Every week, The Interline rounds up the most vital talking points from across the landscape of fashion technology news. We provide our take on what matters, and why. This roundup is also delivered to Interline Insiders by email.

NB: Week 32 was given over to the introduction to our blockchain special focus, which is currently running at The Interline. This roundup picks up where week 31 left off.

Social media passes a major milestone, prompting considerations around the role that digital channels will play in discovery, engagement, and sale in the near future.

A few days ago, a report on social media adoption made some pretty major waves. According to a multi-party survey published this week, more than 50% of the entire human population uses social media in some way. That’s the kind of statistic that’s liable to make anybody sit up and take notice – especially when we consider that a very similar percentage of people, globally, actually have access to the internet. Which brings us to an inescapable conclusion: almost all of us use social media, whether we like to admit it or not.

But before we get too deep it’s important to point out that these data come with a key qualifier. These trends include applications that most people would not characterise as “social media”. Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Twitter, Sina Weibo, Snapchat et al clearly fit the definition, but would the average internet user define the messages they send on WhatsApp or Telegram as social media activities? How about the videos they consume or post on YouTube?

These feel like they may be stretching the definition slightly, and indeed quite a lot of comment originating from this report has focused in on the fact that it should probably be better titled “participatory internet adoption”.

For our purposes, though, the distinction barely matters, because all of the applications captured in this survey have the potential to become shoppable, with the probable exceptions of Reddit and Quora.

image taken from hootsuite / we are social research.

What do we mean by shoppable? In the strictest sense, it means that a social post (or video, or direct message) would lead directly to a transactional event – i.e. to a shopping cart and a payment gateway. And according to that definition, social commerce is on the rise, with around 40% of social media users in the US having purchased something through a social channel in 2020. But as we have covered here on The Interline several times over the last few months, social commerce in the Western hemisphere is currently being held back by infrastructure limitations – including a lack of a single cross-platform post-to-payment model – and platform fragmentation, leading to a situation where buying through Instagram is a different prospect to buying through Twitter.

In a looser sense, the shoppability of a piece of social content could be determined by whether or not that content can be shown to have factored into an eventual buying decision – whether the transaction took place online or off. And this complex web of entry points to the purchasing path are what brands and retailers that recognise the importance of digital channels are currently trying to tap into – with that goal being brought forward in almost every business’s case by the pandemic.

Social commerce, outside of the clear transactional element, is, therefore, a very difficult subject to put a bow around. From influencers and live streamers to organic search, a lot of different digital channels lead to potentially the same destination – meaning that the sheer reach of social channels provides a range of different opportunities and a host of different challenges for brands and retailers.

On the challenge side, this week saw Vogue publish an insightful article about how influencers represent much more than just an alternative to traditional media advertising; they could be about to become sales channels in their own rights. This is an interesting perspective to consider, because traditionally influencers have been pigeonholed as offering curation services at best, or being seen as just a new variety of models at worst, but the current definitely appears to be towards them becoming more established as viable channels to market.

And on the flipside, social media influencers still offer a clear route to new consumers for both Western and Asian brands – especially in overseas markets. An article published last week highlighted the rise in consumers turning to social media figures in cases of cross-border digital commerce journeys. And of course, in markets where social commerce is more established, the journey is reaching another logical destination: prominent influencers and live streamers creating their own collections.

But it is naive to pretend that there is not a singular force lurking in the background of all these different social / digital paths to purchase: big technology. In a world where many brands are facing the difficult choice of whether to pursue their own direct to consumer ambitions (more on this in our mid-November to year-end focus on the future of eCommerce) or to sell products through marketplaces like Amazon, the prospect of being able to get quickly up and running and sell through social media rather than establishing their own eCommerce storefront or going third party will be tempting – even with platform fees to account for.

But we also live in a world where regulation against the overreach of companies like Facebook could be on the horizon. As the same research points out, Google remains the web’s most popular website, with more than 100 billion visits per year – compared to Facebook’s 25 billion – which makes it a clear choice for investment in digital advertising and conversion. At the same time, though, Google is facing the biggest set of antitrust charges in a long time, with US officials arguing that the same thing that makes it an attractive avenue for digital selling (its near-universal penetration in the West) has given the company an unfair monopoly on search.

Whatever the outcome of this investigation, it seems inevitable that we will see similar attempts to intervene in the monopolistic position that certain social networks could establish in digital commerce. After all, it’s important to remember that three of the networks listed in the report mentioned at the start of this roundup are owned by the same company – one that earlier this year had ambitions to try and seize a share of the lucrative payments space.

Despite these concerns, though, social commerce seems destined to be one of the most dominant channels during, and likely after, the pandemic. To come full circle, the original research we cited suggests that social media’s reach is growing around 1% per month. Which, if we assume that internet infrastructure reaches around the world would lead to potentially total, global social media adoption within a decade. At least in theory. And with the help of a controversial constellation of satellites.