Chris Marr is an alumnus of Spektrix.
Making purchases directly through social media has been on the horizon for a little while, as Facebook experiments with becoming a payment provider and with Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey now in charge of mobile payments provider Square. Serious rumblings about in-app social media purchases began in early 2014 with the (accidental?) leak of how a Buy button might look on Twitter. By the end of summer, and as more and more examples started popping up in the wild on people’s timelines, both Facebook and Twitter made official statements to confirm that they are now testing and experimenting with the Buy button. Everyone’s favourite .gif emporium Tumblr is about to get in on the act as well, with their own announcement in late 2014.
It’s hard to resist a bit of future trends prediction here. At the risk of being proven completely wrong in a year’s time – with the Buy button being consigned to the social commerce scrap-heap like Facebook Gifts – this could prove to be a major development in the way we buy and sell online in the future. But what would the implications of this be, and how would it work in practice in the arts?
An early sign that Twitter was heading in this direction, and one particularly resonant for our industry, was the the appointment of former Ticketmaster CEO Nathan Hubbard as Head of Commerce in 2013. Is this an indication that, in the future, we’ll be likely to see online ticket sales divided between websites and social channels? This seems all the more probable when, with the much-documented rise of mobile commerce in the arts – see David Johnstone’s Lightning Talk presentation at the Spektrix Conference 2014 – the real benefit of the Buy button will be for mobile users, capitalising on impulse purchases. In the mobile example below, for a particularly fetching Burberry nail polish, the call to action to Buy appears alongside a product-focused tweet, with an image and description within a Twitter card.
Customers then move through to a page which is more clearly focused on completing the sale, before entering their payment and delivery details on the pages that follow; Twitter will then, inevitably, allow customers to store this information for more convenient purchases later. What’s important about this journey is that the customer never leaves the Twitter app, solving the problematic extra step when, after opening a tweeted link in order to purchase a product, mobile users are taken out of Twitter and into their web browser. Removing this obtrusive step of switching between an application and loading up a website should, hopefully, prove to be a much quicker and easier method of buying online.
Facebook’s own Buy button is likely to operate in a similar way, providing a purchase path that stays within the mobile app. It’s easy to see the potential for tools like this; arts organisations will be able to share great photos or video content about an event with their existing social audiences, with a simple (and hopefully speedy) purchase path available immediately. Considering how Facebook already offers marketers a sophisticated model for putting the right sponsored content in front of the right people, this integrated commerce element stands to become an incredibly effective tool to put the relevant products in front of receptive audiences in a single step.
In practice, all of this ought to be about removing barriers between potential audiences becoming actual audiences, just through a different channel. However, doing this within social media streams comes with its own issues, particularly for arts organisations. The first of these is about impulse buying; do we really want to encourage audiences to make snap decisions about attending performances and events? One argument goes that if people post ill-advised things impulsively on social media (which, often, they do) they might also be likely to make impulsive purchases that they later regret. There’s a delicate balance to be struck here for arts organisations; whilst we shouldn’t be afraid to take a leaf out of Amazon’s book in the arts – in order to think more commercially and capitalise on spontaneity – audiences expect to have a genuine and sustainable relationship with arts organisations, rather than a purely customer-vendor relationship. This isn’t to say that social selling can’t have a place within a long-term audience development strategy in the arts, but it should be carefully measured to ensure that audiences who impulse buy tickets are still likely to come back in the future.
There’s a potential sticking point when it comes to trust with social e-commerce too, as social networks look to become e-commerce platforms rather than having always been one. Are consumers going to feel confident that the same platform they use to look at cat memes can be trusted with their card details? Social selling is likely to be treated with scepticism at first, but if carefully managed there’s no reason that social channels couldn’t be regarded as secure and reliable e-commerce spaces, alongside eBay and Amazon. On the other hand, should the Buy button become popular and familiar, the social networks run the risk of filling our timelines with e-commerce posts. The unique qualities that make people visit Twitter, Facebook or Tumblr may become diminished, as these networks become as much a shop window as they are a social space.
We can be confident, nonetheless, that social media commerce is unlikely to replace arts organisations’ websites as their primary sales channels. Websites are (or at least, ought to be) fully branded and customisable online spaces; an extension of an arts organisation online that reflects their values, alongside an e-commerce element. Selling through social media, on the other hand, will mean selected campaigns that appear within timelines, between almost any kind of online content. Burberry, Nike and the theatre next door might all be vying for the attention of the same advert-weary Facebook user on the bus.
In order to make best use of this new commercial space, arts organisations should use it to promote early booking, flash sales and last-minute discounts to some of their most engaged fans. If social selling becomes another trusted online sales channel, alongside mobile and website, it will (like these other channels) have its own nuances and idiosyncrasies that customers come to be familiar and comfortable with. So when used in a limited way for specific campaigns, offers and discounts, social commerce has the opportunity to become an exciting new sales channel for arts organisations that benefits audiences too. If used excessively, nobody wins.