The Instagram Shopping Experience Explained

What in the world is the Instagram shopping experience?

Have you heard of Instagram shopping? If you were born before 1985, chances are you’ve probably never heard of it. Instagram shopping is a phenomenon that’s taking the world of under 30s by storm. And this is particularly so in the developing world, a huge hit in the UAE, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. But isn’t Instagram a photo-sharing app? (Yes.) Did they pivot to become an m-commerce app? (No.) Instagram is a social network based on photo-sharing. They don’t offer an m-commerce platform. So what exactly is Instagram shopping?

The Explanation

Instagram shopping experience is the fine art of ‘discovering’ beautiful and ‘exclusive’ items for sale by other users of Instagram. It is based on the #hashtag system, which originated on Twitter, but now is ce-commerce_report_bangkok_startup_04ommonplace across social networks. Shoppers begin by searching certain hashtags, such as #dubaifashion. The infamous Instagram wall displays all publicly shared photos tagged with this hashtag. The majority of these are personal photos by individuals; but mixed in are photos that showcase a certain brand (Instagram marketing) and photos of items that people have posted for sale (Instagram shopping). Interested users can take a closer look at these product photos, ‘like’ the photos and ‘comment’ on the photos. If users wish to purchase, the next step is to contact the seller who posted the photo, typically through Whatsapp (Whatsapp numbers are posted on seller profile pages). Finally, goods and money are exchanged either in person or through courier service. That’s it in a nutshell. So what’s the big deal? What does Instagram shopping offer that traditional e-commerce doesn’t?

Answer: The Web 3.0 Experience

Mobile-first, mobile-only

First off, Instagram shopping is mobile-first and mobile-only. If you don’t know the difference between m-commerce and eCommerce, then you should read this. Instead of going shopping, shopping goes with you. A mobile-first, mobile-only platform means that users are always online. Unlike the computer, you don’t really log-out of anything on a smartphone. This means that users of a mobile-only platform are always connected. This is what makes mobile social interaction so engaging. It’s always on. Visually-pleasing Users today EXPECT a visually-pleasing experience. Instagram shopping is a visually-pleasing experience. As opposed to traditional e-commerce photographs that showcase products functionally (think amazon.com, souq.com, gap.com etc), Instagram product photos are whimsical, exotic, glamourous (think magazine photo shoot). Instagram product photos (not all, but the good ones) are content themselves, not a means to an end. On the other hand, traditional e-commerce product photos are a means to get buyers to click “add to shopping cart”. Instagram shopping is true “online window shopping”, because browsing Instagram product photos is enjoyable in and of itself.

The process of discovery

Instagram shoppers don’t typically go to any one “Instagram store” when shopping. The shopplist-item-for-saleing is an incidental occurrence of browsing photos grouped by a certain hashtag. For instance, I just searched for #Cairo and a wall of photos was displayed. The one that caught my eye was a picture of rows of yummy-looking cupcakes. I tapped on the photo and discovered that it was put up by “The #1 gourmet bakery in Egypt”. They have a whole wall of photos of colorful and delectable pastries that can be made to order. This process of discovery is what keeps Instagram shoppers coming back. Firstly, you never know what you are going to find, so there’s the thrill of the hunt. And secondly, there is a sense of exclusivity because the products aren’t always easy to find.

Social interaction

Instagram is after all a social network built on photo-sharing, so social interaction is a key component of the Instagram shopping experience. Here the ‘like’ and ‘comment’ features are what engages users. Buyers can see how many other users liked a particular item which triggers a “keeping up with the Jones” complex. They can also see what others are saying about the item and engage in the public conversation as well. When new comments are made, they get a push notification on their phone which keeps them coming back to the item. They can also share the item to other social networks and hopefully get their friends to engage as well.

The Problems with Instagram Shopping

So now you know what makes the Instagram shopping experience different from traditional e-commerce. And you might well be toying with the idea of becoming an Instagram seller. However, while Instagram is a great tool for socializing and marketing a brand, it really isn’t built for m-commerce and actual selling.

Problem 1: Keeping track of product listings/catalog, and finding specific items

Each user’s Instagram wall is just a bunch of photos listed in backward chronological order, with the latest photos posted first. Photos have captions that are searchable only by hashtags. As a seller, you can’t maintain a proper catalog because you can’t name items and there really isn’t a consistent place to put a price. As a buyer who isn’t in “discovery mode”, if you are looking for a specific item, it’s like looking for a needle in a haystack.

Problem 2: Keeping track of buyers and sellers

Buyers can search for sellers by username (if they know it) and retrieve seller info if they’ve “followed” a particular seller. Sellers can do the same with buyers. However, the complexity arises when users begin to follow a large number (hundreds or even thousands) of other users. At this point, it’s nearly impossible to figure out which seller was selling that particular item you wanted to buy without having to go through each user profile one by one. The same problem exists on the seller’s side: how to track down the interested/repeat buyer to offer a discount?

Problem 3: Communications and Logisitics

Instagram does not offer any private communication tools beside the direct photo-sharing feature. So sellers encourage buyers to contact them on mobile messaging apps like whatsapp. A typical conversation goes like this…

Buyer: “Hi, I saw your item on Instagram.”

Seller: “Which one?”

