Pay by hashtag: Twitter wants to get inside your wallet

Caitlin McGarry

Starbucks expanded the program to Canada this month, so clearly "tweet a coffee" is staying put. The company has long offered gift cards on Facebook Gifts, too. Gifts took a hit last summer when Facebook determined that physical goods weren't selling all that well and decided to focus on digital gift cards, which amounted to 80 percent of all gifts on the platform.

Twitter and Facebook's flirtations with retail prove that gift cards are steady business and that timely deals can tempt us, but there's still a barrier to using social networks as shopping sites.

Pinterest's more successful method
The e-commerce efforts of Twitter and Facebook get all the attention, but it's hard to judge the success of social-commerce stunts without hard numbers to back them up. Meanwhile, Pinterest gets little attention for its ability to turn inspiring images into sales even though it's cleaning up as far as social shopping goes.

Largely text-driven social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, no matter how much they emphasize images, find it difficult to organically turn brand messages into sales because those messages stick out like sore thumbs. Pinterest drives purchases more naturally: You can conceivably click through any image you like from any board on the site to reach a product link. (And that is why Pinterest's money-making potential more logically lies with referral commissions instead of the Twitter-like ad model it's currently exploring. But I digress.)

Some numbers back up the online bulletin board's influence: Pinterest captures the bulk of product sharing on social networks with 44 percent of shares, while Facebook and Twitter lag behind at 37 percent and 12 percent, respectively. One pin translates to 78 cents in sales, according to holiday research from Piquora.

Companies are realizing that a pinned image has way more appeal than a hashtag deal, but people use the two types of items in vastly different ways. Pins have a longer shelf life than hashtags, which are all about immediacy and serve to promote limited-time offers or flash sales. A pin continues to push as much traffic to a site three and a half months after it's posted as it does when initially pinned, according to Piquora.

The retail challenge
Making a purchase directly from a product page feels safer than using a hashtag as shorthand for "buy now." If Twitter wants people to buy stuff from a tweet, it has to convince users that shopping from a social network is truly secure—and maybe that's where Stripe's support will come into play.

There's also the problem of placement: If you're using Twitter or Facebook, you're not there because you're looking to buy things. You want to join conversations or see updates and photos from friends.

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