While the first predictions for 2017 are being posted in various blog articles, the trends that had their final breakthrough in 2016 are also known. Within the field of e-commerce, among other things, visual commerce played an important role. In an era where everybody is fighting against time, most consumers are guilty of swiping (product) images.

On the internet, a match between consumers and products is made by either search or discovery. Photo and video, driven by social media feeds, have the leading role in discovery. Facebook, Pinterest and Instagram are the most prominent parties in this field. While Pinterest introduced a buy button mid-2015, Instagram announced in November they will launch a real shopping experience in addition to its large set of advertising possibilities. Its start in this new domain includes 20 US retail chains*.

Instagram for dummies

Instagram was one of the first social media platforms specifically designed for a smartphone experience. That design approach was logical: Instagram’s core function is sharing photos - and smartphones emerged to be both a camera and a browser in one. The same smartphones that consumers use during lost minutes on public transport, on the sofa in front of the TV or to compare products and pricing while shopping.

Major consumer brands like Delvaux, G-Star, Bugaboo and Stella Artois are already using Instagram as a marketing instrument for some years. These companies, use Instagram primarily for branding purposes, for example by giving a peek behind the scenes.

Also, upcoming talents use Instagram frequently. With Instagram – and other social media - trendy designers, fashion labels, makers and creatives have the same marketing tool at their fingertips as the giants in their field. With a bit of luck to go viral, sometimes surprisingly new heroes emerge.

Like every other medium, Instagram is no charity, with advertising being one of the major sources of income. Instagram ads are available in various formats (including videos up to 60 seconds) and distinguish themselves often in creativity. So-called business profiles can also have a contact button that allows followers to contact the company easier by phone or text message.

Photos posted on Instagram are not allowed to have a link in the caption and profiles are only allowed to contain one Internet address. Some brands nonetheless are experimenting with selling via Instagram, often with a somewhat clumsy check link in bio message in their posts.

Instagram for all: carmakers, DIY, ..

Companies of all kinds use Instagram to build their brand. The blog of Instagram regularly offers in-depth examples from their partners.  

When you are talking about big advertising budgets, you often immediately ‘bump’ into the automotive industry. Traditionally, they advertise in glossy magazines and produce the most expensive TV commercials. Marketeers of brands like BMW or Audi were among the first to discover the advertising possibilities on social media, including Instagram. According to Instagram’s own data, during October of this year, car enthusiasts used Instagram to check their feed about 21 times a day, 7 days a week. It’s only logical, therefore, that the industry has jumped on the bandwagon. GMC, for instance, is experimenting on how to translate their glossy magazine ads to carousel ads on Instagram.

Use of Instagram by GMC

Lexus USA uses the Instagram stories feature to give people backstage access to events that are by invitation only - and Volvo even lets its customers make a test drive with the power of their thumb.

Use of Instagram by Volvo

Fascinating examples also come from a sector like interior design and decoration. This sector is typically based upon a real life shopping experience. However, an increasing proportion of decorative items today is sold via the Internet and also the traditional do-it-yourself store sees its sales sinking slowly by competition from online sales.

Instagram’s own data is showing that (the more than 500 million active) Instagram users within their home category are extremely dedicated. They follow 140% more other users than the average Instagrammer, consume four times as much content and have on average 3,5 times more followers than other users.

Again, creativity is key. The same carousel type of ad used by GMC, for example, is used by Home Depot as a step-by-step DIY guide. Also, a number of do-it-yourself stores is using video ads for such step-by-step DIY guides .

Use of Instagram by Home Depot

Instagram introduces: Instagram Shopping

A survey of Instagram's parent company Facebook shows that not everyone is clicking and buying directly, online. A path to purchase research conducted by Kantar shows that only 21% of American consumers actually proceed to buy the searched product the same day.

Instagram Shopping started with 20 American fashion and retail brands*, of which most are unknown in Europe. In terms of user experience, Instagram Shopping is similar to tagging someone in a photo. The pictures that these brands share have a so-called tap to view icon on the left below the picture. Once the user taps it, up to five products in the picture can show a label with its product name and price. Each label can then be selected individually, after which a detailed picture of the product shows up with more information. From there on, a Shop Now button leads the user directly to the product on the seller's website.

Later, Instagram Shopping will also be available for video and photo carousels.

Instagram has copied its monetization strategy clearly from its big brother: it does not yet earn on selling, but rather approaches the buy button as a driver for its advertising business. Instagram Shopping can also be considered as the photo version of Facebook's Instant Articles: product pages load superfast within the app, and when the user doesn’t like what he sees, he can go back to the feed instantly.

I believe, however, that the buy button will only come at its true potential when Instagram will be rolling out its save button that enables users to bookmark pictures (products) for later purchase. After all, Instagram in its current form, does not lend itself to impulse purchases.  

Workarounds

Instagram Shopping is not yet available in Belgium. The service began for iPhone users only in the United States. Other countries as well as Android-based phones are planned based upon the pilot’s first results on – particularly – the user experience.

