Tracking the social route to sales

New research finds a link between social media activity and purchasing and suggests that brands can measure how theirs is affecting customer behaviour.

More than four in 10 social media users have purchased an item after sharing or indicating they like it on Facebook, Twitter or Pinterest, according to new research seen by Marketing Week. 

Market research agency Vision Critical conducted more than 5,000 interviews about social media and purchasing across its panels in the US, Canada and UK.

It finds that half of all social media-related purchases take place within one week of the interaction. This includes likes, comments and sharing on Facebook, tweets and retweets on Twitter and pins and repins on Pinterest. Over 80 per cent of the purchases occur within three weeks of the interaction.

Of the three sites, Facebook is the most likely to inspire purchases. According to the research, 38 per cent of Facebook users have purchased something after interacting with it on the social network, against 29 per cent of Pinterest users and 22 per cent of Twitter users. The study also shows that social media drives an equal amount of online and in-store purchasing.

Vision Critical vice-president of social media Alexandra Samuel says that although it remains difficult to draw a clear correlation between people’s social media activity and their purchases, brands can gain a better idea of how the two relate by asking their customers specific questions about the last product they bought after seeing it on social media.

“The brands that ask their customers about the full lifecycle of the ‘social to sale’ process are in a much better position to understand this issue than those who rely on social media analytics alone,” she says. “We want to show what brands are missing when they’re not talking to their customers in this way.”

One of the attitudinal questions in the research asks whether people were already thinking about purchasing an item when they interacted with it on social media, or whether social media provided all of the inspiration. Pinterest encourages the most spontaneous purchases, with 29 per cent of users stating that they had not considered the item before finding it on the site.

This compares with just 9 per cent of Twitter users. Instead, the majority of people on Twitter (70 per cent) say they were ‘vaguely thinking’ about purchasing the product before interacting with it on the social network, while 21 per cent say they were actively researching the item already.

Ask Italian is using social media to communicate changes to food, service and decor, rather than pushing offers

Samuel says that brands should seek to understand how their own customers fit into this picture by asking them similar questions. While she notes that brands must engage social media users rather than simply sell to them, she argues that brands can better meet their customers’ needs by developing an in-depth understanding of their behaviours and preferences.

“For many years marketing communications were all about crafting a message and pushing that message,” she says. “Now it’s a lot more to do with being a good host and making people feel comfortable. What does a good host do? They ask a lot of questions such as ‘what do you feel like doing here?’ and ’what are you interested in?’”

Restaurant chain Ask Italian has taken this accommodating approach by building its social community around a shared passion for food and Italian culture. For example the company recently generated a large amount of content for its social media feeds around its internal Chef of the Year competition in order to engage existing fans and draw more people in.

The chain began a rebranding process in 2010 that aims to put “the inspiration of Italy” at the centre of the business through a series of gradual changes to the food, service and restaurant design. Ask Italian brand manager Chris Gasnier says the company is using social media to communicate these changes, rather than push offers and force sales.

“We’re in it for the long term because that will have a longer-lasting, bigger impact than any quick wins now,” he adds. “It’s about driving awareness of the brand transformation and getting that reappraisal among customers who might not have visited us for five, 10 or even 15 years, as well as recruiting new fans to try us and see what we’re up to.”

Although Ask Italian offers discounts through voucher websites and other online channels, it rarely presents promotions on social media. Gasnier says these are used sparingly to coincide with certain special occasions. For example, following the birth of Prince George last month, the company posted a promotion on Facebook offering people a free glass of Prosecco to help them celebrate.

Despite these occasional offers, Gasnier says one of the biggest drivers of interest in the brand on social media is the photography of its food. “We try to champion our food as the core element of what we are passionate about and if we post pictures they will easily get likes, shares and comments, which in turn end up in other people’s news feeds,” he says.

The research shows that food and drink is one of the more popular categories on social media – particularly on Pinterest, where it accounts for 24 per cent of all ‘social to sale’ purchases. Technology and electronics is one of the most popular purchasing categories on Facebook and Twitter, at 25 per cent and 34 per cent respectively.

Although brands are keen to ensure they are not seen to be just pushing a sales message to social media users, social sites are developing new partnerships to make the purchasing process easier. In February, for example, American Express launched a ‘pay by tweet’ service on Twitter that allows its customers to buy gift cards and products from launch partners Amazon, Sony, Xbox and Urban Zen by tweeting specific hashtags.

The service builds on American Express’s proprietary Card Sync technology, which launched in 2011 to allow customers to sync their Facebook, Foursquare, Twitter and Xbox Live accounts with their card details to get access to discounts and deals. Stacy Gratz, vice-president of international social media strategy at American Express, says the pay by tweet option emerged as a result of the positive reception to the initial service. The company believes this is proof of the strong demand for purchasing options via social media.

“We know that conducting commerce on Twitter is something in which both our cardmembers and merchant partners see real value,” she says. “So being able to purchase products directly on Twitter was a logical next step.”

Marketers’ response


Stacy Gratz
Vice-president of international social media strategy
American Express

Our Sync with Twitter initiatives have been a success. Card members have redeemed offers at thousands of merchants for millions in savings. When we launched the ability to tweet to buy, we were blown away by the initial consumer response. For example, within a matter of hours of launch, we had sold out of our first product, which was Amex gift cards.

For the merchant partners involved at launch, we created a customised solution for each of them, tailored to their needs. Sync to Buy is a social commerce solution that delivers scale and marketing muscle, and we’re constantly on the lookout for how to bring this and other first-of-its-kind solutions to life for our merchants.


Chris Gasnier
Brand manager
Ask Italian

Social media is a perfect platform for us to share rich content with new and existing fans. That could be showcasing some of our summer specials or something that’s happening internally like our recent Chef of the Year competition. The content engages people and encourages them to try us – particularly when we’re able to showcase some fantastic photography of some of our dishes.

As a general rule we don’t use our promotions on any social media. A rare example would be a red letter day or a big event. The ‘royal baby’ [Prince George] was such a big story, so we did an offer around that on social media but it was one that engaged people in a story. They weren’t just going on there to get a promotion – there was something to talk about.



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