As the lines between entertainment and shopping start to blur, brands need to find the sweet spot to make social commerce work, says SMP’s Chris Carter.

As long as we’ve had advertising, there has been tension between selling and entertainment. Ads tend to engage and delight (or shock), but they also need to convey a message that builds brand awareness and brand image – or just encourages purchase.

Advertising on social media has thrown this into sharp relief. Some platforms are more utility-focused, such as Facebook’s groups and marketplaces, while others – particularly TikTok – are driven primarily by providing short, sharp and highly targeted bursts of entertainment.

When it comes to shopping, social platforms are generally used to drive inspiration and discovery. And brands are just as likely as creators to get noticed: according to GWI data, 29.4% of Instagram users say they follow brands they purchase from, almost as many as the 30.9% who follow influencers or other experts.

To keep engagement high, brands are looking to offer what those creators do: informative and helpful content that is delivered in an entertaining way or wrapped up in an appealing format.

Brands need to find the right mix of entertaining content, where the nature of what is ‘entertaining’ will be determined by the platform, and selling cues. So what they need to develop on those platforms is, in essence, ‘retailtainment’.

Which, by the way, isn’t a new idea. The term was coined over 20 years ago by sociologist George Ritzer to describe the growing trend of ‘entertaining retailing’ to attract and retain shoppers. He defined it as “the use of sound, ambiance, emotion and activity to get customers interested in merchandise and in the mood to buy”.

He may have been talking about stores, but for any marketer planning a social commerce campaign that should sound all too familiar.

Being branded while you entertain

A brand’s content needs to work with the platform specifically, such as aligning with trends that drive algorithm visibility. But at the end of the day, that organic content needs to serve a purpose for the brand, otherwise it’s a waste of money.

Given people currently finalise their purchase outside of social platforms, it’s even more important that people can identify the brand in their feed. There’s no point in someone seeing something they like, but not connecting that with the brand.

When thinking about content, brands also need to consider the limitations: brand organic reach (how many followers see a post) is, depending on which data source you read, around 2–8% on Facebook and 9–13% on Instagram.

TikTok is harder to pin down; it’s more purely algorithm-driven than follower-driven and still relatively early in its monetisation lifecycle (i.e. still trying to attract brands), but there is still more organic opportunity than on other platforms.

Again, however, content has to be tailored for the platform and contextually relevant – simply re-using a TV ad is likely to perform poorly.

Keep an eye on TikTok

More than any other platform, TikTok has built an algorithm predicated on delivering entertaining content to audiences. However, the growth of TikTok Shop underlines that even in the most entertainment-heavy social ecosystems, brands can still bring both brand awareness and direct commerce to bear.

The ‘TikTok made me buy it’ campaign highlights the value of raw, authentic and entertaining content through peer reviews. Similarly, the growth of livestreaming is finding the sweet spot where brands can entertain and inform while also encouraging direct commerce. Livestream-driven shopping is currently huge in China and may well be the next big e-commerce trend to hit Western shores.

As a result, TikTok is perhaps the platform where ‘retailtainment’ is most keenly driving what works and what doesn’t. An in-your-face ‘buy our product’ message is unlikely to get the traction and viral reach of something more entertaining and platform-authentic that brings a smile to the viewer’s face.

Inform as well as entertain

Brands also have a great opportunity to work with influencers for how-tos, tutorials, product reviews, information that helps people and content that’s inspirational. Many influencers and creators aren’t just there to influence through entertainment – a lot of what they are doing is influencing through informing.

The key to success is getting across the key points that will prompt purchase, but in an entertaining way that is appropriate for the platform. And, potentially, influencers and creators can help achieve this in a platform-authentic way.

It will be fascinating to see how the continuing growth of social media as a commerce channel drives how shopping and entertainment grow closer together. It’s already happening, but the key will be to find that sweet spot where ‘retailtainment’ sits – whether on TikTok or elsewhere.