Amazon Attempts Social Commerce

Amazon hopes to figure out social commerce before social networks can solve shopping. It announced TikTok-like functionality that could turn Amazon into a discovery destination.

Last week, Amazon launched Inspire - “an in-app shopping experience that gives customers a new way to discover ideas, explore products, and seamlessly shop from content created by other customers, influencers, and brands they love.” The experience is similar to a TikTok feed, featuring endless photos and videos shoppers can swipe through. Once they see something they like, they can buy it in a few clicks.

Amazon wants shoppers to spend time in the Amazon app even when they don’t want to shop. It is trying to solve a weakness most shopping websites and apps have in the U.S. - consumers only open them when they know they need something. They do not open them to browse casually (they open apps like TikTok instead). Thus e-commerce is very transactional and doesn’t have the same discovery and browsing experience as physical retail. “The internet lets you buy, but it doesn’t let you shop,” wrote independent analyst Benedict Evans.

Amazon Inspire social shopping app

Previous to the Inspire announcement, Amazon has largely abandoned attempts to innovate in shopping. It discovered the “Minimum Viable Amazon” a decade ago and has been only slightly improving it since. Over the past few years, advertising has even replaced product recommendations and personalization on Amazon. “Amazon really solved buying, but it killed shopping in the process,” said Emily Weiss, Founder of the beauty brand Glossier.

The challenge is that Amazon’s Inspire content will compete for attention with other apps like TikTok, YouTube, Instagram, and dozens more. While those have added shopping functionality over time, they are not focused exclusively on shopping. For example, despite TikTok driving massive traffic to Amazon during Prime Day, it also has so much more. In contrast, Amazon’s Inspire only has content to drive shopping. That makes it significantly less engaging than competing apps. Amazon’s new shopping feature is TikTok-like only on the surface; without content, it won’t work.

But Amazon has confirmed that brands, influencers, and - crucially - other shoppers will be able to post content on it. If Amazon could attract a large volume of content from hundreds of millions of shoppers, it could build social network-like functionality seen on TikTok and other apps. Although Amazon already tried launching social networks - like Spark in 2017, which went nowhere. When announced, Amazon described it almost exactly as Inspire today, “When customers first visit Spark, they select at least five interests they’d like to follow and we’ll create a feed of relevant content contributed by others. Customers shop their feed by tapping on product links or photos with the shopping bag icon.”

Today, social apps are ahead in the commerce race with Amazon. Practically all have launched some version of e-commerce functionality. Amazon is catching up, but social features are a unique challenge, which, even given Amazon’s excellence in other fields, will be very hard. Social commerce is a competition for attention, and that’s where Amazon will face the biggest hurdle - stealing it from TikTok, YouTube, and Instagram.

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Juozas Kaziuk─Śnas

Founder of Marketplace Pulse, Joe wears multiple hats in the management of Marketplace Pulse, including writing most of the articles. Based in New York City. Advisor to other startups and entrepreneurs. Occasional speaker at conferences.

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