The Science Behind Social Shopping: Why We Are Always ‘Clicking to Buy’, According to Psychologists

Amazon pillows.

Korean moisturizer.

An acupuncture mat.

These are just a few of the objects I’ve purchased on Instagram over the past couple months – mainly because an influencer told me to.

I’m not alone. Today’s shopper doesn’t head to the mall when she’s bored; she opens her phone.

In fact, according to HubSpot’s 2024 Consumer Trends survey, 25% of social media users have bought a product from directly within a social media app in the past three months.

As Adam Ortman, Founder and President of Kinetic319, puts it, “Each scroll and swipe is a potential opportunity, offering a dopamine-driven delight that our brains are hardwired to chase.”

Here, let’s jump into the psychology behind why social shopping is rising steadily in popularity in 2024.

1. It taps into our inherent desire for instant gratification.

As humans, we live for the short-term dopamine fix. When we’re bored, stressed, or tired, it’s all-too easy to give in to the urge for a little “boost” in our day – be it new sunglasses, a new top, or that fancy face wash influencers’ have been boasting about for weeks.

As Ortman told me, “It’s all about the thrill of the find and the joy of the ‘buy now’ buzz. This clever algorithmic design keeps consumers coming back for more, eager for that next like, comment, or, in this case, purchase opportunity.”

Consumer Psychologist Shilpa Madan agrees with Ortman that the short-term gratification we receive from purchasing on social media is partially what keeps us coming back.

As she puts it, “The ease with which transactions can be completed on these platforms caters to the consumer’s desire for instant gratification—a key factor in impulse buying. This seamless experience, coupled with the rich media and entertainment value of social shopping, increases the willingness to ‘click-to-buy’.”

2. It elicits a sense of connection.

While I still occasionally enjoy scrolling through a brand’s website to shop, these days, I primarily find my next purchases on social platforms.

Consumer Psychologist Kate Odegard believes this is because I’m able to find a stronger sense of connection on social media compared to a brand’s website.

She told me, “Consumers are drawn to social commerce because it’s more like the digital version of a shopping mall than scrolling through products on a brand website. One is about connection and curation, and the other is transactional and over-optimized.”

She adds, “In the research I’ve seen, consumers who are most receptive to social commerce turn to creators and influencers for guidance. They don’t scroll through posts, but instead, purposefully look to be inspired, to interact, and to participate in creator content.”

Consider this fun, light-hearted Instagram from one of my favorite influencers, Jen Reed:

The purpose of the video is to showcase affordable outfits for springtime. But I wasn’t in the market for affordable spring-time outfits – and yet, I still watched the video, because I feel a sense of connection to Jen and want to hear what she has to say.

Additionally, Jen has cultivated a sense of community on her platform. I like the people who follow Jen; I enjoy reading their comments and responding. And that’s the connection you just can’t find on a branded website.

3. It leverages social proof – and “FOMO”.

Ah, FOMO – the feeling most of us get everytime we log onto social media and see that, while we’re re-watching Lord of the Rings, our friends are out at lavish restaurants or enjoying tropical vacations.

That same sense of FOMO can come in the form of product endorsements, as it turns out.

As Ortman puts it, “Social proof isn’t just influential; it’s amazingly motivational. It leverages trust and the ‘fear of missing out’ psychology (yes, FOMO is real) to nudge us from mere interest to ‘must have now’. It’s a potent reminder that we might be missing out on something wonderful, which fuels our desire to act immediately.”

While I didn’t realize there was real science behind this phenomenon, I’ve certainly felt its affect. Recently, I found myself purchasing an Anthropology dress because I saw three of my friends wearing it on Instagram.

And it’s not always a poor investment, either. I love the dress I bought. And I’m not alone: ​​43% of users who’ve purchased a product directly within social media in the past three months are very satisfied with their purchase.

Madan agrees. She told me, “A product-endorsing TikTok video or Instagram post, especially from one’s social circle, serves as a potent endorsement. This visibility of peer interactions and approvals taps into social influences and peer pressure, making social media an arena where shopping decisions are publicly informed and endorsed.”

4. It demonstrates the power of relatability.

Finally, social shopping hits at our desire to see our own traits mirrored back at us in the people who sell us products.

In other words: I want to buy something from someone who looks, acts, or thinks like me.

Madan says, “When shoppers see someone who mirrors their own physical attributes (or what they aspire to) — be it height, weight, or skin tone — endorsing a product, it not only validates the product’s appeal but significantly boosts their confidence in the decision to purchase.”

She adds, “Research shows that this increased confidence increases willingness to buy, reduces procrastination, and even increases the amount consumers are willing to pay. Not surprising, then, that social platforms witness such enthusiastic purchasing behaviors.”

As a Marketer, Understanding Consumer Psychology Is Key

There are aspects of marketing, like social shopping, that can be confounding to some marketers. What types of social content will convince the most number of users to click ‘buy’? And from whom?

As Ortman says, “Social media shopping thrives in its ability to weave consumer psychology with strategic marketing stages. It’s a tactical coordination of desire and decision-making, where each step is designed to lead us to purchase, proving just how intertwined consumer psychology and marketing strategy really are in the social shopping medium.”

Ultimately, understanding your target audience is the first step to cultivating strong sales on social platforms. But knowing the psychology behind it doesn’t hurt, either.

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