Social sites are driving more referrals but few conversions. Meanwhile, mobile traffic is also on the rise, with tablet visitors converting to buyers at almost the same rate as PC users.
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Tablets are encroaching on PCs as the device of choice for e-commerce website visitors. Referral traffic--if not conversions--from social sites is also growing.
A study by Monetate, derived from data gathered as part of its marketing optimization service, particularly suggests that online store owners need to pay attention to the demands of iPad owners and other tablet users.
"People tend to talk about tablets and smartphones as being 'mobile,' as if they were one thing, but with tablets we see much closer conversion rates and average order value as what you would see from a laptop," Monetate chief marketing officer Kurt Heinemann said in an interview.
Between the first quarter of 2011 and the first quarter of 2012, the share of website visits from PCs dropped from 94% to 88%, Heinemann said. In the same period, the share of visits from tablets rose from 1.7% to 6.5%. "That's almost a direct replacement," he said.
Meanwhile, the conversion rate--the rate at which visitors convert to buyers--was in the same ballpark for PCs and tablets. In the first quarter of 2012, Monetate measured the conversion rate for PCs at 3.5% verus 3.2% for tablets. For smartphones, it's much lower--about 1.4% in that period.
"Getting people to buy on their phones is much more challenging because of the smaller screen size," Heinemann said. Phones might also not do as good a job of displaying all the contextual cues people are accustomed to seeing on e-commerce sites, such as star ratings and rollover effects on images. "Those are things you get on a tablet that you don't see on a smart phone," he said.
Store operators would be smart to cater to the influx of tablet owners by paying attention to the different capabilities of a touchscreen device. For example, with small links placed close together, tablet owners will be more likely to click the wrong one than if they were on a PC, working with a mouse. "That experience is extremely negative," Heinemann said--maybe even something that would make a visitor leave a website, never to return.
The study also saw an incremental rise in traffic referred from social media sites, which rose from 1.4% to 2.15% between the first quarter of 2011 and the first quarter of 2012. However, that rise did not come at the expense of search, which also rose, from 27.2% to 29.7% in that same period.
But even as they send more traffic, social sites aren't necessarily sending more buyers. The conversion rate for search hovers at close to 3% while social traffic is under 1%. Specifically, in Monetate's figures for the first quarter of 2012, search traffic converted at 2.83% while social traffic converted at a rate of 0.38%.
The logic of social commerce says people ought to be more willing to buy things their friends link to or recommend, while the logic of search commerce says people are more likely to buy things they're specifically searching for. It would seem that search wins, although Heinemann points out those social referrals might still be valuable to the extent they build awareness. "If someone pins something on Pinterest that's a pair of sneakers, I may click on it for more information, but I might not be in the market for sneakers," he said.
Pinterest quickly has become a big factor in driving social e-commerce traffic. The percentage of social referral traffic from Facebook dropped from 88% to 60% between the first quarter of 2011 and the first quarter of 2012. Meanwhile, referrals from Pinterest reached 26%, up from less than 1% a year earlier, according to Monetate.
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