In 2012, Harvard professor David “Doc” Searls predicted that the marketplace would thrive or fail based on its ability to bridge the gap between customer intent, commercial user experiences and consumers’ need for data privacy. Ten years later, we revisit his speculations in the age of social commerce. 

How Social Media Became An Intent Map

Searls quite accurately predicted the future of social commerce in his 2012 book, “The Intention Economy: When Customers Take Charge.”

“Each customer will come to market equipped with his or her own means for collecting and storing personal data, expressing demand, making choices, setting preferences, proffering terms of engagement, offering payments and participating in relationships—whether those relationships are shallow or deep, and whether they last for moments or years,” Searls writes. “Those means will be standardized. No vendor will control them.”

While consumers have yet to be in complete control of their data, social media companies, in many aspects, are. When consumers opt-in to social media, they deliver a trove of search and behavioral data to social platforms, a practice that has drawn the federal government’s attention for years. According to a recent study, the average app may contact as many as 15 domains, with 12 of those connections initiated with unknown third-party domains.

That data allows these platforms to perform most of the functions that Searls described above only via predictive algorithms. Surprisingly, social apps contacted the fewest URLs. Part of that may be because social apps have access to exceptional first-party data. Platforms today serve as a proxy for customer intent, translating consumer behavior into insights that allow brand marketers to target their audiences effectively. But there’s a hitch—even on social media, banner ads still have low click-through rates

Today, brand marketers are shifting spending to platforms that deliver content that consumers enthusiastically engage with and share. TikTok, the social media platform with the highest user engagement, has an average watch rate of approximately 16 percent. That engagement is all the more valuable to brands, as TikTok’s dominance in user engagement means it has somehow hooked into consumer intent and leveraged those insights to deliver $2.5 billion in consumer spending in 2021.

According to TikTok, consumers are engaging with content and regularly taking action. That means brand marketers can leverage insights from TikTok (or other platforms) to determine consumer intent and shorten the distance between intent and purchase through social commerce—provided the platform’s regulatory and privacy concerns are addressed.

The Social Commerce Opportunity For Brand Marketers

As cookies become a thing of the past, social platforms’ first-party data will be key to finding a way to identify intent and shorten the sales funnel. Social commerce meets brand marketers’ needs on all fronts, allowing them to gain access to insights drawn from first-party data and making it easier for brands to drive sales through a native environment.

One simple way to do this is to partner with creators on platforms like TikTok. Approximately 67 percent of users surveyed said that TikTok inspired them to make a purchase, and creator partnerships on TikTok saw a video view-through rate increase of 193 percent for brands, per Hootsuite. According to eMarketer, U.S. social commerce sales will likely reach $45.74 billion by the end of the year, with more than half of the country’s adults making a purchase via social media.

The key reasons that social media users did not make a purchase through a social media platform range from a preference to make purchases directly from the brand to a need for clarification about the security of payments. For brand marketers seeking to capture consumers on social networks, solving payment concerns and developing branded e-commerce experiences will be key to engagement as social commerce grows. But brands shouldn’t forget, as Searls points out in his original article on the concept, that the Intention Economy is more than transactional: “Conversations matter. So do relationships. So do reputation, authority and respect. Those virtues, however, are earned by sellers (as well as buyers) and not just “branded” by sellers on the minds of buyers like the symbols of ranchers burned on the hides of cattle.”

For Searls, an avowed data privacy advocate, ad tech and media must focus on something deeper than fostering clicks. Businesses should craft their outreach based on customer intent—the needs and preferences that users share willingly. While Searls is a harsh critic of all things ad tech, his words may offer some insights for marketers.

“So, what can we do?” Searls writes. “The simple and difficult answer is to start making tools for individuals, and services leveraging those tools. These are tools empowering individuals with better ways to engage the world’s organizations, especially businesses […] Build some of those and we’ll have an intention economy that will do far more for business than what it’s getting now from the attention economy, regardless of how much money that economy is making today.”