Numerous interesting workarounds for Instagram, however, have been around a while. Obviously, now the question is what the future holds for these services that have not yet reached a critical mass in terms of number of customers. Within this field one finds, among many others, Like2Buy (Curalate), Pixelshop.io, Like to Know and Soldsie.

Curalate offers a varied range of solutions in the area of visual commerce. Its Like2Buy service is used by a number of major brands, including Nordstrom and Sephora. Like2Buy is simplifying purchasing products through the Instagram feed, using the link in the seller’s profile and adding geo tag ‘link in profile’ to the picture. The actual sale does not take place within Instagram, so Like2Buy serves primarily as a traffic generator.

It's no secret that so-called influencers earn tons of money with sponsored posts. Also on Instagram one can find many of these ads, usually even without a proper indication (#spon, #sponsored or #ad) indicating that it is a commercial message. The Pixelshop.io service allows influencers to easily build their own web shop. Manufacturers ‘plug’ in their stock at Pixelshop and influencers can link their pictures or videos to the products in stock. Pixelshop simplifies the flow from Instagram to influencer’s shop and influencers are receiving an affiliate fee for their sales efforts.

Like to Know has great popularity among fashionistas. The platform of rewardStyle, a company engaged in affiliate marketing, send information by e-mail about a particular product simply by liking the picture. Users need to grant the service access to their Instagram account only once and the service then works for images with the (non-working) link www.liketk.it in the caption. A major user of the Like to Know service is fashion magazine Vogue.

Clumsy, or not? Soldsie - a service aimed at SMEs – is using Instagram and Facebook comments for direct sales. Soldsie post pictures of products and registered users purchase the product by simply responding with #sold. The service, thus, is a bit similar to Like to Know and certainly not high-tech: the transaction is finalized by e-mail.

Serious business or merely a gimmick?

When consumers have a specific intention to buy, they turn to Amazon or Google. From that perspective, the Google Buy button’s potential is a multiple of Amazon’s.

Social media in particular plays a role within a consumer’s discovery phase. Critics therefore argue that the buy button isn’t worth your time yet. To them, media like Pinterest and Instagram are just a showroom. Facebook, on the other hand, has only little interest in the buy button because it is focusing primarily on its highly lucrative advertising business.

People use social media with the intention to remain in contact with friends and family. Selling a food processor or a new dress in between seems to be unlikely. The chronological order of the social media feed also make sale buttons less visible. Photos on Instagram pass by quickly and are hard to find afterwards. Also, a relatively small percentage of all content is actually for sale. While Amazon's full product range can be (pre-)ordered, only a fraction of the pins on Pinterest is for sale. Fashion, for instance, of three or four years ago can still be shared on social media eagerly.

Instagram step-by-step

To silence those critics: there are also numerous case studies in which almost all sales initiated through social media is coming from new customers. Sellers, thus, can use a medium like Instagram to grow their customer base.

I would advise companies offering a product on the consumer market to at least reserve a small portion of their budget to experiment with Facebook, Pinterest or Instagram. Simply follow the steps below to get started:

  • Determine which medium best suits your product / brand or at what medium you expect to book the best results. Which medium is visited by most of your prospects / clients, in what medium does your product stand out best and where (and how) could occur the most qualitative interaction with your audience? Our experience is that Instagram is scoring very well on these questions for consumer brands and makers. Register your product or company name directly at your preferred medium and as a precaution also at the other important social media).
  • Plan and create an editorial calendar. Determine how often you want to create a post, what you would like to post and who should post. Opt for a clear red line that will captivate your audience’s attention. On Instagram, successful marketing equals to subtle marketing. Posts must not be too commercial and your followers are probably not waiting for a full feed with your products. Examples of interesting pictures include the aforementioned reports from events or a look within your studio. You might also ask your customers to share pictures related to your brand, which you then copy crediting them.
  • Provide interaction with other media. Increase the reach of your social media efforts, for instance, by integrating posts within your web site. For many e-commerce platforms, plugins exist that can integrate your Instagram contributions on a web page. With social media, you are always dependent on an algorithm that is run by a third party, so you will never be sure if you will / will not appear in the feed of your prospects. Use social media therefore also to collect e-mail addresses of prospects, so you can reach them directly later.
  • Determine in advance how to deal with positive and negative reactions. Social media is, by definition, a channel where your customers are able to talk with or about you. Some customers are more likely to publicly hashtag your product name then that they will approach you through your traditional customer service. Therefore, also make your customer support employees familiar with the media you are using actively commercially - and if feasible, monitor all other channels on the use of your product or company name.

Instagram and other forms of visual commerce are certainly no rocket science. Because of the speed of developments, however, successful sales and marketing through such social media deserve your full attention. Start therefore with one medium only and only move on the next when you have the first under control.

* Abercombie&Fitch BaubleBar, Coach, Hollister, JackThreads, J.Crew, Kate Spade, Levi’s Brand, Lulus, Macy’s, Michael Kors, MVMT Watches, Tory Burch, Warby Parker and Shopbop.

(This post was originally written in Dutch by Stefan Vermeulen for Bloovi.)