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GUEST COMMENT Ecommerce is broken: why digital commerce needs serendipity as much as it needs search

One of the more gratifying experiences of shopping is stumbling across something you never knew you needed in your life. In stores, this often happens from wandering around thoughtfully curated aisles with wonderfully merchandised displays. But online, ecommerce often comes up short in the discovery department. And that means brands and retailers are leaving money on the table.

Ecommerce was born out of a mental model rooted in catalogues. Unlike their physical counterparts, the online versions have limitless pages. In their quest to offer a vast selection, retailers have used ecommerce to create ‘endless aisles’ – massive assortments of items that are just a few clicks or a quick search away from arriving at your door.

This is great if you know what you’re looking for. But what if you’re looking to be inspired? Ever try walking down an endless aisle? You never, as the description suggests, reach the end. And this problem is only getting worse. The oft-cited filter bubble that puts blinders on what we see online applies to commerce sites. And when algorithms attempt to guess your interests and intent based on past behaviours, you have no idea what you’re missing. It’s as if your favourite department store had a floor that no one told you existed.

As sacrilegious as it may sound in an era of hyper-personalised everything, commerce needs noise to create a layer of digital discovery. So, how do we help online retailing evolve from optimising for people who know what they want to an environment that gives shoppers the opportunity to stumble across their next great find? 

The answer is social. It used to be about awareness and then it also became about engagement. The next wave will be commerce. When platforms such as Instagram, Facebook, and Pinterest make shoppable content part of the core experience for their billions of users, it changes how people find new products and influences customers’ expectations of online shopping. Just as some retailers dismissed ecommerce until they couldn’t anymore, social commerce will gradually grow until everyone has to play catch-up.

Social will drive discovery in three critical ways:

  1. Where we discover: People don’t pick up their phones with the intention of shopping on Facebook, Instagram or Pinterest. Nor do the majority of behaviours on these platforms begin with a search, rather with a scroll. And what people scroll through increasingly features items that reveal themselves with a tap, swipe or a click on a link in a brand’s bio. And when content sparks curiosity, discovery happens.
  1. How we discover: Product discovery used to be the domain of brands, traditional publishers and celebrities. These entities had large audiences and used their reach to influence. On social, everyone has an audience, and with it, some level of authority. The rapid rise in courting long-tail micro-influencers is a demonstration of just how loud this chorus has become. And when these folks share items with their followers, people listen.
  1. What we respond to: Social media is fuelled by content, which looks nothing like what we typically see on ecommerce sites. Rather than studio shots on white backgrounds, imagery on social is often shot in the real world. Whereas ecommerce content is often rational, what’s posted on social is inspirational. It captures the imagination and causes people to take notice of things they never knew about, as well as use cases around those items they never considered.

Combined, these three behaviours mean that to win at product discovery you must learn to view social as both a channel and a source of content. As a channel, it offers the potential of immense reach. Making your organic posts shoppable provides your audiences with an opportunity to quickly learn more about the items they see, while leveraging influencers provides a potentially more authentic way of driving consideration than by simply placing ads.

However, as robust as this channel is, for most brands (publishers excluded) social is still a minority of their website referral traffic. This is where viewing it as a medium for content comes in, putting the creativity of the crowd at their disposal. Placing shoppable browse-based experiences on a retail site that feature this creative content creates a product discovery opportunity for the portion of website traffic that didn’t engage on Facebook or Instagram.

Social commerce is far from being about adding ‘Buy’ buttons. It’s an acknowledgement that places of inspiration and places of transaction can integrate better together. Brands that embrace it recognise people don’t just shop to complete a list, but for the thrill of the find. Those that elect to bring joy back to shopping can enjoy increased traffic, revenue and the knowledge that no matter how good some retailers get at search, creative brands can win with serendipity.  

Author: Apu Gupta, CEO, Curalate

Image Credit: Fotolia

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