Social commerce and human experience could be marketing’s next big shift.

In the last recession, brands had the leeway to innovate new in-store experiences, as well as launch high-profile sales events in physical stores, in order to drum up attention and counterbalance their customers’ financial anxieties. This year, the front line of retail innovation is going to be very different. There is a tendency in marketing to understate trends in consumer behavior and shifts as though those are exceptions to underlying rules about how people decide what to buy. As we assess and reassess how we are operating, where we are having success, and what could be improved on in a given campaign, we draw conclusions about this or that group deviating from their ‘usual’ outlook, hypothesize about why that is, and then discuss those changes.

The truth is (as the truth often is) more complicated. Part of the problem has been not having the full suite of tools and methods available to identify and engage customers in a more nuanced way based on their consumption habits.This is compounded as information, communication, and entertainment fragments across channels and devices.

Social attitudes are, in fact, in constant flux, on both the group and the individual level, and often in completely unpredictable ways – especially when unforeseeable global events exert their sudden influence. So it’s clear that brands cannot simply prepare for a ‘new normal’ by returning to previous methods and tactics which have historically served them well. Instead, they must embrace new models which get to grips with the modern realities of retail marketing.

Social-ising the brand
The key to success moving forward will be to creatively redefine the customer journey rather than treating new technological approaches as auxiliary experiments accompanying the core retail strategy. We have already seen the sports industry start to grapple with this, as events restart behind closed doors and online approaches to consumption are powered up to provide satisfying experiences for fans. As this has happened, some brands have found fertile ground in sharing that space with fans and offering marketing which makes the experience richer and more human. This is where social commerce comes into play.

For retail, shoppable ads have enjoyed a recent growth for similar reasons, by bringing the immediacy and engagement of physical retail to the virtual space. On Snapchat, Dynamic Product Ads (DPAs) are introducing a frictionless experience within multimedia social networks, while Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest and TikTok are likewise pursuing constant refinement of their social shopping options. The potential for this technology to target advertising more tightly than ever, to collapse the length of the funnel between awareness and purchase, and to nimbly respond to changes in the marketing context is obvious.

However, the flipside to ever more personalised and customised marketing experiences is a growing expectation that, through marketing, really will feel personal, relevant, and genuine. Between the growing power of technology to target individuals and recent directions in the fluctuation of social attitudes, consumers are expecting brands to be more human in the way that they speak, and are more willing to demand authentic and ethical behaviours from the brands they purchase. At the same time, however, general attitudes to advertising and marketing are not as cynical as that may suggest: research from GlobalWebIndex suggests that just 15% of consumers disapproved of brands who continued to communicate as normal through the first wave of the pandemic, with near-universal approval for brands sharing practical or light-hearted content.

Person-alising the brand
The real successes, then, will be found when brands ally social commerce with positive human experiences. Technology now offers more powerful ways for brands to identify and target likely purchasers – and so make marketing spend more effective – than ever before. It’s at its most powerful, though, when it also adds value for the consumer, offering a real, meaningful interaction which can bring our expectations of physical retail to the digital space.

Which brings us back to those long-standing habits in marketing around figuring out which way the wind is blowing, following consumer trends at a distance, and falling back on established rules when we don’t have the data to do otherwise. The playbook is no longer relevant and brands can’t afford to play it safe. Finding a brand authentic or genuine is, of course, a much more nuanced and personal reaction than more broadly responding positively to a piece of advertising. How are we to work the tricky negotiation of building more personal, more relatable, more human brand experiences in this environment?

Here, retail might just have an ace up its sleeve. The rich, varied, engaging customer experiences that physical retail offers require significant up-front investment, and insight into their performance is difficult to get with any degree of depth or accuracy. Online retail, and in particular social commerce, meanwhile has the exact opposite dynamic, and we can now blend that into the same channels with which we are interacting with our audiences and enabling the purchase process.

As we do so, we also have an opportunity to close the gaps between planning, running, and measuring campaigns. More than ever before, brands can be aware of how the world is reacting to them in the same way that people are: in real time, processing feedback, and making adjustments on the fly. With the right tools for and approach to campaign management, social commerce and authentic marketing will be one and the same.

Necessity, if we believe the cliche, is the mother of invention. This golden quarter, I think we’ll see the world’s most innovative, forward-thinking brands make big strides in what social commerce can do, and in what it means for consumers on a human level.

By Aaron Goldman