Facebook and Twitter Won’t Be Able to Check ‘Buy Buttons’ Off Their Holiday Wishlists

Photographer: Helder Almeida/Getty Images

Photographer: Helder Almeida/Getty Images

“Buy” buttons are coming to your stream someday, but most Facebook and Twitter users will be safe from the ultimate impulse-purchase mechanism during this holiday season.

While the social media giants have been testing “buy” buttons with some users’ since the summer, the feature won’t be introduced widely for now, according to interviews with Facebook and Twitter executives. Advertisers have been asking the companies for months in the run up to the holiday-shopping frenzy when they’ll be able to sell products directly to people as they browse their social networks.

The companies could benefit from finding new ways to generate revenue, especially after Facebook and Twitter each reported disappointing earnings last quarter. Americans are expected to spend more than $100 billion shopping online during the holidays, according to the National Retail Federation, a trade association. This would have been a perfect time to launch the new shopping feature and grab a bigger slice of consumer spending. The companies won’t get a better opportunity for another year.

Advertisers like the idea of a “buy” button because it can help determine whether an ad is effective. Currently, they can tell how many users were shown or clicked on an ad, but they don’t always know whether someone ended up buying the product. Beyond improving measurement, the buttons could drive more sales. Advertisers are optimistic that the feature could increase spontaneity in online shopping, which has traditionally been driven by people searching for items they already know what they want on Amazon.com or Google.

Facebook and Twitter acknowledge that they're missing out on a potential new revenue stream during the biggest shopping season of the year. But Nathan Hubbard, Twitter's e-commerce head, said he wants to create the right tool before making it available to everyone. "Interest from sellers is not our challenge now,” Hubbard said in an interview. "It's how we roll that out at scale and really optimize the user experience."

On Twitter’s Oct. 27 earnings call, Chief Executive Officer Dick Costolo said the company is continuing to explore how to take advantage of “in-the-moment commerce.” Kevin Weil, Twitter’s vice president of product, said at the company’s analyst day on Nov. 12 that tests are going well. “We're enthusiastic about the response we've seen,” Weil said.

Facebook’s top executives have offered similarly positive comments about the potential for quick purchases that don’t require users to leave the company’s app or website. “Commerce is really important and is a growing important part of our business,” Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer, said on Facebook’s July 23 earnings call. “The more people buy online, the more people buy things they discover through their mobile phones, the more people discover things from News Feed and go on to purchase, the more important we are in driving e-commerce, and I think we are increasingly important."

That’s probably why advertisers have been hounding Facebook about the “buy” button they’ve been waiting on for month. Nicolas Franchet, Facebook's head of e-commerce, said when many companies ask him when they can start using the feature, his response is, “Not yet."

“We are very clear,” Franchet said in an interview. “It's a small test, limited to the test, and our job is to continue testing.”

Franchet said Facebook is concerned about confusing retailers by offering something that may not end up being an option for them if tests don't go well. Instead of the "buy" button, he's pitching them standard ads that send people to shopping sites.

“We don't want to complicate the picture for them,” Franchet said. "The ‘buy’ button gives them a glimpse of where we may be going in the future—but maybe not.”

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