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NEW YORK — Instagram’s debut of in-app checkout last year felt like a game-changing move, one that could convert the platform’s reputation for shaping style trends into a significant engine of direct sales and revenue. At the NRF’s Big Show this week, executives from Facebook affirmed ambitious commerce plans not only for Instagram but for all of the tech giant’s properties in a shift that will likely change many retail marketers’ social media strategies.

“As we look to the future, we think, in particular, a lot of what we’re going to be doing is enabling every possible surface that we can to be completely shoppable and to leverage all of our infrastructure to drive conversions,” Asher Rapkin, director of global business marketing for Messenger and emerging platforms at Facebook, said during a panel discussion.

Present at the talk were Rent the Runway, the subscription service for renting designer clothes and accessories, and beauty retailer Sephora — both businesses that have cultivated dedicated ambassador communities that help market their brands and even guide product decisions. During the panel, executives discussed how their online followings allow them to establish a greater feeling of authenticity and loyalty that can, in turn, be leveraged to convince people who discover their products on platforms like Instagram to make a purchase.

“In that regard, authentic connection to clients does not preclude us from being more commerce-oriented in our social posts,” said Amy Eschliman, SVP of client engagement at Sephora. “We actually make a concerted effort to make it really easy to shop — trying to make that transition from inspiration to actually pressing a checkout button as easy as possible when the content is in that vein.”

A thin line

The comments from Rent the Runway and Sephora are indicative of the ways that commerce and marketing are increasingly bleeding together in the digital age, which has shaped the agenda at major industry gatherings like NRF’s Big Show.

“There’s a thin line between commerce and marketing,” Stan Martin, managing director at Deloitte Digital, told Mobile Marketer at the conference. “Once you do e-commerce, you start to do things that are marketing-like.”

This isn’t strictly a new trend, but it’s one that has amplified as e-commerce giants — namely Amazon —​ extend their disruption into the digital advertising space. In turn, companies like Facebook are dipping further into commerce to stay competitive and turn up new sources of revenue.

“Our ability to harness the power of our customers as growth drivers, I think that’s going to be the future of social as it intersects with commerce.”

Alicianne Rand

Rent the Runway, VP of growth marketing

The ability to shop on apps like Instagram appears to be resonating based on early studies: More than one-third of users reported they had bought something directly from an ad on Instagram, according to a recent survey by VidMob.

A major draw for Checkout on Instagram is what Rapkin described as the elimination of a “complex purchase flow” or the demand to move off-platform to complete a purchase. While Facebook’s biggest moves in commerce have been for Instagram, Rapkin hinted that similar capabilities could translate to Facebook features such as the Craigslist-like Marketplace or Groups, along with standalone messaging apps like Messenger and WhatsApp.

“We’re starting to see the building blocks of that come together, especially with a universal payment platform … where you can now leave your payment information on Facebook and have that move across our different surfaces.” Rapkin said. “If we can continue to enable that, we believe that we’re going to see the distance between discovery and conversion greatly compress.”

Communication and commerce

Building a sturdier bridge between communication, ambassadors and commerce could prove important for digital-first brands that rely on word-of-mouth to acquire new customers. Fifty-three percent of consumers first hear about Rent the Runway through a social post from other people like friends and colleagues, not paid media from the brand, according to Alicianne Rand, the company’s VP of growth marketing. Even for paid media, customer testimonials appear in most content the brand shares, per Rand, and can be critical to that content’s success.

“On paid social media — on Facebook and Instagram, particularly —​ we know a customer testimonial is a leading indicator of whether that paid ad is going to drive performance,” Rand said, adding that the area is one that Rent the Runway is investing heavily in.

One of the new bets the brand is making to scale is its ambassador relationships designed to meet the social shopping opportunity. Last year, Rent the Runway started building a community of 5,000 “hardcore super users” that have helped guide how it defines social media influence, who to partner with and how to bring quality and depth to its storytelling, according to Rand.

Layering in a stronger element of commerce could be the next step on that journey. Rand said that a single ambassador drives, on average, 3.94 referrals in a given month — a number the brand wants to increase to grow total volume and revenue.

“Our ability to harness the power of our customers as growth drivers, I think that’s going to be the future of social as it intersects with commerce,” Rand said.

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