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DT, July 2017

Whatever Happened to Buy Buttons?
July 1, 2017

By Kevin Woodward

The buy button, which only two years ago showed much promise on social networks, has been superseded by the need to accommodate mobile shoppers.

They were once thought to be a new way to spur more online transactions as consumers amped up the time they spent on social networks. But, lately, buy buttons have quietly retreated as a universal way to drive commerce on these networks.

Buy buttons, such as those once offered by Twitter Inc., enabled consumers to make purchases from a retailer or other brand without leaving the social-media site. They promised an immediate purchase, but ultimately failed to produce the commerce yields social networks and brands demanded.

What’s developed in the past few years since the debut of buy buttons is a strategy to use social networks, and posts on these sites, to push consumers to a retailer’s Web site, whether it’s viewed on a desktop screen or a mobile one. Pew Research Center says 69% of Americans use some type of social media.

“We’ve seen brands and retailers scale back their efforts to sell directly on sites like Facebook and Twitter in favor of using the social platforms for marketing initiatives to drive consumers to core commerce sites,” says Jason Daigler, research director for digital commerce at Gartner Inc., a Stamford, Conn.-based research firm. “Most brands and retailers I’ve spoken to who tried selling directly on social networks didn’t see a compelling amount of sales.”

Rapid Retreat

The retreat from buy buttons has developed fairly rapidly. It was only in 2014 that Twitter, the social network famed for its 140-character limit for posts, began testing a buy button to enable users to make purchases via tweets.

Twitter’s button worked this way: After tapping the button, the purchaser would get additional product details and be prompted to enter shipping and payment information. Upon confirmation, order information was sent to the merchant for delivery. Payment and shipping information would be encrypted and stored, sparing the customer from having to re-enter it for subsequent purchases.

But Twitter shuttered its buy button in January. The company declined to comment on the decision.

As recently as 2015, third-party buy-button provider XpressBuy Inc. offered a service that enabled integration with three e-commerce platform providers. In 2016, the company morphed into Parlo, a chatbot platform.

“Parlo was initially born out of XpressBuy, an ad-commerce platform helping brands engage with consumers during moments of buying,” said a Parlo press release issued then. “However, the vision of Parlo is much broader than e-commerce.”

Other social networks and providers are pressing on. Facebook Inc. has a buy button available to developers for use in its Messenger platform. Introduced in 2016, the technology enables consumers to make purchases without leaving Messenger. But the service is in beta and only available in the United States.

‘In a Mindset’

Other sites are more earnest in their efforts, offering non-test buy buttons for interested brands. One is Pinterest, a social network that has won popularity because it’s image-friendly and enables consumers to compile themed lists. Its service, dubbed “Buyable Pins,” enables sellers to embed the button in their Pinterest posts.

The Buyable Pins buttons paint the purchase price in blue, indicating the item is in stock and available for purchase. These blue prices appear in search results, related Pins, and in the seller’s business profile, Pinterest says.

Clicking on a price opens the pin. The consumer then clicks, or taps, the “Add to Bag” button to generate a dialog box to select a size and color, if required. The item is then added to the shopping cart within Pinterest.

To make the purchase, the consumer selects the shopping cart. If the transaction is a first-time order, the shipping and billing address and payment information are entered. In addition to standard credit and debit cards, Pinterest’s Buyable Pins program accepts Apple Inc.’s Apple Pay.

Pinterest offers access to Buyable Pins via three e-commerce platforms: BigCommerce, Salesforce Commerce Cloud, and Shopify. In addition to automatically making any product pinned from a merchant’s store available on one of the e-commerce platforms, the integration also provides reporting on the number of Pins, re-Pins, and orders made via Pinterest.

That Buyable Pins are still available two years after their introduction, while efforts from other social networks have struggled, doesn’t surprise Daigler.

What may have hampered the widespread adoption of most social-network buy buttons might have been a rather routine consumer practice, Daigler says.

“Some consumers don’t want to mix their social activities with online shopping, especially on sites like Facebook and Twitter,” he says. “However, there are certain social networks, like Pinterest, where consumers are already in a mindset to look at designs, products, or collections of products, so social commerce makes more sense there.”

