Want to get people shopping socially? It might be harder than you think

When it comes to online fashion and large digital brands, it seems social shopping might have hit a plateau. It’s pretty standard now for companies like Amazon or Nordstrom to display products along with buttons for sharing to Twitter, Facebook, or Pinterest. Products might have reviews and photo galleries, or the company might have its own blog.

But beyond that? There isn’t much social activity happening on most of those larger sites.

Zappos Glance social recommendation product pageI sat down with the team at Zappos Labs last week to talk about the future of online shopping. It’s not like Zappos is struggling to find shoppers, but the company’s leadership clearly understands that as the world moves more toward social media adoption, there must be ways to use social to boost sales and improve the shopping experience.

“It’s hard for us to think of new ways to shop when people are keeping the lights on of a 2 billion dollar e-commerce site,” said Will Young, director of Zappos Labs. But social media for large e-commerce sites is tricky. “For a lot of people, they just want their shoes overnight. And they want free returns.”

So where is a team like Zappos looking for inspiration?

Young immediately pointed to sites like Poshmark or Pinterest as having built strong communities around liking and sharing particular items. I’ve written about Poshmark before, and there’s no doubt users are engaged on the platform, but it’s unclear how many people are actually turning those likes into purchases. Wish lists do not always turn into shopping lists, even if the engagement is strong, although some sites like Wanelo are trying to change this.

And then Young pointed out that you have sites like Modcloth or Lululemon or NastyGal, which have built notoriously passionate communities of shoppers around fairly niche products, and turned those shoppers into sales. But those companies have very clearly-defined products and target audiences.

But for Zappos or Nordstrom or Amazon, who can’t just settle for targeting one specific demographic, like young women? They need to figure out if they can grab any of the social elements these other sites are using so well, and then apply them to a broader audience.

“If our main goal was just to do sales, we’d just be creating coupon applications,” Young said, noting that Zappos Labs is dedicated to understanding how people shop. “That’s one of our big challenges. Which is, how how do we put social only in front of people who care about it? Building communities is tough when we’re so wide.”

So what has Zappos come up with so far? The company has tried out a Pinterest recommendation engine that was fairly hit or miss in terms of the products it suggested, but they said it had enough positive reactions that they’re looking to improve it. They’re also trying out a site called Glance that shows curated groups of items around particular themes that users can like and save, since discovery on a site like Zappos that has so many products can be a challenge. And the company has experimented with collecting all the tweets about individual products to serve as a sort of crowdsourced Twitter review.

Young pointed out that for the majority of the company’s shoppers, getting them into the idea of social shopping at all can be tricky.

For most of our customers, “they’re on Facebook. They’re probably on Twitter,” he said. “But when they come to a site like Zappos they don’t always want to link their Facebook account or anything. They might like our fan page, but how do we create a social experience for those users?”