What Is Social Media, E-commerce & Social Commerce?

Language is constantly evolving. Every generation invents a new form of slang. Old words disappear or change their meaning entirely over time. New inventions and innovations require the creation of new words.

This includes many of the internet-based platforms we use every day. However, we often use words like social media, social commerce, social network, and e-commerce interchangeably without thinking about what these terms really mean.

Is Facebook a social media or social commerce platform?

What about Amazon? Is it a form of e-Commerce or something else entirely?

What about TikTok, Shopify, Instagram, Etsy, Snapchat, and so many other popular platforms we use every day? Are they all just social networks or is that term being used too loosely?

If we don’t know how to talk about these things using words others understand, then communication becomes difficult, if not impossible.

However, by properly defining terms like social media, e-commerce, social commerce, and social networking, we can better understand the world in which we live and communicate more effectively with our friends and neighbors.

What Is Social Media?

Prior to the internet, media was controlled by publishers and broadcast studios. Newspapers, magazines, books, radio, television shows and movies ruled the day.

User-generated content (UGC) did not exist as we now know it. You couldn’t just snap a photo of your dinner and post it on Instagram or update friends about your dentist appointment on Facebook.

If you wanted your content published or broadcast, you had to do a lot of work just to get it seen by a publisher or broadcast studio. And even then, they might simply reject your content without any reason given.

But the internet changed everything.

The Birth of Social Media — From MySpace to Facebook

In 1997, SixDegrees.com launched as the world’s first social media platform. There, users could connect directly to friends, family members, and acquaintances, sharing their thoughts and feelings about whatever they wished.

Several years later, other social media platforms emerged,  including:

  • Friendster: Launched in 2003, Friendster was initially a social media platform where users could post images, photos, and text-based content while commenting on others’ content, discovering new hobbies and brands, and even finding a date. In 2011, Friendster became a social gaming platform.
  • MySpace: Also launched in 2003, MySpace was the most popular social media platform in the world between 2005 to 2009. Afterward, Facebook took the lead and quickly become the successor to MySpace.
  • LinkedIn: Another platform launched in 2003, LinkedIn remains popular for business professionals. It is often used by those seeking to expand their professional network and discover new revenue streams.
  • Facebook: Launched as “Facemash” in 2003, Facebook was originally restricted to Harvard students. By 2006, anyone rover 13 years old could make an account. In the years since Facebook has integrated e-commerce functionality and evolved into a social commerce platform, but more on that below.
  • Instagram: Launched in 2010, Instagram was initially a place for users to share photo and video content with their friends and followers. Acquired by Facebook (now Meta) in 2012, it began to include such as live videos, Reels, e-commerce integrations, and more.
  • Snapchat: Launched in 2011, Snapchat is one of the most popular platforms among Gen Z. It makes use of augmented reality filters and temporary photos and videos that are deleted shortly after being viewed to offer a unique twist to traditional social media.

Social Media Platforms vs Messaging Apps

If you search for examples of social media platforms on Google, you’ll find a lot of misinformation. For example, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Telegram, and similar platforms are often included in these lists.

However, these are examples of peer-to-peer and social messaging apps, not social media.

A peer-to-peer messaging app allows one user to communicate directly with another while social messaging platforms allow group chats and other forms of social communication to occur. These forms of communication are bound between the people who are included in those chats or calls.

This is not how social media functions.

The basic requirement of a social media platform is that users create their own content and share it on their newsfeed, wall, or other display. There it can be accessed by others, even though it was not sent directly to them.

Facebook and Messenger are great examples of the contrast between social media functionality and messaging functionality. Using these two side-by-side for even a short period of time illustrates this distinction quite clearly.

Content posted on Facebook can be liked, shared, or commented on, by any one of your friends, or even a global audience if your privacy settings are set to public. However, when you send a message to a friend or group on Messenger, only that friend or group has immediate access to the message, not everyone on your Facebook friends list.

What Is e-Commerce?

Like social media, e-Commerce is an internet-based innovation. However, e-Commerce platforms serve a very different purpose.

Where social media platforms allow users to create their own content and comment, react to, or share content from others, e-Commerce platforms are designed to facilitate the sale of items between two parties across the internet.

Sting, Amazon and the Birth of E-Commerce

The first e-commerce sale was chronicled by the New York Times on April 12, 1994, when Phil Brandenberger of Philadelphia purchased a CD for $12.48.

Using data encryption software, he purchased the CD with his credit card on the internet from his friend. The software ensured that his credit card number was secure and couldn’t be seen by even the NSA.

This was the first recorded online sale.

Not long after, Jeff Bezos launched Amazon as an online book store. Over the next few years, he expanded the selection of Amazon’s e-commerce site to include music, videos, video games, toys, games, electronics, tools, and much more.

