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Navigating Native Checkout in Social Commerce

Doug Weiss, Senior Vice President, Digital and Ecommerce at WHP Global

Doug Weiss led Meta’s commerce efforts as Head of Commerce Platform Partnerships and later Head of Creator Commerce.  In those roles, Doug had a front row seat to the significant upside and the unexpected challenges of enabling commerce in the latest marketplace evolution. We asked Doug to share some of his learnings from that experience in hopes that it could help current platforms and marketplaces break through their own lingering commerce challenges.

In this post, Doug explains the significant ecommerce opportunity for large audience platforms, the specific hidden challenge of ecommerce infrastructure, the pitfalls that snag all marketplaces when recruiting merchants (brands), and his ideal solution for solving these challenges in an elegant way.

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Since 2000, consumers have completely changed how they think about shopping.  Ecommerce was a small percentage of sales in specific categories, department stores were booming, and Amazon was just a bookseller. Over the last twenty years, the main touchpoint between most brands and most consumers has become digital, and ecommerce has grown to be more than 50% of the total market for some verticals. Historically, retail has been slow to adapt, and so many companies have struggled to keep up. 

Over that same period of time, social media has gone from a niche concept, to one of the biggest sources of information and entertainment for consumers worldwide. Globally, the average person spends 2.5 hours on social media every day, and Meta alone has a 4 billion person user base. These platforms enable brands to find their customers efficiently and effectively. But while these platforms use a superior understanding of consumers to enable brands to find the specific people who are most likely to buy their products, they are also changing so quickly that it is almost impossible to keep up.

These two forces have converged in the rise of social commerce. As consumers increasingly spend time on social media and shop across a variety of channels, it's become essential for brands to integrate product discovery and transaction capabilities across a brand’s entire digital footprint. To compete effectively, brands must be present on a range of sites, from Instagram to TikTok, as well as various social and video commerce marketplaces. Consumers no longer want to jump from one surface to another to go from discovery to transaction, they want one seamless experience completely within one platform, from engaging targeted content to friction-free checkout. 

I saw this first hand as the Head of Commerce Platform Partnerships and Head of Creator Commerce at Meta. For more than four years, I worked with technology companies, brands, and creators to create the high quality shopping experiences that consumers demand. We were leaning into the shopping activity that was already happening on the platform, but working hard to make the experience frictionless, trusted, and visually rich. 60% of consumers think current ecommerce experiences are too clunky, while 81% of shoppers look to social content to drive the majority of their shopping. Instagram had a massive opportunity to build the experience that collapses the space between discovery and purchase.

Unfortunately, it’s really difficult.

Before spending years in commerce, I had no idea how many different capabilities needed to seamlessly come together for a transaction to happen online. From ensuring you have the right product information, to ensuring inventory counts are current, to capturing payment and shipping information, to combating fraud, to properly fulfilling and shipping, to dealing with customer service, each transaction required countless capabilities to work in sync. This was more complex than anything else Meta had tried to do at that point, and very different from other products we had built. 

For instance, consider the requirements of a single purchase on Instagram. The process starts with the platform displaying relevant content to the right user. Next, it links the user to the appropriate product in a brand's catalog. The platform then transfers accurate product information, keeps the inventory updated to avoid selling out-of-stock items, and facilitates secure payment transactions. Lastly, it ensures correct order processing and shipment from the warehouse, allowing the consumer to track the purchase until it is fulfilled, shipped, and delivered. Each of these steps requires real time fidelity and complete accuracy to orchestrate a seamless purchase experience. And while companies like Salesforce, WooCommerce, Shopify, and the like had been building this understanding for years, Meta was trying to build this in less than a year, a timeline that was then further crunched by the importance of online with the almost complete loss of offline sales due to COVID. 

For the initial launch of onsite checkout on Instagram Shopping, we gave 22 businesses white glove service to manually deal with all aspects of setting them up. We worked with some of them for more than a year to help them set up the infrastructure that would allow them to sell through content on our platform, while trying to avoid significant overhead for their teams. 

One thing we quickly realized is that our solutions for selling needed to integrate with what they were already using to manage their online sales. As important as Instagram and Facebook were for the brands, this new channel was not going to drive the majority of sales from day one, and in a world of constrained resources, it needed to seamlessly integrate into the processes that were already in place and the systems that were driving most of their revenue. We had to make it easy for merchants, scalable, and most importantly, aligned with the high-quality experience that brands and consumers increasingly expect.

We also quickly realized we couldn’t do it alone.

Originally we had hoped that ecommerce platforms and brands would be thrilled to tap into this channel for transactions, and thus would be more than willing to do the self-education, technical building, and implementation that was necessary for success. We quickly realized we were grossly incorrect.

Platforms often gave a lot of lip service to wanting to invest the technical bandwidth to build high quality experiences, but the reality is that they were in the midst of a highly competitive battle to build their core platform, and did not consider this their highest priority. Some things would get built, but it would always take significantly longer, often be quite buggy, and in an environment where we were trying to scale this to billions almost overnight, it prevented scale.

