If you believe what you read on the internet, the days of social media as a sales channel are over. The naysayers argue that people feel alienated when brands try to sell to them on social, and that conversion rates therefore remain stubbornly low. This seems to be reflected in the experiences of companies that have tried social selling only to find sales growth fails to materialise. However, at Accenture we not only believe that social selling has a lot to offer, but that it will become a core competitive differentiator to retailers and brands that get it right. ‘Getting it right’ in this case means delivering social selling as part of a true seamless sales model.

Social selling: what not to do

The reason that so many businesses fail to grow through social is that they treat it as an add-on to their main sales capability. In 2015, mobile shopping cart abandonment reached 97%, according to Manish Bhalla, meanwhile, Accenture's Global Seamless Consumer Retail Survey 2015 concluded only 48% of shoppers described the act of completing a purchase on mobile devices and tablets as easy. Failure to convert therefore seems to be a direct result of not treating social selling seriously enough.

If social is to thrive as a sales channel it demands a serious amount of thought about how to engage customers and make the buying experience as easy as possible. For retail brands that get this right the upside is significant.

Analysing the social shopper

Designed correctly, social selling delivers a seamless customer journey. Buying becomes less of an intentional act, and more like another link in a chain of social experiences.

Social selling therefore has to be about more than simply providing a ‘buy’ button to make purchases easier (although the convenience of ‘buy’ buttons over having to enter credit card and delivery details shouldn’t be underestimated). Rather, social selling needs to be built on a foundation of digital analytics.

The savvy social seller is a master of digital analytics. They’re able to push exactly the right product or service to a customer on social media at exactly the right moment (for example: the moment a friend recommends a product, or a favourite blogger writes about it). These brands are able to do this because of the deep insight they have into the customer from analysis of data gleaned from social engineering, recent purchases, stated preferences, affiliations and the like.

In this approach to social selling customers no longer have to search for products: the products come to them through their favourite social platforms at the exact moment they are ready to make a purchase. Pinterest is already making huge progress in this type of social selling with its Buyable Pins offering: users can now purchase items that inspire them directly through Pinterest and access shopping carts seamlessly across channels, just as they can with leading eCommerce players.

Giving customers what they want

Social can disrupt the path to purchase, putting brands in close touch with their loyal followers. This is a powerful means of building relationships with customers and helping them along the path-to-purchase. To do this successfully, companies need to deliver rich content relevant to targeted buyers. After all, people don’t really go onto social media to buy things: they go on it to be social. Content enables brands to connect with their customers on a social level, building strong relationships that generate sales over time.

Many brands are now aware that for social to work they need to become content providers as well as maintaining their core retail operations. Nike is particularly good at this, fostering conversations with its triathlete customers about the latest training techniques from a top coach, all the while creating new opportunities for the ‘buy’ button to come into play.

To enable a seamless consumer experience in terms of content and purchasing, social media must be co-owned and managed by sales and marketing in close collaboration with other business functions. The goal is to create the right concoction of brand image, tailored content, customer analytics and sales techniques developed for social to make a sale feel like just another part of the experience the brand offers.

Social is the future

Social media is far from dead as a sales channel. In fact, it’s only just getting started. Social needs to be seen as a new approach to selling, where content and communities are leveraged by the brand to create rich customer engagements, of which sales is just one part. For those retailers able to make this shift, the success of social will no longer be measured in ‘likes’: it’ll be measured in top-line growth. The move to true social selling is underway and fast-moving retailers stand to gain a crucial competitive advantage.

Dan Smythe, managing director, Accenture Strategy.