Create Social Commerce Experiences Using Social Design Guidelines

“How do I say this?  Social Commerce.  Social Design.  I want both of you to listen to me.  Stop playing games, you two were meant to be together!”

Humans are social beings, and not surprisingly the technologies that take advantage of that on the web, are here to stay.  The word “social” is thrown in front of every other business term you’ve ever read, it’s probablya lot of bullshit really, but that is a post and a discussion for a different day.  I’ve been working in “Social Commerce” (see what I’m saying) since 2009, and it’s clear that despite the marketing hype cycle social ______(pronounced social-blank) has gone through, there’s a real science to succeeding in social ______.  We’re seeing that elements of social applied to commerce, can have a significant impact on your business.  Since 2009 when I started working in the space; the pundits, budgets, and brands have let social commerce into their hearts in a big way.  As more and more brands look to social commerce, it is important to consider what social commerce is, and how we should go about designing social commerce experiences.


Wikipedia says:

Social commerce[1] is a subset of electronic commerce that involves using social media, online media that supports social interaction and user contributions, to assist in the online buying and selling of products and services.

More succinctly, social commerce is the use of social network(s) in the context of e-commerce transactions.

I like the last line when thinking about what Social Commerce is.  We need to understand why social commerce has an impact, so let’s review social design as well.  Facebook/Eric Fisher published social design guidelines to help with this very process.  Facebook wants you to create apps etc that are a pleasure for its users, so it’s no surprise that they would release some guidelines to help us all figure it out.  Eric has published additional social design strategy resources on his blog, and will be speaking about social design at SXSW this year.  I suggest you check it out if you are there.  I met Eric some months back and I can tell you confidently to follow along, the guy is smart.

Anyways, back to the show.  Facebook says that social design is:

Social Design is a way of thinking about product design that puts social experiences at the core.


Social Design defines how we understand ourselves and each other and can be broken down into three core elements: IdentityConversation and Community.

  • Community refers to the people we know and trust and who help us make decisions.
  • Conversation refers to the various interactions we have with our communities.
  • Identity refers to our own sense of self and how we are seen by our communities.

The guidelines go on to talk in detail about each of the core elements.  As a primer before we dive in, there is a story that Eric tells at the beginning of his post on Social Design Strategy.  The story, fittingly, is an example of social commerce.  Eric is walking down the street with a friend, and she tells him that he would really like the Strand Bookstore, as they pass it.  Eventually, after taking his friend’s advice, he leaves the bookstore with a new book in his hand!  She was right to think that Eric would like the store, and Eric trusted her judgement.  The takeaway is that social commerce can bring information to us, that is very relevant & trustworthy but isn’t necessarily something that we are looking for proactively.  Clearly we can make the argument that social can help even if you we know exactly what we are looking for, but the fact remains that social networks are changing how we consume the net and now the products/services that we pay for, whether we are actively or passively seeking them out.


A community can be a lot of different things.  The definition above is good, but it is naturally weighted towards Facebook.  Their contention is that users are actively building their social networks/communities on Facebook, so the easiest thing to do is to tap into that.  This is a true statement, but it does ignore that other communities may exist on your site around certain themes: products, lifestyles, whatever you can think of.  So for now, we’ll keep both in mind.  The important thing to recognize here, is that there are powerful forces when discovering you have common threads with strangers and with friends you already know.  Both are serendipitous, “happy accidents” if you will.

The reason Facebook is so powerful in either situation is that you can gather information about a user and their friends from the Open Graph(posts to come about this).  The Open Graph tells us the relationship of objects on the web to each other eg. person to person, person to web page, etc.  This is an oversimplification, so if you want more on the subject and just how powerful it is, read up at Facebook.  In the interest of time, we’ll move on with that basic definition.  With the power of the Open Graph, apps can be designed to utilize the information in powerful ways around communities.  Here’s some things you should think about:

  • Who is in your community and should it be segmented?  Current customers are a community and so are their friends. Identify the communities, see if you have any data on how they are connected.
  • What is important to the communities you have identified?  If I am booking a trip or buying clothes, what type of information should I know about others using the site?
  • What social actions/cues make sense for my users?  This is social commerce, so keep in mind if you are selling diet pills, asking for someone to share that purchase with their network is a tall order.


Next up is the conversation.  The conversation is the interaction between the members of the community.  This is how we find our commonalities, and other information relevant to the context of the community.  There is a reason the community is formed, and the exchange of information(the conversation) is how we begin to identify with the community.  Eric describes the conversation as:

Conversation is simply a generic term I’m using to describe the interactions between the self and the community and the stronger the associated emotion, the stronger the bond.

This is inherently a back-and-forth and therefore is comprised of two different experiences that play off each other. Generically, we can describe these as listening and speaking.

Listening is the information and content that gets brought to us.  In Facebook an example would be checking your News Feed to understand what is happening in your network.  Speaking can be seen as the reactions we have to those posts eg. likes, comments, and shares etc.  Largely in social commerce, a big part of the conversation is based on reviews right now.  People have questions, some have answers, good and bad.  I’m excited to see what the new Open Graph updates Facebook announced bring to this part of the equation.  Now that users will have access to social actions, rather than just “liking” something, we’ll be able to see a whole new range of interactions.  Someone might want, love, desire, hate, or even wish for something.  It’s a new understanding of what a user’s interactions with your site are.  Here are some things to consider:

  • Are you forcing interactions?  Is there a real reason for a user to share what they are doing on your site?
  • Is there a natural motivation for users to interact with each other?  Can you create that motivation with incentives?
  • Can social interactions make the experience better?  Is this the type of purchase you want an expert to weigh in on?
  • Have we set the right expectation to the user?  Do they know how or why their social data is being used?


A long time ago, my good friend HotLou told me”Facebook is in the identity business.”  That is becoming more and more apparent with the launch of Timeline, etc.  As it relates to identity, humans have a very natural tendency to want to understand/hear more about themselves.  They want others to tell them what they think about them, and they have the same desire to let their friends know as well.  In the world of social commerce, identity plays an interesting role.  From one brand to the next identity can be completely different.  For lifestyle goods like fashion, it can completely define us to the point that we would like nothing more than to be associated with that brand, like Louis Vuitton.  Others bring us closer to good, by helping to give back like TOMS or Warby Parker.  As our relationship to the brand changes, so does the does the conversation and the information we find relevant to our identity.  We could spend all day on identity alone, as it is a very powerful motivator but for now consider these questions:

  • Am I revealing something about the user or about how they fit in the community?  Is this personally significant to the user?
  • What can I tell the user about themselves or their relationship to others, that they don’t already know?
  • Are we trying something that is a new fun experience for the user, like which one of your friends is most similar?
  • What actions does this experience make the user want to take?  Does it get more engaging the more friends they invite?


The social web is still in its infancy, and that especially includes social commerce.  Over the next couple years, we will know exponentially more about how social data can help ecommerce.  With the exciting new changes to Facebook and the Open Graph, right now is a very exciting time for exploring social commerce and the impact it can have on your brand/customers.  If we keep learning, and keep these important guidelines in mind, we will create amazing advances in ecommerce as it stands today.