The Four Components of an E-Commerce Platform

An e-commerce platform is simply an internet-based platform where a buyer and seller meet to complete online transactions. In order for an e-commerce platform to function as such, it must include four major components:

  1. The ability to navigate through the platform to find goods or services. This requires the inclusion of search engine functionality, item categories, product displays, and other information that potential buyers can use to find what they’re looking for.
  2. Shopping cart options to manage the order. If you go to the grocery store in real life, you use a shopping cart to hold your items while you look for others. Without a cart, you wouldn’t have anywhere to put your week’s groceries. The same is true online. Users need a virtual shopping cart to hold their items while they look for other things to buy.
  3. Secure payment options. E-commerce platforms must allow users a convenient way to pay for their items such as credit or debit cards, gift cards, PayPal, Pioneer, Venmo, or other tools. However, when selecting payment methods, the seller must ensure secure encryption to prevent private consumer data from leaking into the hands of bad actors.
  4. Delivery to the customer after purchase. The final thing that an e-commerce platform must include is the delivery of the goods or services to the customer. If it is a digital good, piece of software, or other virtual item, then making access immediate and simple is a must. For deliveries of physical goods, sellers must have processes in place to ensure quick and punctual shipment to the customer.

Amazon, Etsy and other popular e-commerce platforms include all of these elements and focus on optimizing each to ensure a seamless end-user experience.

WooCommerce and Other E-Commerce Solution Providers

Fortunately, new e-commerce sites don’t have to build their own e-commerce platforms from scratch. There are many e-commerce solution providers that provide on-site navigation, shopping cart functionality, secure payment integration, and shipping and delivery tools.

Many of these solutions operate as website builders designed for e-commerce purposes. Some of the most popular of these options include:

  • WooCommerce – a WordPress plugin
  • Shopify
  • Magento
  • BigCommerce
  • Squarespace
  • Zyro

In addition to website builders, there are other types of e-commerce solution providers. WooCommerce, for example, is a free WordPress plug-in that allows WordPress users to create e-commerce stores on their WordPress site.

What Is Social Commerce?

When social media and e-commerce meet, the result is social commerce. Simply put, a social commerce platform is a social media platform that includes native e-commerce functionality.

Thus, there are two things that transform a social media platform into a social commerce platform:

  1. The ability for brands to share commercial media to sell products directly to users on the platform
  2. The ability for users to make purchases from the platform using the platform’s own native functionality

As long as both of these conditions are met, the platform in question can no longer be considered just “social media.” It has become a “social commerce platform.”

From Social Media to Social Commerce — A Look at Facebook and Instagram

The earliest versions of Facebook and Instagram did not include e-commerce functionality. However, in 2007, Facebook created Facebook Marketplace to facilitate peer-to-peer sales across the platform.

In 2014, Facebook introduced the Business Manager feature to allow businesses to create their own pages and use the social network as a digital marketing channel. Since then, more opportunities for businesses to market and sell through Facebook and Instagram have emerged, such as:

  • Uploading store catalogs from e-commerce platforms like Shopify or BigCommerce
  • Selling directly to customers
  • Tracking orders and sales
  • Analyzing audience and customer behavior
  • Including clickable shopping tags for products featured in videos and image content
  • Creating product collections to increase product discoverability
  • Using Live Shopping to sell products via live videos

One downside, however, is that the e-commerce aspects of Facebook and Instagram now seem to dominate the non-commercial social media elements that made these platforms popular in the first place.

A Look at TikTok — The Emerging Leader in Social Commerce

TikTok was introduced in the United States in September 2017, and by the 2nd quarter of 2021 (less than four years later), the platform reached over 1 billion monthly average users. Comparatively, it took Facebook around eight years to reach that number.

Since 2017, TikTok has steadily become a leader in social commerce, integrating social media and e-commerce functionality much more seamlessly than on Facebook or Instagram.

Immediately upon opening the app, you are often greeted by a Brand Takeover — a multi-second brand advertisement — before you are taken into the “For You” menu, the equivalent of a Facebook or Instagram newsfeed. There, branded ads and organic UGV merge together almost seamlessly.

Additionally, TikTok Shopping is a partnership between TikTok and Shopify that allows Shopify stores to sell items directly through the platform using product tags, brand store pages, auto-generated TikTok ads, direct sales, order tracking, and more.

Whether TikTok will become more popular than Facebook and Instagram is yet to be seen, but its steady growth and continuing innovation put the platform in a very strategic position. It’s already more popular among teenagers than Facebook or Instagram.

Conclusion: A Final Word About Social Networks

Another term often used when discussing social media, e-commerce, and social commerce is “social network” or “social networking.” In fact, social media platforms are often called social networks.

And while, social media, social commerce, and other online platforms are types of social networks, they are not the only ones.

In fact, social networks existed long before the internet. Technically, anyone I know and communicate with regularly is within my social network — even if all of our communication takes place offline.

Social networking is what makes society possible. Whenever people come together, they must network in some way just to communicate, let alone build a culture or civilization together. Even in the days of cavepeople, social networks were established to ensure the survival of the human species.

So while social media and social commerce platforms may be a type of social network, they are not the only social networks humans have ever known and using these terms interchangeably only creates confusion.

It is best to use more specific terms like social media, social commerce, or e-commerce rather than social network whenever possible. That way, we can all communicate with a common understanding of what we mean when we use these terms.

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