e-Commercialising the Newsfeed

By Rachel Berryman (Senior Digital Account Manager)

Last week, WeChat analyst Matthew Brennan discovered a new feature being tested in the popular video-sharing app TikTok: on the Chinese version of the app, TikTok is trialing a new feature that allows users to easily purchase the items and clothing featured in celebrities’ videos. Using a crop-like tool, users can highlight items that appear in the clips; the images are then indexed against e-commerce platforms, with the user promptly served relevant hyperlinks for exact or similar product matches that they can easily purchase.

(More ominously, this new feature also seems to enable facial recognition of the videos’ human subjects, allowing users to identify TikTokers with a single tap and browse through other videos they’ve posted – but that’s a conversation for another day.)

TikTok’s new in-video search feature—around which many questions still remain, including whether it will roll-out to other markets, and whether it will eventually apply to the videos of the non-famous too—is the latest addition to a long line of social media applications designed to streamline the path to purchase for those seeking inspiration in the influencer economy.

Brands using AR technology to bring their products virtually closer to consumers is nothing new, but social media has recently become a playground for developers’ efforts to monetize the lives (and by extension, the everyday product affiliations) of family, friends and idols. Using a visual format similar to Pinterest, Sephora’s Beauty Board offers users a library of Instagram-worthy selfies helpfully tagged with the products that were used to create the different make-up looks. The same logic extended to the travel industry, where easyJet created Look&Book, an app allowing users to upload aspirational travel pics they discover on Instagram, automatically identify the destination and book flights there.

Recently, we’ve seen these kinds of features incorporated into the repertoire of the biggest social media players. Last year, Instagram launched Shoppable Tags for New Zealand businesses, allowing brands to tag their Instagram posts with Catalogue items available for purchase through a virtual storefront. YouTube recently launched its own AR product, AR Beauty Try-On, in partnership with M.A.C Cosmetics, allowing YouTube app users to simultaneously watch beauty reviews and virtually trial different shades of the products being discussed. As of last week, Instagram further expanded their e-commerce offering by alo introducing an AR “try-on” feature for Catalogue products, currently being trailed by select cosmetics and eyewear brands.

Until now, the monetization potential of these e-commerce features has rested largely with brands. The ability to integrate products into popular social media platforms has enabled advertisers to reach relevant audiences via a variety of advertising formats, across devices and at scale, and to offer them an integrated, streamlined purchase experience.

TikTok’s experiments with in-video search features, however, suggest that the future of social e-commerce is likely to be far more demotic; instead of branded posts or affiliate links to official websites included in influencers’ captions, everyone’s social feed will have the potential to act as its own infomercial. This would mean a shift in power to the people’s choice – the products most often featured (whether intentionally or not) would also be those most frequently indexed, and therefore most commonly recommended to others to purchase, creating an ongoing cycle of influence and popularity. In this context, competitor brands will need to work harder to enter the lives of their customers, and tap into the viral potential of their social media content—but until we see these features roll out on a wider scale, there’s no need to worry just yet.

Date: October 11, 2019