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GUEST COMMENT To understand social commerce, look to the first days of the high street

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When the social agency I co-founded established its first Facebook page, the notion that a business you have never heard of before might interrupt your experience seemed improbable, as well as undesirable. We did not have a clue that the banners that you would only find on Google at that time might soon make their way over to Zuckerberg’s mega-platform and others.

Social commerce

Fast forward to the modern day, and those brands we thought might “interrupt” us have become welcome parts of our social experience. Users have not just adapted to this change out of necessity but, in the vast majority of cases, accepted or even embraced it. And why would they not? The platforms and the businesses, as well as the tools and techniques used to do social commerce, have matured, growing in subtlety and effectiveness, as well as value to the user.

All the things that influence how people shop on the high street–reviews, friends’ recommendations, celebrity endorsements–exist and have been amplified on social media. Furthermore, it allows users to shop with speed and in comfort and to browse and compare many more items rapidly. That saves the user money and time.

A short history of the high street

It is impossible not to discuss the rise of social commerce without pausing to consider the concomitant decline of bricks-and-mortar retail, the ‘death of the high street’. It is interesting to note that social commerce has emerged for much the same reason that the high street first emerged.

In the aftermath of the Wall Street Crash, merchants and shop-owners realised that if they were physically closer, they could cooperate to bring as many consumers as possible to a single location but increase their individual likelihoods of selling goods. Over time, this developed to the point where even similar shops and restaurants would cluster together. The consumer, meanwhile, could get everything they required in one place, and in less time. Sound familiar?

In-store or online?

So what does social commerce mean for brands? Is it preferable for a brand to have its customers make purchases through social media, or in person? Arguably it’s the latter. Online, a shop gets access to a wealth of rich data about its customer, from a person’s name and email address to their location, what they are interested in and what they’ve interacted with. And maybe we can anticipate, or just explore the possibility, that the high street will become a market tool, lined with concept shops promising experiences. 

Far from being about to witness the death of the high street, we may be spectators to its rebirth. The challenge may in fact be to bring physical retail shops online as seamlessly as possible, with the aim of minimising economic harm and job losses.

Empowering the individual

But social commerce is not the preserve of established brands. It enables individuals to have “side hustles”, supplementing their income or exploring an interest with relatively small initial investment. 2020 became the Year of the Side Hustle, with sites recommending the ‘best side hustles to make money at home amid the pandemic’ and The Telegraph newspaper reporting in November that side hustles ‘flourished’ during lockdown.

The side hustle, enabled by social media, became an effective means to future-proof yourself during a period of never-before-seen turbulence. Side hustles, according to research by Henley Business School, contribute an estimated £72 billion to the UK economy.


As for marketing agencies, the perfect marriage of e-commerce and social media means that all strategies have to be fundamentally social-first. Social media is the perfect direct-to-consumer platform, and the success of WeChat in China, one of the country’s leading social platforms and the world-leader in social commerce, suggests that this trend will only accelerate. The convergence of trends, from the expansion of the convenience culture, to digitalisation, to an emphasis on sustainability, will help to drive this. And it’s a reminder that in 2021, all goal-setting and decision-making by agencies must be informed by social insight.


Ed Fraser, Managing Director and Partner at content and social marketing agency the tree

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