How augmented reality will transform social media platforms into e-commerce juggernauts

The line between social media and e-commerce is becoming increasingly blurred. 

The term ‘e-commerce’ no longer solely applies to online retail marketplaces like Amazon or Asos – social media platforms now want consumers to think of them as competitors in this space. 

Increasing competition means the social media market is more evenly distributed across platforms than ever before. Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok are exploring alternative revenue models to go alongside existing advertising. 

A couple of factors are facilitating this shift. Firstly, the pandemic has accelerated the trend of consumers turning attention online, away from the physical high street. 

Secondly, and more importantly, social media platforms are embracing the potential of augmented reality to replace – and in many cases improve – the experience of trying on products before purchase, which years ago would only have been possible in a bricks-and-mortar shop. 

Social media and e-commerce

Social media platforms have launched a number of features with the objective of gaining a larger slice of the e-commerce pie. 

Instagram’s ‘Checkout’ is probably the most well known. Released in March last year, ‘Checkout’ enables users to buy items from brands and content creators without leaving the Instagram app. Currently, the feature is being trialled with fashion and beauty products, but it makes sense it will soon spread to other industries too. 

Facebook has also invested heavily in social commerce. Launched in May 2020, Facebook Shops integrates and facilitates in-app e-commerce as well as transactions in Whatsapp and other apps owned by the platform.

One of the biggest movers is relative newcomer TikTok. TikTok’s features include live stream shopping, product catalogues and a tool for users to post product links – from which the platform earns commission. 

One trial partnership with Levi’s resulted in the doubling of product page views for the clothing company, while TikTok’s partnership with Shopify – which was announced in October – brought more than one million vendors to the video sharing platform. 

If anything, these advances are attempts to pace with Chinese multi-purpose messaging service WeChat, which has integrated the whole shopping experience – including QR codes, augmented reality and payments – all on its platform. WeChat is certainly seen as a model for western social media companies – although there are undoubtedly privacy issues to overcome before they can think about comparable levels of e-commerce integration. 

So it’s easy to see why social media companies are so interested. However, a key part of a physical shopping experience is being able to visualise and try on makeup or clothes before purchase – which is where AR comes in. 

Using AR technology to boost engagement – and sales

Since October, Instagram users have been able to try cosmetics and eyewear before buying with AR try-on features on product pages. 

Naturally, customers want to know whether a product will suit them before buying to alleviate any concerns – which is why social media platforms have identified AR as a tool to boost sales. 

In fact, such is the importance of visualisation that customers are up to 11 times more likely to buy a product when AR try-on or product visualisation is available. This is the case with makeup products but also larger items like beds, tables or sofas. Using AR technology, customers can see how items will look and fit in their home, providing more reassurance before committing to more expensive purchases. 

Research from Deloitte indicates 71% of customers say the availability of AR experiences would encourage them to shop more frequently, while 61% would choose outlets with AR instead of those without it.

Simply, this is because AR produces immersive experiences which keep customers engaged for longer than a standard image, or even video. Recently, Poplar Studio’s AR filter produced more than 750,000 impressions for Maybelline’s ‘Better with Brows’ campaign, showing users with no eyebrows before allowing them to choose from three different shades of brow extension product. 

Interacting directly with users transforms the way they engage with information and advertisements, while being able to see how products will fit boosts sales and reduces the likelihood of returns. 

Impulse buys

When used in collaboration with features like Instagram Checkout, AR can trigger customers to make spur-of-the-moment purchase decisions. 

Items which are tricky to picture – for example, beauty products which usually need customers to first try in person like eyebrow liner and mascara – are suddenly more accessible when users can see them on their face, making an instant purchase more attractive. 

Brands can also present products exactly as they intend them to be used, for example by showing how to create a complete look using multiple products rather than just one. In a recent project with NYX, Poplar Studio produced an AR filter for their ‘Haunted Dollhouse’ Halloween campaign depicting five different looks created by famous illusion makeup artist Mimi Choi. 

The filter, which was opened nearly three million times, presented NYX makeup products in a carefully curated and highly stylish way, making them even more attractive for customers.

The future of AR tech in social e-commerce

With social media platforms making huge investments into AR, it makes sense they will continue to explore bigger and bolder ways to implement the technology. Makeup try-ons are just the beginning – social media platforms are looking at other ways the smartphone camera can be used to track different parts of the body.

In June last year, Snapchat was the first platform to release foot tracking, partnering with Gucci to provide AR shoe try-ons. In August Snapchat went a step further, releasing full body tracking for dance challenges on TikTok, seemingly paving the way for the technology to be used by the fashion industry for trying on whole outfits. 

There are rumours that other platforms are working on wrist and hand tracking, opening up the possibility for customers to try on watches and jewellery without having to leave their homes. In fact, hand tracking is already available in virtual reality in Facebook’s Oculus Quest.

Ultimately, platforms are competing to become the next essential app for visual shopping and visual search. With the anticipated release of AR glasses this year and expected developments in the technology from Facebook, Apple and Snapchat, AR is set to move beyond social media filters and take control of the e-commerce space for years to come. 

David Ripert, CEO and Co-Founder of Poplar Studio