‘Facebook Is My Newspaper’

Others have tried to break through, too. In 2015, Predict?Spring Inc. launched a commerce platform that sought to make the buy button a reality on social networks. Since then, it has shifted its focus to enabling mobile commerce, a reflection of the growth in the importance of smart phones among consumers.

Some 77% of U.S. consumers now have the mobile devices, says the Pew Research Center. Indeed, mobile commerce now accounts for 21% of all online commerce, says comScore Inc., a Reston, Va.-based data-measurement firm.

Now at PredictSpring, enabling mobile commerce—across apps, the Web, and in-store—is the greater focus, says Nitin Mangtani, founder and chief executive of the Los Altos, Calif.-based firm.

“In retail, we are seeing a big transition,” says Mangtani. “We are seeing a much more focused effort to rethink digital and digital mobile commerce. Mobile is the channel.”

While social commerce remains important to brands, the ever-growing consumer fondness for mobile is prompting PredictSpring to look at mobile as a commerce channel rather than the social networks. “For brands, the big question is, how do they rethink mobile?” Mangtani says.

Social networks, in Mangtani’s view, are akin to a much older form of social networking—newspapers. “To me, Facebook is my newspaper,” he says. “These are the modern newsfeeds.” Social-network users visit the sites not only to learn what family and friends are sharing, but also to receive sponsored messages.

Mangtani has not given up on the effectiveness of buy buttons, but considers their current status to be immature, though in evolution toward maturity. “These are steps toward the experience,” he says. “Yes, it’s true that the buy button has not fully grown up.”

As for the payments component, PredictSpring is neutral in regards to the client’s processing needs. It has integrations with multiple payment gateways, and has application programming interfaces for many of them. Most of the time, a client already has a payment-processing relationship, Mangtani says. “Sometimes they also ask for a recommendation,” he adds, especially if it’s an online-only merchant adding in-store point-of-sale acceptance.

Fragmented Networks

Another trend affecting social commerce is how brands buy their digital-advertising media. The progression has gone from making these purchases based on search results to basing them on social-network metrics, Mangtani says. “Brands are very happy with the traffic they see from social networks,” he says.

Regardless of brand readiness to provide social-commerce opportunities, consumers have to be willing to shop within their social-media pages. While the sales, as Gartner’s Daigler suggests, may not have materialized for past efforts, few brands are giving up on the potential, Mangtani says.

“The consumer is definitely ready,” Mangtani says of social commerce.

That may be part of the reason why Instagram, which is owned by Facebook and presents image-based posts, announced a shopping option for brands and retailers.

Still in tests, the service places a tap-to-view icon in the image. When tapped, a tag appears that includes the price. Upon tapping the tag, a new detailed product view opens. Tapping the Shop Now button in the product details view takes the consumer to the business’s Web site to complete the purchase by opening the site within Instagram. The iOS-only test enables consumers to use Apple Pay, too.

Making such transactions simple is the ideal, Mangtani says. Such capability requires complex integration between the social network and the seller’s backend, which may be old. “Most brands are using systems that are very old,” Mangtani says.

Couple that with the lack of API software, which enables Web sites and backend technology to easily share data, and it’s not difficult to understand the challenges.

Compounding the difficulty is the fragmented nature of social networks. Protocols and technology that work with one site will not work seamlessly with another. Even within a site, such as Pinterest, not all pages have buyable PINs.

“Consumers don’t see the ubiquity and consistency,” Mangtani says. “Brands don’t want to invest their resources in the buy button until they see the return on investment.” That typically means the site is generating enough consumer interest to warrant the brand investment. “But,” says Mangtani, “they won’t see the ROI until consumer behavior changes.”

Daigler says little prevents social networks from offering commerce. “But for brands and retailers, it is often more lucrative to use social networks to direct consumers to their core commerce sites, where they can control the customer experience, upsell and cross-sell products, personalize experiences, and maintain ownership of customer data,” he says. “All aspects that are much harder or impossible to do on social networks.”

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