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It’s telling that at Alex and Ani, which prides itself on being at the cutting edge of digital fashion, sales through Twitter’s “buy” buttons and Pinterest’s Buyable Pins still account for less than half of 1 percent of the brand’s e-commerce transactions.

This story first appeared in the December 2, 2015 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

That’s a vanishingly small piece of a business that’s on track to reach revenues of about $350 million this year.

But ultimately, it might not matter. The potential of social commerce lies not so much in driving sales, but in meeting customers on their own turf.

“In the coming years, “buy” buttons will be ubiquitous, and should be,” said Chris Haines, director of strategy at Fluid, a digital design agency. “Customers should have the convenience to buy wherever and whenever they feel the urge.”

Haines cautioned that social commerce will never replace regular commerce — it will just amplify it.

“There is no ‘bad’ commerce outlet for brands,” Haines said. “Selling through multiple outlets follows the good, better, best principle of reaching every type of customer, but the ones who shop through ‘best’ (the e-commerce flagship) will always be the most valuable to a brand.”

Social selling is still in the test phase and consumers have yet to warm to the idea of social networks as shopping destinations.

But Twitter, Pinterest and Facebook all seem convinced that “buy” buttons are a key part of their future. Each rolled out commerce-focused updates this fall. (Instagram, fashion’s favorite social network and perhaps the platform that could work best for purchases, has yet to install any in-app purchasing.)

This is a road Seventh Avenue and Silicon Valley have been down before.

F-commerce, or selling on Facebook, was heralded as potentially the next big thing in 2011 only to fizzle. The world has changed, though, and the second time through could be more successful for all involved.

The mobile device has become the primary screen for many consumers and they are spending more time on a handful of apps — Facebook and Pinterest among them. And retailers across the fashion spectrum have reported that more than half the traffic to their sites comes from mobile devices.

That could open up fresh digital opportunities since experts pin earlier failures with social commerce to the desktop dynamic. Adherents of the small screen are mobile first, simultaneously engaging with friends and brands, discovering new looks, browsing and shopping on the go.

Brands are looking to capture the millions of eyeballs on social and turn them into dollars. Facebook and Twitter are hoping to get a cut of these sales, while Pinterest, which doesn’t take a percentage of sales made with a Buyable Pin, benefits by becoming more valuable to its users. For Chris Teso, founder and chief executive officer of social media marketing firm Chirpify, social commerce works best for flash sales, where there is a limited quantity of an item. Ticket and event sales can also sell on social.

“That’s all I think will work on social. What I don’t think it’s ever going to become is something that consumers do at scale, and certainly not for anything that requires purchase consideration,” said Teso, who has worked with Guess, Forever 21, L’Oréal, Origins and Benefit Cosmetics.

Chirpify worked with Green Day in 2012 to sell its triple album “Uno!,¡Dos!, and ¡Tre!” in-stream on Twitter, marking the first time a big-label band has sold music in that way. While the tweet from Green Day had nearly 1,500 retweets in the first four hours, just 250 albums were sold via tweet.

Nathan Hubbard, head of commerce at Twitter, said the company learned from more than a year of testing in-tweet shopping that users want to buy things they see content built around. As moments happen — such as the Golden State Warriors winning the NBA championship in June — the opportunity presents itself for brands to sell unique, specially priced or limited-supply merchandise.

When the Golden State Warriors’ Stephen Curry was named the NBA’s most valuable player, he sent out a tweet with in-tweet buy capabilities for the team’s championship T-shirt and hat and the entire inventory sold out, with thousands of orders.

After several smaller efforts and one-off in-tweet shopping partnerships with brands such as Burberry, Twitter teamed up with the leading cloud commerce platforms — Demandware, Bigcommerce and Shopify — which now offer Twitter’s “buy” button as one of the e-commerce services they provide to retailers. This move opens up in-tweet buying to thousands of merchants, who can now sell their wares to the millions of users on the platform without leaving their feed. “We’re building for where things are going,” Hubbard said. “If we look at what’s happening with WeChat in Asia, users follow brands and are using it every day. People in the States aren’t coming on thinking it’s a place to shop, but we’re building a new proposition for Twitter.”

Facebook is introducing three new features to stimulate shopping on the platform: an in-feed “buy” button, shopping sections of mobile pages and “Canvas” carousel product ads.

