If you were shopping online during the January sales, there’s a good chance you browsed bargains – or snapped one up – through a social media platform like Instagram or TikTok, perhaps on the back of a brand recommendation from an influencer.
raditional e-commerce may have boomed during the pandemic, but rather than using a search engine like Google to shop, Gen Zers and millennials are increasingly using the social media channels they socialise on. Indeed, social commerce is expected to more than double to $1.2tn (€1.12tn) by 2025, according to a 2022 forecast by consulting giant Accenture.
Some 57pc of Irish consumers have bought a product or service via a social platform, with that proportion rising to 67pc for those aged between 16 and 24, a November survey by digital growth agency All human found. The visual-friendly medium of Instagram is the most popular for shopping, followed by Facebook, TikTok and YouTube.
“The pandemic essentially accelerated social commerce at a rate never seen before, because our use of social media skyrocketed when the real world shut down,” says Stephen O’Leary, managing director of social media analysis firm Olytico. “The social networks know a huge amount about us: the things we like, the things we say, and they really understand a huge amount about our purchasing decisions and what we might like to buy.”
Small wonder that Sandie Hawkins, TikTok’s general manager of US e-commerce, famously likened social shopping to “word of mouth on steroids”.
Targeted advertising by social media giants, brand promotion by influencers, and the seamless browse-to-buy shopping experience offered by social networks are promising to radically reshape the way we shop. Yet this is still all in its infancy, so consumers should consider the following issues and pitfalls with social shopping:
Purchasing a product on a social media platform can involve little more a click or two and the content – particularly if it comes from an influencer – is typically more engaging than on a regular ecommerce site. This means when you’re scrolling through social media at night, you’re much more likely to buy something on impulse.
The speed with which you can buy something via social media channels is intentional, O’Leary points out.
“It’s so easy to buy in the spur of the moment and get that dopamine hit,” he says. “Because our cards are often connected to our phones, the number of steps from first seeing an ad for a product or being promoted a product to making a final purchase are ever decreasing. There’s little chance to stop and ask yourself, ‘is this too good to be true? Should I see if anybody else has bought or consumed this product?’ That pause is what retailers are trying to remove but you should be using that exact moment to pause and think about your purchase.”
If you’re prone to impulse buys, do not store your credit or debit card on your device: inputting your card details will give you time to think about your purchase. Leave the product in the retailer’s checkout basket and come back to it a day later to see if you really do want to go ahead with the purchase.
The influencers who monetise their large followings usually sign up to retailers’ affiliate programmes and earn commission every time a follower clicks on an affiliate link and makes a purchase. Influencers – or “content creators”, as most prefer to be known – may give followers a discount code to drive affiliate sales.
“While there’s nothing wrong with this, it’s important to keep in mind that the influencer may have an incentive to promote a particular product, even if it’s not the best option for you,” says Keenan Cunningham from financial services firm Alpha Wealth.
Research your influencers
Some 60pc of under-35s in Ireland follow an influencer, according to a report on influencer marketing published last month by the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission (CCPC). Anyone on social media can become an influencer if they are savvy and appealing enough and can create relatable, entertaining content.
“The recurring problem with influencer recommendations is knowledge, experience and incentives,” says Ken Mason, managing director of Vantage Financial Planning and host of the Money Mentor podcast. “There can be an inherent conflict of interest if the influencer is unable to say no to lucrative offers.”
The CCPC research shows that you are not always likely to spot that you are being advertised to due to a widespread failure by influencers to disclose that they are being compensated in some way for that content, including being gifted a product or experience. The CCPC found almost half of influencer ad content was not labelled as such in any way. A further 35pc of influencer ad disclosures were not visible immediately to followers because, for instance, hashtags such as #ad, #sponsored, #paidpartnership or #gifted were hidden at the very end of an Instagram post, reel or story.
“Keep in mind that influencers are paid to promote products,” Cunningham says. “While influencers may genuinely love and use the products they promote, they are still being paid to advertise them. This means they may not always be giving you an unbiased opinion.”
Fake reviews are common on social media, according to a series of investigations conducted by Which!, which set up fake online businesses on Facebook and purchased fake five-star reviews from review-selling websites.
“Just because a social media page appears to have thousands of followers, this doesn’t necessarily mean it is legitimate,” Cunningham says. “It’s very easy to buy fake followers these days and a lot of these scam pages will do this. Scroll through their followers for yourself, and if you see a lot of blank profile pictures or suspicious names it will give you a fair indication if they are real or not.”
Consumer protection from fake reviews has been strengthened by legislation both at European and national level. Any review presented by a trader as consumer feedback must reflect real consumers’ opinions or experiences and an influencer cannot falsely present themselves as a consumer. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do your own research before buying through social media. One tip O’Leary deploys is searching the hashtags for a product on platforms like Instagram or TikTok to see what other consumers thought of it.
“See if you can find independent consumer reviews,” he says.
Protect yourself against fraud
Be just as careful when social shopping as you are with traditional online shopping to avoid card fraud. Some 550 online shopping frauds were reported to Gardaí between January and October 2022.
Instead of shopping directly from a platform link, type the business’s URL into a search engine and look for a padlock symbol beside the website address. Take outrageous offers with a pinch of salt.
“If a product is super cheap or there’s a 90pc discount, chances are there’s something up,” O’Leary says. “There’s the old adage that ‘if it’s too good to be true, it probably is’.”
Sue Jordan has been blogging for 12 years, is a social media consultant, and her @ItsCherrySue account has 23,000 followers on Instagram alone. The 45-year-old promotes beauty brands on Instagram, yet she has long been outspoken for the need for more robust regulation of influencers (she prefers the term ‘content creators’) to ensure their marketing is more transparent to consumers.
Jordan was responding to findings last month by the CCPC that 48.4pc of the commercial content from influencers was not labelled as advertising in any way, while a further 35pc of advertising content was tagged in a way which had clarity or visibility issues.
“Hidden hashtags are very frustrating and the ASAI (Advertising Standards Authority for Ireland) has not been strong enough on it to date,” she says. “Anyone can pick up a phone, gather an audience, and it’s too self-regulated for everyone.
“The guys and the girls [failing to properly disclose commercial content] again and again make it onto ASAI complaints lists and all that does is increase engagement with followers: people are naturally curious about [influencers] found not disclosing their ads so will start looking at the person’s social media presence and start buying what they are selling. There needs to be fines or better enforcement.”