Twitter is some of its larger advertising partners for its Buy Button mobile advertising test.

Is Mobile Commerce the Future of Social Media?

Twitter has been making some bold moves lately in order to provide value to its advertising partners (read: increase revenue).  First there was the “Flock to Unlock” feature that allows brands to gate content pending engagement; then they announced “Flight School” to train marketing agencies as to how to use the platform better.

This time around, Twitter is dipping its toe into mobile commerce by testing purchasing CTA’s with a “Buy button” that shows up in context.  Said Twitter on its blog:

This is an early step in our building functionality into Twitter to make shopping from mobile devices convenient and easy, hopefully even fun. Users will get access to offers and merchandise they can’t get anywhere else and can act on them right in the Twitter apps for Android and iOS; sellers will gain a new way to turn the direct relationship they build with their followers into sales.

That last part of the quote is the most interesting to me as a marketer (who came out of an e-commerce background): an actual sale from a tweet is the sort of social media ROI that senior executives have been wanting to see out of social marketing programs since the first social media manager took ownership of a Twitter page.

Here’s the thing, though: a social media marketing program shouldn’t be crafted around direct conversion to sales.  Doing this utterly misses the point of the program.

Social Media is a Channel, Not a Marketing Discipline

While it’s interesting to see Twitter experimenting with what’s essentially contextual advertising – most especially because this is a mobile play, and nobody’s really cracked mobile commerce yet – the relationship marketer in me has to wince a little bit at what this is going to do to my brave social media and content marketing cohorts.  Social media has, from the beginning, been misunderstood as a marketing initiative that should be driving a direct click-to-sale… and that is not actually the goal of a good social marketing program, any more than it’s the point of a good PR program.  (For more on this, see this article on earned social media.)

Good social marketing programs are about creating and maintaining relationships.  I can’t blame Twitter for looking to monetize all the eyeballs hitting their site every day, but I do worry that this move will lead to another wave of confusion within marketing departments whereby people who should be looking to engage their community with useful content will now be pressured to craft programs designed for single-sale conversions.  I myself have been a B2C social media marketer in an e-commerce company, and I was indeed pressured by senior management to use both the blog and our social media channels to try to drive direct sales.  And so I did, and it didn’t work: we had plenty of ways to tempt our buyers into that same sale, and they weren’t looking to our social channels to find more of them.

This isn’t to say that mobile commerce is a bad idea, but rather to understand that there is a difference between the goals of a direct marketing initiative and a social marketing initiative, even if they’re both using the same channel.  With that in mind, using Twitter effectively as a commerce channel will take coordination within the marketing department to understand how direct sales plays into the overarching Twitter strategy, as well as how Twitter can play into larger marketing campaigns with this new functionality.

But will it work?  Well, time will tell.  Here’s what we do know:

A Good Social Sale is Dependent Upon a Good Reason to Buy

Twitter has handpicked a number of, per their blog, “artists, brands, and nonprofit organizations” – included on that list (here) are folks like GLAAD, Eminem, and Burberry.  Basically (and unsurprisingly), Twitter has chosen partners who already have established brand equity and large followings.

What this tells us is that Twitter understands that there are three main reasons that someone would buy something off of Twitter (and hitting more than one note here ups the chance of a conversion), and all three of these assume a pre-existing brand affinity:

1) Exclusive Deals & Offers

At a “Twitter for Marketers” event I attended a few years back, Twitter execs told us that one of the main reasons that over 50% of the people on Twitter follow at least 6 brands is to get sales and inside deals.  That being the case, from a direct marketing standpoint, it makes sense to give people the opportunity to take advantage of an exclusive offer – and if you re-read that statement at the beginning of this post, you’ll see that Twitter’s own messaging would seem to indicate that this is their recommendation for us marketers.  So make your offer something they can’t get elsewhere, folks.

2) Convenience

If I wanted that Burberry perfume anyway and it and it pops up in my activity stream with a BUY button and I’m sure it’s not cheaper on Amazon, I don’t see any reason I wouldn’t go ahead and stock up on it while I’m on BART on the way to work.  Twitter is making it absolutely as easy as possible to complete a sale within a couple twiddles of our thumbs.

3) Impulse

Tweets themselves are an impulsive endeavor, and the impulse buyer is Twitter’s best friend here.  My guess is that the best (and most interesting) chance for sale conversion on Twitter will be when the item for sale is part of a larger campaign.  The screenshot at the beginning of this post is the perfect example: a RED campaign shirt.  Nonprofit initiatives are uniquely suited to raise funds by merchandising their campaigns on all their channels, and Twitter is a viable option here.  It’ll be interesting to see whether or not brands begin to alter their merchandising for this channel: i.e. a RED campaign shirt only available on Twitter.  Grumpy Cat might not be the best spokesperson for the ASPCA overall, but Grumpy Cat on a shirt only sold on Twitter… well, that could work.

Overall, this move by Twitter is a harbinger of what’s to come as social networks face the same challenge that traditional publishers do in the advent of online news: consumers don’t want to pay for what they’re reading, so these businesses need to figure out a way to monetize their real estate in meaningful ways.  As mobile grows and advertising evolves, this sort of commerce functionality is to be expected -Facebook started testing direct buys from ads a few months back.  What that means for our social marketing programs has yet to be determined, but I’ll bet (and hope) that we’ll start seeing some innovative campaigns on the social selling front.