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 mCommerce app? (No.) Instagram is a social network based on photo-sharing. They don't offer an mCommerce platform. So what exactly is Instagram shopping?
Instagram shopping is the fine art of 'discovering' beautiful and 'exclusive' items for sale by other users of Instagram. It is based on the #hashtag system originated by twitter, but now commonplace 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 eCommerce doesn't?
Answer: The Web 3.0 Experience
First off, Instagram shopping is mobile-first and mobile-only. If you don't know the difference between mCommerce 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.
Users today EXPECT a visually-pleasing experience. Instagram shopping is a visually-pleasing experience. As opposed to traditional eCommerce 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 eCommerce 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 shopping 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. You never know what you are going to find.
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 eCommerce. 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 mCommerce 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 Instagram Shopping: Melltoo
The Instagram-shopping experience provides the blueprint for the mCommerce 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-tailers. And yet Instagram is not optimized as a shopping platform and Facebook doesn't look like it's going in that direction. 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. And the best part: built-in private chat for ultimate social engagement and quick, efficient transactions.
Say goodbye to eCommerce 2.0. Welcome to mCommerce 3.0.