If you're one of the hundreds of millions of regular Twitter or Facebook users, you're used to seeing ads mixed in among the updates from random acquaintances and links to funny cat videos -- and you probably ignore most of them. But imagine if one of them really catches your eye and you could purchase the touted product simply by writing "#buy." No fussing with digital shopping carts, no finding the right size or color, just true one-click buying.
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That's the kind of online shopping envisioned by Chirpify, a Portland, Ore.-based company that last year introduced in-stream payment. Earlier this year, American Express hopped on the in-stream payment bandwagon with its Sync program; cardholders who connect their AmEx cards to their social media accounts get offers for products that they can buy instantly, with one tweet or post.
But it's worth pausing before you hit "Enter." Instant gratification raises the specter of overspending. And a public record of your purchases comes with its own dangers.
How it really works
There's no arguing that in-stream purchasing is convenient. According to Chirpify CEO Chris Teso, most first-time Chirpify customers sign on at Chirpify.com when they respond to an ad or promotion from a company or group they already follow, such as Adidas or the Portland Trail Blazers. They go through a one-time enrollment process to connect their social media accounts to either a credit card or a bank account, put their mailing address on file, and ideally include purchasing preferences such as shoe and shirt sizes that make future transactions completely seamless.
From then on, when they see an offer they like, they only have to respond with certain words or hashtags right in Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. After that, the transaction happens automatically. The response instantly registers as a purchase, the customer's credit card is charged, and the item is processed and shipped.
That's how it's worked for Jason Lander, a software developer in Portland, Ore., who's an avid social media user. He used to avoid social media ads, knowing that clicking a link would take him to a website where he'd have to create a new account and fumble among pages to find the right item. "But the fact that I know I can type the word 'buy' and click 'post,' it's almost unbelievable," he says. Lander has used Chirpify several times now to buy a range of products, from shoes to artwork to books. "The first couple times I did it I didn't believe it would work." But it did. And it was so easy, he says, "I would liken it to magic." He even got a digital receipt at the end of each transaction.
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American Express's Sync program works in much the same way as Chirpify. "It's super simple," emailed Bradley Minor, vice president of digital communications strategy for American Express, in response to interview questions. "Card members sync their eligible cards at sync.americanexpress.com/twitter and tweet special hashtags to buy products from top brands. We send an @reply asking them to confirm their purchase. Once they do that, we then send a confirmation tweet and email, and the product is shipped."
The technology even allows social media users to easily donate to charities. Chirpify just partnered with Greater Giving, a company that helps nonprofits raise money. Now feel-good groups such as animal hospitals and schools can create social media campaigns, and followers can give money simply by replying "donate." Chirpify's already partnered with MasterCard to run the Stand Up to Cancer campaign. "If you tweet #dogood with a dollar amount, you'll have just made a donation," says Teso.
When customers can buy products seamlessly in their social media stream, marketers rejoice; it's the perfect way to reduce the distance between point A (seeing something you like) and point B (actually buying it), or in other words, to "convert advertising."
There are benefits for regular folks, too. "What we hear all the time is that consumers want more convenience," explains Teso. "The reason you're in Facebook or another social media platform is that conversation. So with Chirpify, all you have to do is reply or comment. It doesn't take any time or take your attention away."
What's not to love?
But that's precisely the problem, say credit experts. A number of studies have shown that people spend more freely when they use credit than when they use cash. The physical constraints imposed by cash help consumers stick to a budget. Removing even more barriers presumably increases the danger of over-indulging.
"When it comes to this instant payment method, I do believe it inevitably ends in buyer's remorse, because a shopper has no time to really think out the purchase decision and can make impulse purchases much more easily," says consumer finance expert Andrea Woroch. Seamless and simple purchasing, she suggests, can "lead to lots of unnecessary spending and devastating debt."
Privacy is another thing to think about. Besides the possible embarrassment of having your friends know about those Miley Cyrus tickets you bought, you may have other reasons for keeping at least some purchases private. If nothing else, you don't want potential criminals knowing all the loot that awaits them if they break into your home.
Lander says he lives a very public life online and doesn't worry about privacy, but he could see it being an issue for others. "Or if there was something I wanted to purchase and didn't want the whole world to know about ... I'd imagine I wouldn't purchase it this way."
Virtual crime is also a consideration. Anyone who's ever seen a friend's Facebook page bizarrely barking about nutraceuticals or witnessed Burger King's Twitter account turned into a McDonald's feed might pause when they consider the prevalence of social media hacking. Connecting your Twitter and Facebook accounts to your banking or credit card info seems like a disaster waiting to happen.
Both Sync and Chirpify promise that high-tech security is in place to protect your data, and both try to make it difficult for a hacker posing as you to tweet "buy." "First, we always send a real-time purchase confirmation to the card member's email address on file," says AmEx's Minor. "Second, products can only be shipped to the card member's address on file. And, finally, all products are fully refundable and shipping is free of charge."
Because of those safeguards, accidental purchases are also uncommon, says Teso. "We expected more of 'I didn't mean to buy that, that was a mistake.' There just simply hasn't been that. You're well aware that if you make certain comments that will trigger a transaction."
The inescapable future
Whether in-stream instant purchasing sounds scintillating or scary may depend on your trust in technology, and your own willpower. But it may be inescapable. Chirpify's member base is currently growing 25 percent a month, and the company plans to enable its technology on other social media platforms. It's also extending its reach by creating advertising that appears offline -- on billboards, TV or the Jumbotron at an NBA game -- and directs consumers to Twitter and Facebook to redeem special offers.
Some industry watchers predict that within a few years, these kinds of social media transactions will increasingly take the place of the traditional online shopping experience. Lander, the Chirpify customer, hopes so. "I feel that these days most shopping cart experiences are horrible -- all the account creation, the promo code that didn't work, that kind of thing. If I buy 10 different pairs of shoes from 10 different companies, I don't want an account on all their websites. It's too much data out there. So having a central place [to store that], a social feed, I think is brilliant."