Where does social media fit in the holiday shopping season?


by Mike O’Brien

Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram may not be able to compete with Amazon for e-commerce, but the platforms’ recent slew of offerings show they came to play this holiday season.

It’s mid-October, which means that the holiday season is officially unofficially two weeks away.

This period is especially crucial to digital marketers as the Internet and proliferation of mobile devices continue to eat away at in-store shopping by making it easier than ever to avoid going to stores with people.

But how does social media fit in?

Recent research from BloomReach shows that nearly half of consumers begin their product shopping searches on Amazon, compared with 34 percent who start on search engines and 21 percent who use retailers’ websites.


While no social platform made the list, they’re still an important part of the holiday shopping ecosystem, according to Jay Marwaha, chief executive of D.C.-based analytics firm SYNTASA.

“What social media really does is really automate your word-of-mouth influence. Before social media, you would call your friend and say, ‘I heard about you buying a car; how is it?'” asks Marwaha. “It’s really not a shopping channel, but it’s a promoter of wants and needs, and it promotes the searches for wants and needs.”

He adds that many people go on social media to influence rather than be influenced, as a way to promote their “consumer activism” and share their experiences with certain brands and products.

But Brian Hoyt, vice president of communications at RetailMeNot, argues that that illustrates his point that social media is more for connecting than commerce.


Hoyt points out that no social media platform made the list of places where shopping starts because their primary benefit for marketers is brand awareness. He calls social’s role in shopping “the next great frontier.”

“This is the land grab and I think anyone who has a large mobile presence in particular – and social channels certainly do – is trying to find ways to monetize that audience,” says Hoyt. “But the Internet has created all these communities of businesses online and you can’t always be everything.”

Social platforms may be able to compete with Amazon where holiday shopping is concerned, but they’re always trying to become as palatable as possible for marketers.

Lately, it seems like the major social players have all come out with – or at least worked on – new or updated offerings, in order to do that in time for the holidays.

Let’s break it down by platform:


Facebook has had a busy year for ad offerings: auto-play ads, Instant Articles and panoramic mobile ads immediately come to mind.

More recently, Facebook has been testing a newer, faster-loading version of the latter called Canvas.

The social media giant is also testing a mobile shopping section that aggregates products underneath a single tab. If unveiled by the holidays, the shopping tab can be particularly significant to Facebook, as it would keep shoppers within the platform, a move for which Google is known.

Whether or not these two offerings come to fruition, both demonstrate that Facebook recognizes the importance of catering to mobile holiday shoppers. Both would allow consumers to make purchases directly from the app.



Earlier this week, Instagram launched an account, @instagramforbusiness, that seems to exist solely to give marketers ideas. The account’s first two posts are hyperlapse videos that show the behind-the-scenes execution of brands’ Instagrams.

Ben & Jerry’s, the guinea pig of @instagramforbusiness, has 572,000 followers, and many of its posts contain links to drive them to the Ben & Jerry’s website or those for causes it supports, such as the climate movement and marriage equality.

Creating further engagement, the brand often posts photos taken by its fans.


@instagramforbusiness may not be an offering in the traditional sense of the word, but it does indirectly push marketers toward using the platform, by holding up Ben & Jerry’s as a paragon to inspire other advertisers.

Hoyt thinks Instagram was clever to play into what he considers to be social media’s sweet spot: sharing and inspiration.

“If I’m a marketer, and I want to be part of a community of marketers and share ideas, that’s certainly how I would engage a social channel,” says Hoyt, offering the Austin start-ups Facebook group he’s in, for example. “That’s where we share ideas: what are great vendors to use, what are you doing for the holidays. That’s what social channels were built for.”


Last week, Pinterest updated its Buyable Pins, the product that allows users to purchase products directly from the platform. Buyable Pins – of which there are more than 60 million from brands such as Nordstrom, Bloomingdale’s and crafts retailer Michaels – are now available on new commerce platforms, opening them up to thousands more businesses.

Pinterest has also recently updated its local search capabilities, something the platform naturally lends itself to. This is particularly true during the holidays, since so many people use Pinterest to connect with brands and catalog their favorite products.

The improved localized search creates more relevant results for global users. For example, French and Australian Pinners searching “winter fashion” will see completely different search results, given the differences in language and climate.

“This builds on other recent improvements made to search which included multi-object typeahead on all platforms as well as verified accounts,” says Mike Mayzel, a Pinterest spokesperson. “Verified accounts played a role in helping Pinners find local partners and noteworthy organizations on Pinterest.”

Mayzel adds that with the update, users in Brazil, France, Germany and Japan are saving twice as many localized Pins they find in their searches, in addition to spending more time on Pins’ source links after clicking through.



As of October 8, the microblogging platform offers video monetization at scale for Twitter Amplify. Twitter also launched Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP), following Google’s product of the same name and Facebook Instant Articles.

Twitter has not only come out with new offerings, but new guides on how to use them. Some of Twitter’s blog posts over the last few days include, “New holiday guide: learn how to reach shoppers with Twitter” and “Holiday shoppers and Twitter: data-driven tips to boost your sales.”

In Marwaha’s opinion, this was necessary because Twitter is at a disadvantage when it comes to social commerce.

The other three platforms are more inherently visual, and don’t have the same fast, furious updates. In the time it took me to write this paragraph, five new Tweets appeared in my feed. While procrastinating I read a Vice article entitled, “I Tried to Live Like Gwyneth Paltrow for a Week,” during which time I got 51 new Tweets.

“This is just my perception maybe, but Twitter is not seen as being as heavy into the advertising for filling the needs or wants users have,” says Marwaha. “It’s putting its stake in the ground and saying, ‘I’m in the market, too.'”

Twitter Money

To sum up

Sure, Amazon is the dominant force in the world of e-commerce. Whether or not social platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest and Twitter can chip away at its holiday shopping share remains to be seen, but between the four of them, there are enough new and upcoming ad offerings that show they’re trying.

And while social media may not be the go-to shopping channel, that’s not to deny the role it plays in online shopping, whether direct or as part of the research process.