Buyer: “The shoes.”

Seller: “Which shoes?”

Buyer: “The sandals with the gold trim.”

Seller: “You mean the flats or the heels?”

You get the idea. More time is spent going back and forth trying to figure out which item is at stake than time spent on buying and selling. Can you only imagine if the buyer wanted to purchase several items at the same time?

The Future of m-commerce: Melltoo

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The Instagram shopping experience provides the blueprint for the m-commerce experience of the future. It is unlikely that the under 30s of today will continue to be satisfied with the current shopping experience offered by e-retailers. And yet Instagram is not optimized as a shopping platform. Melltoo was built to fill this gap. Melltoo is a mobile app that offers the Instagram-shopping experience with whatsapp built-in. Melltoo has reproduced the Instagram shopping experience by being mobile-first/only, visually-pleasing and by enhancing the process of discovery and social interaction. Melltoo also goes a step further to address the problems with Instagram shopping by providing a beautiful and intuitive interface to keep track of product listings, find specific items quickly and easily, and keep track of buyers and sellers. Melltoo also has a built-in private chat for ultimate social engagement, in-app payment AND delivery. Say goodbye to e-commerce 2.0. Welcome to m-commerce 3.0.   

 

The Difference Between M-Commerce and E-commerce on Mobile

Not so long ago, I was one of those who thought m-commerce meant e-commerce on a mobile. It seemed that the only difference was the screen size. Fortunately, I’ve come to learn that the difference lies in user experience and that both soft and hardware matter. Herein lies the difference between a responsive/mobile-optimized website (e-commerce on mobile) and a native app (m-commerce).

What is e-commerce on mobile (aka the responsive/mobile-optimized website)?

If you do eCommerce, meaning you sell retail on a website, then you have either already gone mobile or are thinking about it. If you aren’t thinking about it, there should be some alarm bells going off as you read this. The most obvious thing to do is to squeeze your website, and all its javascript bells and whistles, into the mobile device. So you get your web developer to optimize your website for viewing on the small screen. Now when someone opens your website on a smartphone, instead of the regular web view (which means everything is very very small), they get a version of your site that adjusts to the screen size such that displayed elements are comfortably visible. And that’s it, nothing else really changes. The user experience remains pretty much the same as on the website. Of course, conversion rates on the mobile are higher for responsive websites (than non-responsive ones) but that’s mostly because the user can actually see the “buy” button.

What is m-commerce (aka the native app)?

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A native app is something you download from the app store. It opens from an icon on the home screen of your phone, not through a mobile web browser like Safari or Chrome. Some websites, called dedicated mobile websites, pretend to be native apps. You download the “app wannabe” from the app store and open it; only to discover that it is in fact a mobile web browser that opens only one website. Essentially, what you’ve downloaded is a bookmark for a website. A true native app uses the hardware on your smartphone to deliver a mobile shopping experience that cannot be replicated on a mobile web browser. The m-commerce user experience is made possible by

Ubiquity and Ubiquitous connectivity (3G!)

Where is your smartphone now? Chances are, in your hand as you are reading this. Your smartphone follows you everywhere. You pull it out every time there is a dull moment in your day, while standing in line at the store, on the train during your daily commute, while walking, in a boring meeting, etc. Instead of “going shopping”, shopping now goes with you. Think about the last time you saw a pair of shoes, a toy, an electronic thingy, that you immediately wanted to buy. Where were you? Probably not sitting in front of your computer. You might have been on your way to lunch and eyed someone with a nice looking bag that you wanted. As soon as you arrived at the sandwich joint, you pulled out your phone and started shopping for that bag. You don’t do this on a laptop. And even if you had brought your laptop with you, what are the odds that there was available WiFi?

Push notifications

Why is your smartphone never far from you? Because it’s a pain to get up to go hunt for it when it beeps. And just as people would answer the phone while in mid-conversation with someone in front of them, they would certainly read the notification on their phone when it beeps. This is what keeps them coming back. How do you get people to come back to your web-store? Emails that they don’t read? Google ad words? If your app is installed on their phone, a push notification is much more enticing.

Real-time communication

The phone is a tool for real-time communication. You make calls with it, you text with it, you send emails with it. Sure, you do these things on your computer too, but your computer doesn’t follow you around, so it’s only real-time when you are in front of it. A good salesperson converts communicate with sellerwindow shoppers to buyers. So if the device you are
shopping with also allows you to communicate with a sales person in real-time, you are more likely to buy. Chat is a powerful tool for conversion. Shoppers are unlikely to call because of probable long wait times and email just takes too long. But chat is quick, low in time investment, and usually means instant responses from salespeople. Let’s put it this way: Can you have multiple phone conversations simultaneously? Well you can have multiple chat conversations simultaneously and nobody would even notice.

Conclusion

Above, I’ve highlighted the most salient features of a smartphone that makes the m-commerce experience unique. Smartphone technology continues to evolve and things like NFC (Near Field Communications) and Bluetooth LE are going to be pushing boundaries in the near future. But what we already have today in every smartphone, that native apps already know how to use, is powerful enough. e-commerce on mobile is no longer going to cut it. Time to go native, time for m-commerce. Download the Melltoo app and checkout how we have integrated all of these things to make m-commerce easier than ever in the UAE!