The Brand Experience

Brands were even worse. Every single retail tech team is overstretched and underfunded. In a world where shopping has been completely transformed, they are desperately trying to catch up, and largely failing. It is even worse for those brands who thought they were unique enough that they needed to build their own commerce stack. As consumer expectations continue to increase, they do not have teams of engineers, or out of the box platforms, but rather need to cobble together something that is often obsolete by the time it launches.

The reality is that all brands understand the importance of social commerce, but no one knows how to make it happen. While a seamless checkout experience on a platform creates a great experience for shoppers, it can create all kinds of headaches for brands, and there was no clear solution that could help brands deal with this new operational and technical complexity on everything from tax reconciliation, to order routing, to the nuances of returns and refunds.

Brands who tried to do this on their own struggled not only with the initial build, which was a massive undertaking, but perhaps even more, by the ongoing maintenance work and constant updates in capabilities that Meta was building.  

In the 4 years since the initial launch of onsite checkout, there have been more than 100 different capabilities that have been launched, each one requiring a technical update. Meta had more than 500 engineers working on different aspects of commerce, and brands had to figure out how to keep up with what was usually a fraction of one person. Everything from the product catalog, to order processing, to payments, to taxes, to customer communications had to be on point, and there is just no way to keep up.

The Platform Experience

While it is likely not surprising that brands struggled with the technical overhead of building out a seamless multi-channel ecommerce experience, the reality is that Meta struggled as well. In the end, Meta and Instagram are amazing platforms that help brands and users connect through relevant, engaging, and useful content. The company has built expertise in content creation, personalization, communication, community, and seamless, high-quality mobile experiences. It is not an expert in building the catalog, order processing, and back-end commerce infrastructure that is necessary to power ecommerce.

To make things even more difficult, as Meta serves brands and businesses of all kinds, across many different commerce verticals, in all regions of the world, there are a multitude of different commerce stacks and setups that it needs to accommodate.  Instead of just building one solution, for commerce to truly scale, it needs to build a solution that could work seamlessly with hundreds of different commerce technologies, each with its own nuances. Inconsistent APIs, lack of data standardization, diverse platform architectures, difficulties with security and compliance, and issues with scalability and performance were tricky to manage for one market, let alone the global footprint that Meta has.

While we initially had high ambitions to build the many solutions on our own, we realized that this was basically impossible. We would have to basically build an entire org to solely support this work, and even in this best case scenario, we would still be highly dependent on platforms to make this happen. 

I had honestly faced a similar problem earlier in my career when I led the partnerships work to launch Lead Ads across Facebook and Instagram in 2015. Similar to the many different commerce stacks that companies use, there are countless different CRM systems that needed to ingest the leads we were generating. In that situation, we piloted a new style of partnership with an up-and-coming company at the time, Zapier. Instead of building out all of the integrations ourselves, we worked closely with them to integrate their technology into our lead ads flow to allow businesses to tap into the hundreds of integrations that they had built. Instead of building each integration, we just built one with Zapier, and they owned the integrations with the countless CRMs, which is what they do best.

Unfortunately, when we launched, there wasn’t a solution that met our needs to provide full-stack integrations in commerce (across catalog, inventory, order management, payments, etc) to the level of quality that we required. Instead of one solution that could serve the entire ecosystem, we were forced to build out integrations with a slew of different providers, almost all of which struggled to meet our fast-paced development timelines, and required significant work from our side to maintain. A commerce stack is an order of magnitude more complex than the integration we built with Zapier to enable CRMs, and we needed a partner that could handle that complexity seamlessly.

The Violet Solution

My own experiences made me realize that there was a desperate need for a company to create the end-to-end integration experience that could deliver the technical capabilities for both brands and platforms. A company that could take a highly complex, multi-API, constantly changing technical and operational need, and convert into a seamless unified checkout experience that is extensible across all of the places brands and platforms need to be.

Violet is that solution.

With a deep understanding of the diverse needs of merchants, experience with the diversity of ecommerce technology stacks, and extensive work with the platforms, the Violet team understands the ecommerce technology landscape as well as anyone. They appreciate that the solution needs to be seamless for the brand and the platform, while also creating a high-quality all-encompassing experience for the consumer. They have invested years in going deep on the technology, building a solution that makes the technical integration easy for all parties. 

When we looked to work with other middleware providers, none of them filled our needs to cover the full functionality stack necessary for commerce, were flexible to meet unpredictable order processing, handled refund and return issues, and made it possible for merchants to onboard in just a few clicks. 

Violet has built full-stack integrations for countless brands across leading ecommerce platforms, continually evolving their solution to keep up to date with the latest. They do the work so that brands and platforms don’t have to.

Violet’s API takes the complicated work of enabling commerce anywhere, and makes it a reality. They help platforms enable merchants to meet consumers where they want to shop, while avoiding years of toil and error. 

Learn more about cross platform checkout

Learn more about cross platform checkout

Learn more about cross platform checkout