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Summary:

How does a large e-commerce site appeal to a wide variety of shoppers online — and then get them used to the idea of shopping with social? Zappos is working to figure out the answer to social commerce.

Friends shopping
photo: Corbis / Heide Benser

When it comes to online fashion and large digital brands, it seems social shopping might have hit a plateau. It’s pretty standard now for companies like Amazon or Nordstrom to display products along with buttons for sharing to Twitter, Facebook, or Pinterest. Products might have reviews and photo galleries, or the company might have its own blog.

But beyond that? There isn’t much social activity happening on most of those larger sites.

Zappos Glance social recommendation product pageI sat down with the team at Zappos Labs last week to talk about the future of online shopping. It’s not like Zappos is struggling to find shoppers, but the company’s leadership clearly understands that as the world moves more toward social media adoption, there must be ways to use social to boost sales and improve the shopping experience.

“It’s hard for us to think of new ways to shop when people are keeping the lights on of a 2 billion dollar e-commerce site,” said Will Young, director of Zappos Labs. But social media for large e-commerce sites is tricky. “For a lot of people, they just want their shoes overnight. And they want free returns.”

So where is a team like Zappos looking for inspiration?

Young immediately pointed to sites like Poshmark or Pinterest as having built strong communities around liking and sharing particular items. I’ve written about Poshmark before, and there’s no doubt users are engaged on the platform, but it’s unclear how many people are actually turning those likes into purchases. Wish lists do not always turn into shopping lists, even if the engagement is strong, although some sites like Wanelo are trying to change this.

And then Young pointed out that you have sites like Modcloth or Lululemon or NastyGal, which have built notoriously passionate communities of shoppers around fairly niche products, and turned those shoppers into sales. But those companies have very clearly-defined products and target audiences.

But for Zappos or Nordstrom or Amazon, who can’t just settle for targeting one specific demographic, like young women? They need to figure out if they can grab any of the social elements these other sites are using so well, and then apply them to a broader audience.

“If our main goal was just to do sales, we’d just be creating coupon applications,” Young said, noting that Zappos Labs is dedicated to understanding how people shop. “That’s one of our big challenges. Which is, how how do we put social only in front of people who care about it? Building communities is tough when we’re so wide.”

So what has Zappos come up with so far? The company has tried out a Pinterest recommendation engine that was fairly hit or miss in terms of the products it suggested, but they said it had enough positive reactions that they’re looking to improve it. They’re also trying out a site called Glance that shows curated groups of items around particular themes that users can like and save, since discovery on a site like Zappos that has so many products can be a challenge. And the company has experimented with collecting all the tweets about individual products to serve as a sort of crowdsourced Twitter review.

Young pointed out that for the majority of the company’s shoppers, getting them into the idea of social shopping at all can be tricky.

For most of our customers, “they’re on Facebook. They’re probably on Twitter,” he said. “But when they come to a site like Zappos they don’t always want to link their Facebook account or anything. They might like our fan page, but how do we create a social experience for those users?”

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  1. Stefan Qvickström Wednesday, April 10, 2013

    Interesting article, but I think that Young was right saying that people only want next day delivery and free returns. For me Internet is pretty much a mirror of “the real world”, and to be honest, how much social shopping happens in the real world? I think the company’s are hoping for something that isn’t there. What value would a “social experience” add to me, I think that is where the thinking should start, but today it feels like it starts from “how can we increase sales”. If it adds a value to me, I’m willing to pay for it…

    1. I think Social Experience is the Key. Social media is one of the many means and arguably not the most popular even though it is the most easily available means to get a valuable social experience. If we really want give our customers a differentiated customer experience – we should think about giving them a memorable social experience through internet, through brick and mortar stores, through service provided that registers in the social side of our customer brains. That is what people remember and being the social animals that we are – want to experience it again and again like pot!

  2. Michael Sinsheimer Wednesday, April 10, 2013

    We think we may have a solution which is not just recommending products with friends/family, but purchasing with them to create value for each party as our premise is that purchasing volume can drive down prices so all parties do better than they would if they had bought individually. We’re in beta at Flash Purchase.

  3. Good article Eliza. Being in the social commerce space I can share some insights here:
    1. On-site social commerce is the right strategy. I.e. bringing ‘social’ to e-commerce sites is a lot more effective than taking e-commerce to social sites (remember Facebook storefronts?)

    2. There are ways to create engaging social experiences on all sites. These can be either (a) incentivized or (b) helpful social widgets. E.g. incentivizing users to Like or share a product or enhancing their shopping experience by say enabling them to create a poll with friends.

    Word-of-mouth is the most powerful marketing channel – adding a little marketing budget behind it can reap great dividends.

  4. Larry Hernandez Thursday, April 11, 2013

    Shameless Plug :) – The Zappos Lab crew has a Sr. Ruby Developer job opening in San Francisco! http://goo.gl/nYZ6T

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