Millennials Transform Social Commerce: Hashtag “Buy” Buttons?

This post appears courtesy of the authors, Nora Ganim Barnes and Ava M. Lescault, and the Center for Marketing Research at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. For the full study, please visit here.


Social commerce is a term used to describe a form of commerce mediated by social media that facilitates the sharing of information about products and services for both online and offline purchases.  Yahoo first used the term in 2005 in a launch of a new online shopping store.  Social commerce is shaping emerging commercial channels and marketers are taking advantage of social technologies to expand their businesses.  Given the potential of social commerce and the size and buying power of Millennials, along with their propensity to make social inspired purchases, a study on this group is invaluable in developing new strategies for selling to this tech savvy and always connected cohort.

It is estimated that Millennials will have a combined purchasing power of $2.45 trillion worldwide by 2015.  Forrester Research estimates social commerce in the US to reach $30 billion by 2015.  This buying will be carried out online and in stores.  At this time, tracking meaningful social commerce conversions tied to user behavior is at its early stages.  While we can assume that social interactions in the form on online reviews, posts, forums and recommendations is driving some purchasing, documenting the scope of this activity and final channel for purchases is difficult. This is further complicated by the race of the most popular platforms to add “buy” buttons and new payment options to encourage buying while remaining on the platform.

The driving force behind social commerce can be attributed to the Millennial generation’s penchant for social media.  Numbering 76 million strong, Millennials, also known as Generation Y, are defined as the demographic cohort born between 1980 and 2000.  Their size and combined purchasing power make Millennials a valuable market segment for the future success of most companies.

However, unlike past generations, Millennials are not influenced by traditional ‘push’ marketing strategies.  Born and raised in the age of technology, Millennials consume information when and how they want to.  This has grave implications for companies who cannot adapt their marketing strategies quickly enough to capture and capitalize on their intermittent attention.  Social media has provided companies with valuable tools to attract and engage Millennials on their own terms.  However, despite the prevalence of social media, social commerce remains a relatively new phenomenon.  It will demand a new understanding of the power of sharing and its impact of consumption patterns.

In September 2014, ShareThis released one of the first studies focusing on Millennials and social commerce gathering data by observing online browsing and social patterns of Millennials.  They conclude that for these young consumers, interactivity and discussion are central to purchase decisions.  The study did not report on behaviors for any specific platforms and reported findings only in relation to the non-Millennial population, for example saying Millennials are “3x more likely” to behave in a certain way.

This study, conducted by the Center for Marketing Research at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, is an in-depth look at current purchasing habits and trends of Millennials using three of the most widely used social media platforms (Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest).  Last year, the Center conducted its first study on this topic, which served as the basis for this 2014 longitudinal look at Millennials and social commerce. Changes over the past 12 months will be noted.

In an effort to discern what turns a like, follow or pin into a sale, this study, like the 2013 study, explores and analyzes lead conversion tactics as identified by Millennials themselves.  Also included is a look at mobile technology and its role in online purchasing.  The potential for “buy” buttons is explored for the first time along with specifics on what products Millennials are buying on the most popular platforms.

Highlights of the study include:

  • 35% of Millennials are likely to use a “buy” button on Facebook and 24% are likely to use one on Twitter, should those be provided by the platforms. 
  • Facebook declines but is still the most popular platform among Millennials when looking to interact with companies/brands online.  While their numbers have fallen slightly, Twitter and Pinterest have made modest gains.  Fifty-five percent of respondents currently like at least one brand on Facebook (down from 62% last year).  Twitter has 29% (up from 23%) and Pinterest has 16% (up from 11%) of Millennials following or pinning a company/brand.
  • Nike is the most liked/followed brand on Facebook and Twitter for the second straight year.
  • Hair, Beauty and Apparel continues to be the category in which most products are purchased by Millennials across all platforms studied.
  • Relative to users of larger platforms, Pinterest again has the highest online sales conversion rate.   Fifty-one percent of Pinterest users make their purchases online exclusively compared to 16% of Facebook users and 35% of Twitter users.  The user-friendly, highly visual design of the website facilitates information search and evaluation of alternatives.  Pinterest makes the transaction process flow with optimal ease for consumers.
  • 48% of Millennials use smart phones to make purchases online and 21% use tablets.


Like the 2013 study, this study was conducted via a comprehensive survey available in both digital and physical form for distribution.  Qualification for participation required the respondent to be a member of the Millennial generation, using the popular demographic for this group of having been born between 1980-2000.  The surveys were hosted on online and the URL was shared online by channels including, but not limited to, email, Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.  All data was collected during the fall of 2014.  A total of 405 surveys provide the basis for this report.

In an effort to identify the link between online interest and related purchases, respondents were asked detailed questions about their social media decisions.  The survey was divided by the platforms Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest. Respondents were first asked if they currently follow any companies or brands on that platform.  If they did not, or indicated they did not have an account on that site, respondents were instructed to move to the next section.

For those that did qualify, questions were asked relating to respondents’ motivations for following a company online and if they ever made a purchase resulting from their online experience.  Respondents were asked to classify their purchases by platform and product category.  Millennials were also asked to indicate what a company would have to do in order to convert their like/follow/pin into a sale.  This iteration included questions about the new “buy” buttons currently being tested by Facebook and Twitter.

The 405 respondents in this study are diverse.  They represent 26 US states and 37 people (9%) residing outside the US.  There is nearly an even split in respondents’ gender with 49% male and 51% female.  The youngest Millennials, those 14-17 years old, make up 17% of this study, 38% are between 18-22 years old, 25% are between 23-27 years old and 21% are in the upper range of 28-33 years old.

Nora Ganim Barnes, Ph.D., is a Chancellor Professor of Marketing and Director of the Center for Marketing Research at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. Nora has worked as a consultant for many national and international firms.  Working closely with businesses in the Northeast US, Nora and her students have provided marketing research assistance to hundreds of small businesses. Follow her on Twitter @NoraBarnes.

Ava M. Lescault is Senior Research Associate and Associate Director of the Center for Marketing Research at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. Ava graduated from UMass Dartmouth with a BS in Marketing and a Master’s Degree in Business Administration with a concentration in Marketing Research.

Posted in [Research Library], New Technology / Social Media.

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