Social commerce — a fad or the future?

Hemant Joshi
Oct 31, 2019 · 6 min read

Commerce existed even before money was invented as a facilitator for trade. People used to barter goods and services before money existed. You had to find the right trader depending on what you were providing, and then come to an agreement on what the value of your goods or services was as compared with theirs.

Photo by Blake Wisz on Unsplash

Today, the problems with this system seem obvious, but then, it was different.

Then came money. It solved a huge problem faced by almost all individuals in the society. As a result, it was adopted across the world over the coming centuries. Today, money is one of the few constants across cultures and countries. Almost any country you go to, chances are high that if you have a few bills of the local currency, you can navigate your way through the country.

It is hard to imagine today’s world without money.

The history of commerce, as we know it, began with the invention of money. Gold coins, silver coins, metal coins started to be used as currency for facilitating commerce. Goods could now freely move between countries, as explorers and messengers travelled and built trade relations between kingdoms.

By the end of the twentieth century, the world was witnessing another revolution in commerce. Companies like Amazon and eBay took the lead in this revolution, powered by this new invention called the internet.

Soon, this revolution found its way into several other parts of the world. New companies spawned in Asia, Africa, and Europe, using the Internet to facilitate commerce across the world. People could soon launch their online shops through their computers, without having deep technical knowledge. E-commerce turned into a platform that facilitated trade.

Just like the invention of money, e-commerce solved critical problems with the existing commerce.

With the e-commerce revolution now behind us, let’s look at what’s next.

Social Commerce

To put it in one line — social commerce is commerce that happens through social media. Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp, for example.

It is gaining a lot of popularity around the world, but especially in India. With WhatsApp becoming the super-app of India, people are conducting almost all kinds of businesses through it.

Consider a very simple scenario — how you currently buy clothes.

You go to a store, check out a few varieties and then pick the shirt that suits you the best. Often times, you also look for clothes online, but you’re worried about the quality of the shirts. A new brand is always a flag for not buying clothes.

As a result, you decide not to buy clothes online.

But, imagine one of your friends recommends something to you on WhatsApp. They come to you and say, “Hey, I bought this shirt. I really liked it. Use this link to buy the shirt right now.” That makes it so much more compelling.

We have a bias for buying things that our friends and family recommend. Social commerce uses this bias and turns social media into a machine for better recommendations and better sales.

Isn’t it e-commerce applied to social media?

Kind of, but not exactly. Because your friends reach out to you with recommendations, you are more inclined to respond to their requests. This can lead to a significant increase in sales for small businesses. Today, selling on WhatsApp might be easier than selling on e-commerce.

Even today, social media plays a big part in the growth of e-commerce.

Image source — Business Insider

The big opportunity

PayPal’s report on Social Commerce shows that, while surveying small business owners, 79% prefer selling through Social Media. Across Asia, India emerged as the top market in terms of using Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, and YouTube to sell goods and services.

Several startups have already sprung up in this space, for example, Meesho, Udaan, and Shopmatic. These companies are helping people resell products on social media.

Take the example of Meesho — a few months ago, it raised $125M in funding to grow its operations. Meesho is a marketplace that connects sellers with customers through social media. Founded in 2015, the company already has more than 2M sellers from 700 towns in India.

More than 90% of small businesses in India are still offline. But with the omnipresence of WhatsApp, using it as a vehicle for growth is a no-brainer. Today as well, WhatsApp is used to conduct many kinds of transactions, though in a highly fragmented way. We get our news, our connections, our payment requests, etc. all through WhatsApp.

To provide a structure to how we use WhatsApp for our commerce seems like a natural transition.

What do people say about social commerce?

Last week, I got on a call with Misbah Ashraf, the founder of Marsplay. It is a fashion-focussed social commerce app. Their idea is that you are much more likely to buy clothes when your friends recommend you, rather than when Alia Bhatt recommends you. The company believes that everyone has a fashion sense, rather than saying that one sense is better than another. They launched in August 2018 and has extensively tested its product offering with about 800 beta testers.

On Marsplay app, you don’t discover products, you discover people that act like your online shopping buddies who guide you to make best purchases.

Companies like Marsplay have an opportunity to delve deeper into recommendations triggered by social networks, rather than recommendations based on similar profiles, as is the case with Amazon or Flipkart. Here’s a detailed article about Marsplay.

One surprising thing I heard from Misbah was about building communities without any expectations. When the company started, they opened a physical studio for their creators to come and use for free. The studio acted as a way to build a community amongst creators, thus helping them network as well.

In online businesses, building a community is the hardest part, but can be very rewarding.

On the flip side

I spoke to two of my friends who are aware of social commerce. They mentioned how social commerce feels like a scam to them. Making money off of our friends and family is bad, they mentioned.

My opinion

Personally, my shopping starts by asking a friend for recommendations. Social commerce is exactly this — commerce which uses your social network as a parameter for recommendations.

Our social networks, formed through WhatsApp, Facebook, etc. already exist. To have commerce on these platforms seems logical.

I expect social commerce to be huge in the next three to five years, with companies like Marsplay revolutionizing commerce for specific verticals, (for example, fashion). Fashion is an obvious one as it affects every person. Every person has their own fashion preference, and as such, recommending something based on online trends does not always work. Leveraging one’s relations to recommend them products works better in this case.

But a lot of innovation is yet to happen. Think about other verticals apart from fashion — books, jewellery, decorative pieces, and so more. We’ve started scraping the surface, and there’s a lot more digging to do.

I write a weekly newsletter — Zoom In, Zoom Out which looks at how India is rapidly changing with technological innovation. Subscribe here for deep dives into new trends every Friday.

If you have any feedback about this article, do reach out to me via Twitter or send an email at

Hemant Joshi

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I write essays exploring how India is changing at a macro and micro level. Get my weekly newsletter —

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