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Shopping on Instagram: Six Thoughts

By Callum McCahon


Since the announcement last week that Instagram will be rolling out shoppable tags, I’ve been thinking a lot about what this means for the platform.

Forgive me for what is more of a stream of consciousness than a cohesive narrative — these are six thoughts about what the feature means for Instagram, brands and marketers.

1: It’s About Reducing Friction.

Until now, the shopping experience on Instagram has produced a lot of friction. You might see a product that you like in a post on your feed, but if you don’t already know what that product is, there’s no real way of finding out unless it’s stated in the caption. Even if it is, you’d then have to leave Instagram, open the browser, and Google it. Friction.

Some brands have attempted to hack this using the ‘link in bio’ trick — changing the link in their profile to point to a product in a recent post. But this only works for one product at a time, and users have to click through to the brand’s profile to see the link at all. To make matters worse, it only works for the most recent post. Again, friction.

Compare that to shoppable tags. You see a post that features a product you’re interested in…you tap the shopping button, then tap again on the product you like, and open the product page within the Instagram app. Frictionless.

2: Moving From Intent to Discovery

For me, ‘shopping’ represents two forms. There’s shopping for a product that you know you need, and then there’s shopping for a product that you don’t know you need.

Shopping online — ‘ecommerce’ (yuk)— is great for converting on the former, premeditated purchasing intent. If the customer knows exactly what product they want, it’s really easy for them to search for it and order it. This is where online shopping has succeeded — it’s 10x better than the physical shopping experience. I see this as ‘step one’. Tick.

Step two? Discovery. This is the part of the physical shopping experience that hasn’t yet been rivalled. Think of going into a shop that you like with some money to spend, discovering an item you love and buying it on the spot. The internet hasn’t managed to crack this form of shopping yet.

But for me, discovery is where social media is going to really come into its own. In particular, Instagram. Instagram is the place we go to seek inspiration… to discover something new… to calibrate our cultural compass.

Shoppable tags is Instagram having a go at creating a discovery experience that rivals the physical one:

You scroll through your feed, and see a post from Patagonia with a jacket that you’ve never seen before, but you love it immediately. You‘re following Patagonia because you love and trust what they do. (The equivalent of spontaneously dropping into a shop you like). You tap on the product and open the product page. (The equivalent of checking the price tag). You flick through a few more images of the jacket. (The equivalent of trying it on… until we have an Augmented Reality solution). You love it, and decide to purchase the product.

That’s a joined-up discovery experience. I wouldn’t say it beats the physical experience (yet), but it gets close to matching it.

3: The Monetisation of Social Proof.

User generated content is powerful — and that’s because of social proof. I’ve written about this before, but the TL;DR is that humans trust other humans more than they trust brands.

With that in mind, shoppable tags suddenly become very interesting from a behavioural point of view, because we know that people look to other people for cues on what they should be buying. If brands can marry the concept of social proof with this new functionality, I think we could start to see some strong, tangible results. But more on that later.

How would this work in practice? I think the answer lies in User Generated Content. If brands can showcase content demonstrating real people using their product in real life, from what we know about social proof, the results should be strong.

Shoppable tags could provide the missing link between social proof and sales. That’s exciting.

4: This Seems Built For Influencers.

Initially, this feature is going to be rolled out to brands, most likely by restricting it to those who have switched to the new business profiles.

For me, the big move long-term would be to roll it out to influencers. That’s where we could see some really powerful results.

We know that, in theory, influencers are now a good way of reaching your target audience. They set the cultural agenda and they help to define which products pick up traction and which don’t.

The issue with influencer marketing is that it is notoriously murky. Whereas with social advertising you can attach an exact figure to the success of your campaign, it’s almost impossible to do the same with an influencer collaboration.

Shoppable tags, if rolled out to ‘third party’ accounts, could be exactly what the influencer marketing scene requires in order to mature, and therefore justify a larger portion of marketing budgets.

Let’s take fashion influencers as an example. If they could tag in the items that they are wearing in a post, this would have the dual effect of:

  • being more likely to drive sales than a brand posting about their own items.
  • allowing brands to attribute sales directly to an influencer posting about a product.

Fashion influencers are already ‘hacking’ this by using tools such as LiketoKnowIt —so I’d be really surprised if Instagram don’t roll out this functionality to influencers in the future. It makes total sense.

5: Expect Some Powerful New Advertising Products.

Instagram won’t be charging for this feature — and they won’t be taking a cut of any sales.

This isn’t a short-term monetisation play from Instagram. It’s more about making Instagram a really attractive place for brands to be, long-term.

What I do expect them to do is create some shiny new advertising products that will integrate nicely with this shopping experience. The more attractive brands find Instagram as a way of reaching, engaging, and selling to their audience, the more resource and budget they will invest on the platform.

Here are two initial product ideas:

  • Social Retargeting. You could track the people who browse a product page on your website, but don’t buy immediately buy the product. A few days later you could serve them a post featuring an influencer that they follow wearing that exact item. That’s surely going to be a lot more effective than hammering them with a banner ad.
  • Audience Insights. Once you start collecting data on who taps on (and buys) certain products, you could start to generate some really powerful audience insights. By feeding these insights back into the targeting criteria, we could start to see advertisers truly having the power to serve us adverts for products that they know we want before we know we want them.

6: We’re Moving Closer to Tangible ROI.

The big elephant in the room for social media marketing has always been ROI — return on investment. The three words that keep us up at night.

It’s getting better. Facebook are doing some interesting stuff with their work on measuring physical visits to stores, lead generation advertising is getting more powerful, and tracking pixels are becoming common practice.

Shoppable tags will help this movement. Whereas before we’ve had to judge the success of an Instagram post based on shallow metrics such as engagement and reach, using this feature we’ll now be able to get a better idea of how successful a post was in terms of driving traffic and sales of a product.

One caveat on this: Instagram need to make sure they get the conversion attribution right. If someone clicks through to the product page through Instagram but they decide to go ahead with the purchase at a later date, we need to know that this sale started from the Instagram post. That’s a challenge that Instagram and/or Google Analytics will need to address.

This is really important because I think those who see this feature as a direct conversion tool are misguided — I’m not convinced that most people will purchase immediately after tapping through from an Instagram post on their phone. They might want to do a little more research, or consider the purchase. Giving your audience the information on the products that feature in content is actually the important, valuable thing here. I see it as more of a tool for the discovery phase — kicking off the journey to conversion, rather than closing it.

If we can get the conversion attribution right, we’ll be moving closer towards being able to demonstrate tangible return on investment on social media, and that’s great news for the industry.


This is a strong move from Instagram, and it makes the platform a better place to be for brands. As with any new feature however, it will be the brands who use it tastefully and in a way that’s consistent with their overall presence that will see the most success with it.

On a higher level, this represents an aggressive move from Facebook to respond to the strength of Pinterest as a discovery and ecommerce platform. With Twitter struggling, it’s currently just Pinterest and Snapchat who represent real threats to the Facebook empire. And we all know that Facebook don’t treat outside threats lightly