Hashtags Breathe Life Back Into Social Commerce

Already Showing Promise as the Actual Mechanism of Payment

By Published on .

Social commerce -- the purchasing of products through social media -- is on the rebound. And that rebound is being aided by an unlikely ally -- the simple hashtag.

Hashtags have migrated to Facebook from their origins on Twitter and are growing in use from Google+ to Tumblr as well. They have particularly benefited from the explosive growth of Instagram, where they makes photos and videos easily categorized and searchable.

Now hashtags have an increasing presence in online search, and brands are realizing the hashtag's potential to be a link that unites messages in an increasingly fractured social-media landscape. While social networks will come and go, the hashtag is a tool that allows brands to be identified across any of them; content can then engage the social-media audience on whatever site individuals prefer.

Hashtags are also helping brands make the jump from social marketing to social commerce, adding the sought-after viral element to purchasing. When a consumer's social "friends" see when and what their friend purchases, it opens up a powerful viral element to online transactions that can be leveraged with coupons, discounts or offers. Unlike social commerce campaigns that are linked to only Facebook, a hashtag-driven campaign brings in a social audience from any social network, multiplying the number of online consumers a campaign can reach. And a hashtag can be as specific or general as needed, relating to a single product or to an overall brand, depending on the campaign strategy.

Gartner research shows that 74% of consumers rely on social networks to guide their purchasing decisions, but that influence is now divided across many social networks. Hashtags can unite and bolster that influence, while keeping campaigns simple and user-friendly. Given that social commerce is a $14.25 billion industry, the implications are huge.

The hashtag also has shown promise as the actual mechanism of payment in social commerce. Both Chirpify and an American Express partnership with Twitter are creating ways for social users to purchase items with a hashtag. Chirpify has a name for this tweet-to-purchase symbol -- the actiontag. In both examples, social media users tweet or post a unique hashtag that triggers an online purchase through a connection to a pre-determined online account or credit card. After a simple confirmation, the transaction is complete.

Hashtags are also crossing over to sites like Polyvore and Wanelo -- social shopping sites that have harnessed the look and feel of social media for the sole purpose of online shopping. Wanelo and Polyvore use the hashtag for internal search functions of their online inventory of merchandise, allowing site users to discover collections and see new styles by searching for a hashtag under which all the items are organized.

Co-buying website Buyapowa.com allows users to request that an item be offered on the website by tweeting #buyapowarequest. ModCloth is using hashtags to allow social media users to compete to design the brand's new styles — giving engagement a whole new meaning that transcends the social realm. By requiring that aspiring ModCloth designers tag each entry with "#modcloth" and "#wedding," the brand has used the contest to drive branded hashtag traffic right into the Pinterest feeds of social-media users actively planning wedding purchases. Adding in offerings of coupon codes in exchange for hashtag participation helps a brand's deals and discounts go viral across social channels.

The connection of the hashtag to social commerce is still in its infancy. We'll see that connection grow stronger as brands use the symbol more effectively, and in more innovative ways. The thing we don't know is where the symbol ultimately will take us.

Kevin Bobowski is vice president of marketing at Offerpop.
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