One of the most tricky challenges businesses face in this arena is how to avoid eroding trust when they attempt to convert people on platforms used primarily for social interaction. Image-led platforms such as Instagram, for instance, are potentially a great fit for encouraging users to cross the threshold into paying customers, not least because typical browsing behaviours tend to be driven by the desire to consume, albeit visually as opposed to financially. In such instances, facilitating a purchase directly through the platform can work as a natural extension to the user journey because it provides an additional step that the customer can take, without the need for coercion or hidden tactics.
In contrast, platforms that are more text-based, such as Reddit, Twitter, Whatsapp and Snapchat, may fair less well in this game, owing to their linguistic structure and content, as well as the culture their communities create. These havens tend generally to be perceived as non-commercial, more intimate and beyond the reach of marketers, which is why businesses and individuals can face such a sour reception when adopting similar strategies.
Whether or not your attempt to convert new customers is successful, the bottom line in either instance is whether the goal of the business aligns with the goal of the people who are using the platform. Most of us have grown up with an internet that is largely open, inherently social and with services that are ‘free’ to use (let’s leave aside for a moment the fact that we’re ‘paying with our data’). We have become fiercely protective over our ‘rights’ to free services and as a result, we tend to be suspicious of and hostile towards those who overtly solicit their services or try to sell us things in these more personal domains.
However, it’s not a problem only from the business side of things. The ways in which a social platform enables such actions can also make or break its reputation (and business model), which is why we see such a divergent selection of methods at play. For example, take Twitter’s rather subtle approach, whereby a user will occasionally be presented with a relevant, clearly labelled ‘promoted tweet’ in their newsfeed. As an avid tweeter myself, I, like many others, take to the platform in order to seek out information, engage in conversation and connect with new and interesting people. It’s a refreshingly uncommercial space but I know that for Twitter to exist, it has to be able to make money and so I am comfortable with being shown content that is likely to engage me. It’s a balancing act that requires precision, care and the ability to finely tune the tone and frequency of each message so that the viewer will at best engage and click, and at worst, not fly off the handle and fire vitriol at the sender.
But not all social platforms take such a transparent, user-centred approach to marketing. Facebook’s newly named News Feed algorithm (formerly known as EdgeRank) employs the strategy of simply presenting certain posts while hiding others – a method that is not only more covert but also more manipulative. Instead of explicitly offering its users the option to see everything so that they can then make their own selections, Facebook’s algorithm makes these choices for them, denying them their agency and the opportunity to decide for themselves. The insidious aspect of this is not that people are served so-called ‘relevant’ content, but rather that they are unaware of all the content Facebook has screened from them because it was deemed ‘irrelevant’ on their behalf.
Such tactics may work in the short term but if marketers are really to make the most of social platforms to increase sales, they need to work alongside their customers, with mutual benefit in mind. This means working to increase the agency of their customers and by extension, the brand’s reputation by ensuring that the content and context are both relevant.