenshots are taken from Instagram
  • Social platforms also design features that engage and encourage users to adopt in-app shopping. For instance, Facebook Shops allows its users to connect with customers across other Facebook platforms, i.e. connect with customers through WhatsApp, Messenger or Instagram to answer questions and/or offer support.
  • The growth of Influencer Marketing (IM) in the past few years is another reason for Social Commerce’s growth. Initially, IM grew due to mega influencers (usually, popular culture stars like actors, models, sportspersons, etc.) who enjoyed a large follower-base. Smaller influencers were barely noticed or monetized. This shifted recently, when even those with a lesser follower count, began winning brand-collaborations. Their ‘layman’ content and image, connected with consumers in a way that out-of-reach celebrities could not. Such micro/ nano influencers are considered more authentic, and able to speak more directly to followers.
  • Content creators/ Influencers are now better incentivized and equipped, to create and market their content than ever before. With their job becoming almost an occupation, Influencers are actively seeking to establish stable revenue streams from brands. Instagram and YouTube followers and subscribers have turned into customers. There is a wide range of creators and influencers selling through their native Direct-to-consumer stores or on apps like Instagram.

So What Does 2023 Hold in Store for Businesses Leveraging Viral Commerce?

With increasing exposure to Social platforms, consumers will become more demanding of such platforms. Several platforms will further compete for share of consumer attention, hence users are likely to be more and more distracted; hence less likely to make big-ticket purchases on Social.

What this means for businesses – Prioritize lower-ticket SKUs that already perform well in other retail formats that the brand is already present in eg. physical stores or traditional e-commerce.

Reviews and endorsements will have limited impact unless they come from ‘people like us’. Consumers may entirely buy into a brand unless they interact with experienced users who can vouch for a brand.

What this means for businesses – Brands need to focus on constantly generating social proof, and provide consumers and micro-influencers alike, with necessary incentives to share the brand’s content eg. coupon codes, discounts, and giveaways. Another way to generate social proof is generating and popularizing hashtags that consumers/ influencers can use to share product pictures/ videos.

The proof of the Social Commerce pudding lies in how personalized in-app recommendations are. To deliver a hyper-personalized browsing experience, brands will need to heavily invest in artificial intelligence (AI) and improve the capture and analysis of data through chatbots and other virtual assistants.

What this means for businesses – AI-powered tools will become crucial to creating consumer-centered experiences and will emulate the presence of an ‘in-store assistant’ while shopping, which aids consumers in the discovery and choice-making of products.

Content Creators and Influencers are here to stay… and, grow. Brands that leverage Viral Commerce aren’t collaborating with just 1-2 influencers now. Instead, they work with a carefully-curated and constantly-evolving network of small, relevant, niche influencers. These influencers attract much deeper engagement and cost lesser than celebrities. More and more marketers are now expected to gravitate to influencers with followers with small, localized, highly-engaged and quality follower-base.

What this means for businesses – Brands will need to focus on brand-building among micro and nano influencers; across Instagram, FB, and Snapchat. In doing so, they will compete with small, esoteric products. Hence, the emphasis will be on creating stand-out ‘shoppable’ content eg. providing direct links to shops/ promotions, and content that shows off products in an entertaining, shareable way.

The other key challenge will be to put in place a network of content creators and influencers that are in sync with the brand’s essence. In the short term, this is likely to become a key differentiator and significantly improve customer acquisition rates. Once built, such networks can be leveraged to create niche online communities, launch new offerings, seek customer feedback and gain customer insights.

In effect, there is sufficient evidence that both, adoption of Viral Commerce and the infrastructure around it are growing rapidly. Tools like Nosto help businesses deliver and manage dynamic onsite content including page copy, product recommendations and much more.

On the other hand, are businesses like StichFix that leverage AI and machine learning to deliver the most relevant subscription recommendations to customers, basis their historical browsing behavior. How well a business will leverage Viral Commerce will now be a function of its willingness to identify and engage the right technology (AL/ML) alongside the right human assets (content creators/influencers).

Ushma Kapadia

Consumer Insights professional by training, B2B Content Writer by interest, aspiring Social Entrepreneur, Coffee-fanatic, forever learning.


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