Why Instagram will win the battle for 'selfie commerce' against Snapchat

The rival social media platforms have both launch commerce functions but Instagram's may have an edge over Snapchat's, argues Born Social's strategy director.

The potential of social commerce has been talked about for years. But with the recent news that Instagram are testing a native payments feature, whilst Snapchat are launching ‘Shoppable AR’, industry chat is about to hit fever pitch.

Marketers are obsessed with anything that can help them prove ROI - which is why the industry is keeping such a close eye on any movements in the social commerce space.

So why hasn’t it taken off yet?

The key problem facing social commerce currently is that people aren’t actually buying through social, en masse. Sure, the power of paid social has come on leaps and bounds over the last few years, but that hallowed customer journey - see it, buy it, without ever leaving the social space - is yet to become a reality.  

There are a few issues preventing this. First, we simply don’t have the right tools - there’s still too much friction involved in buying a product through social. Secondly, there is a larger problem of consumer trust, meaning people still don’t feel fully comfortable purchasing through social. Global Web Index found that in Europe, more people still prefer to check out on desktop (57%) than mobile (35%). The desktop checkout still wins for legitimacy.

For these reasons, for every new innovation from the social platforms, there’s a far larger scrapheap of failed solutions. (Buy Buttons, anyone?)

Instagram and Snapchat are going head to head to try and change this, taking two vastly different approaches to do so.

Instagram’s war on friction.

Last week, news broke that Instagram was quietly testing a native payments solution. Users will able to attach a payment card to their account, allowing them to make purchases without ever needing to leave the app. This seems like the natural next step on from shoppable tags.

This development is the end-point of Instagram’s quest to reduce friction: the enemy of social commerce. The more steps you ask your user to take before checking out, the less likely they are to purchase.

The entire journey from discovery to purchase will now, theoretically, be able to happen within a few of taps - without ever leaving the Instagram app. That’s what social commerce dreams are made of.

It’s cold, hard, and brutally efficient. And it should work.

Except for one thing. People don’t really think like that, do they? The customer journey is rarely that perfect.

In order for it to be this efficient, people need to be predisposed to the brand or product. Very rarely will someone see a product on Instagram for the first time, and immediately purchase.

That makes this new feature a great tool for bottom of the funnel activity, but not something that will drastically improve your revenue from Instagram overnight. I’ll bet that the vast majority of people who purchase using this feature will have purchased anyway. They’ll just have a nicer experience doing it.

Which makes what Snapchat are doing even more interesting.

Snapchat’s bet on the experience.

Snapchat, as usual, is taking a different approach. One that seems less about scale and efficiency, and more about experience and fun.

Their strategy is simple. Allow people to experience and play around with the product before even clicking through to the product page.

They are encouraging brands to develop lenses that will allow customers to ‘try on’ the product, before taking them to the purchase page if they want to buy.

Adidas have tested this out with an AR lens promoting their Deerupt running shoe, whilst Clairol is experimenting with a lens which allows users to try on a new hair colour before buying. Snapchat clearly visualise this feature being used as a ‘try before you buy’, a technique Ikea pioneered to great applause last year with their Ikea Place app.

It’s clear that Snapchat is betting big on augmented reality as their road to social commerce success, or so called ‘selfie commerce’. In doing so, they’re giving discovery a new meaning - trying to match (or get as close as possible) to the coveted in-store experience.

Most interestingly of all, perhaps this could be used as a top of the funnel awareness piece - to introduce your brand or product to new audiences. If it receives mainstream adoption, this feature could actually tie together discovery and purchase in one fell swoop. That’s exciting.

If Snapchat can get past the gimmick factor, encourage innovation, and - most importantly - keep (and grow) their audience, this could be a strong play.

So who will win in the battle for social commerce?

In the short term, Instagram will likely be the best option for scale and business-as-usual activity. Snapchat’s different approach, however, looks like it could be worth a try for new product launches or campaigns.

In the long term, Instagram’s scale and resources will allow it to reach a wider audience and bring on more brands, meaning it will bring in more revenue longer term. Where Snap will shine, at least initially, is in the niche, more novelty space - and although it doesn’t have access to the scale of its rival, we shouldn’t write it off just yet.

Callum McCahon is strategy director at Born Social