Emma Rodgers, who leads product marketing for commerce at the social giant, said, “What we’re looking to do is enable marketers to reach the right people in the right moment at the right time, and where people are spending their time is on mobile.”

The difference now is that Facebook works with merchants on shopping-related features and ads, whereas previously, brands used plugins that third parties built into their pages to facilitate shopping, she explained. During this period of alpha testing, Facebook is limiting the sample to the apparel and accessories category, which can either opt for in-feed purchasing or to direct users to their digital flagships to buy.

Rodgers dodged the question when asked if Facebook will ever become a meaningful shopping destination for merchants.

“We’re making it easier for businesses to drive sales on mobile,” she said. “We have a number of proven solutions out in the market today to help businesses drive sales.”

If there’s a tentativeness there, it might be because commerce is settling into something of an uneasy home at the social networks.

As a whole, the species has evolved to do something else — connect people to each other, not necessarily sell them things. Facebook, Twitter and the rest have to tread carefully to not drive their users away as they open the doors further to selling.

And the networks make their money from advertising, a sphere they’ve wholly reorganized in the last decade. Facebook’s advertising revenues shot up 45 percent to $11.4 billion for the first nine months of this year, while Twitter’s gained 64 percent to $1.4 billion.

That’s a good business right there.

But tech companies live in fast-forward, always looking to make themselves more valuable to their users with the next service or must-have functionality.

Commerce can be tricky and not just because of the whims of shoppers.

Last month, Twitter warned in the boilerplate language of a quarterly regulatory filing: “We have built commerce solutions that connect customers and retail partners. This includes enabling users to make purchases within a tweet, load offers directly to a credit or debit card, and browse or shop collections of products without leaving Twitter. We have relationships with third parties that perform a variety of functions such as credit-card processing, tokenization, vaulting, currency conversion, fraud prevention and data security audits.”

A problem with those third-party providers could hurt retailers’ business on Twitter and the social network’s business as well.

And that’s just the business side of the equation. Lawyers and lawmakers are also involved.

“The laws and regulations related to e-commerce and payments are complex, subject to change, and vary across different jurisdictions in the United States and globally,” Twitter said. “As a result, we are required to spend significant time, effort and expense to comply with applicable laws and regulations.”

While social commerce has not been a sales driver at Alex and Ani, Igor Bekker, the company’s vice president of e-commerce and digital marketing, said it could become more meaningful as Facebook improves its ability to track commerce.

“[Facebook] hasn’t been able to provide a way to measure conversions from the “buy” button in a way that allows [us] to distinguish it from organic or paid efforts,” Bekker said. “Therefore, we don’t see a significant value today and, as any new feature, it’s yet to be tested.”

At Pinterest, users — not marketers — are the center of the platform’s Buyable Pins.

Michael Yamartino, head of commerce at Pinterest, said the Buyable Pin function was the number-one user demand since launch, and was not the result of requests from advertisers. There are other products for advertisers, but the Buyable Pin isn’t one of them.

“The overall ratio is small, but as a portion of the percent of what users can see, it’s growing,” Yamartino said of the 60 million pins — out of 50 billion — that are buyable.

That is social selling in a nutshell — still buzzy, but small and growing.

Is it worth all the attention?

“Absolutely,” said Zaid Al-Asady, vice president, creative director at ad agency Deutsch. “It’s not just the latest fad, it’s the next logical addition to platforms given trends we’re seeing in existing user behaviors. The hype around social commerce over the past few years has been fueled by the opportunities social media analysts are seeing within these user behaviors, and the success of services such as Keep.com, Liketoknow.it, Have2have.it and Like2buy — all services making an impact in the fight to bridge that gap between social media and e-commerce.

“The disconnect is that although the potential does exist, in reality there are a number of key elements — like back-end inventory, fulfillment logistics and payment infrastructure — that still have a way to go before platforms can effectively live up to the buzz,” he said.

The idea of social commerce is a powerful one given the heady combination of traffic at the social networks and money to be made through the sale of goods.

If it works, it’s a line of business that could grow to be a holy grail for the social networks and brands alike — a way for brands to get to more shoppers and the networks to keep their users happy.

The tests to see if that’s possible are well under way now. All that’s left is to see how shoppers click and spend.

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