I’ve spent a lot of my time over the past few months thinking about online shopping. Not only because with the arrival of my second child my Amazon purchases have skyrocketed (although they have), but because DAI’s Center for Digital Acceleration has been doing a lot of work alongside our clients digging into how small to medium-size businesses use digital technologies in this digital-forward—often digital-only era of COVID-19. It’s fascinating work and has revealed to me how little I previously knew of social storefronts. My hunch is that many of my peers in digital development are equally unaware of the myriad features, tools, and functions embedded in the business accounts of the ubiquitous social media apps we engage with daily, and we have some work to do to understand, and appropriately utilize, these extremely powerful platforms for economic growth.
My colleague and I were interviewing a small manufacturing business in Peru the other day about how it pivoted from a business-to-business (B2B) to a business-to-consumer (B2C) social media-driven business model after COVID-19 shattered its traditional business model. Much like many enterprises around the world, it was: change or die. As the business owner talked us through her use of Instagram to grow and engage with her client base, we kept having to pause and ask her to explain the different features she was naming. It felt so silly that we, professionals who are diligent about user research and stand up digital initiatives around the world regularly, were such novices when it came to this aspect of digital platforms. We were the people that ran App-a-thon 2016! Understanding the nuances of platform functionalities is our job, after all.
It’s a long-standing debate in our sector whether to “push” social media platforms in digital development programming—concerns around ethics, human rights, and surveillance capitalism have called into question the responsibility of engaging marginalized end users with what is often seen as predatory technology that can further exacerbate vulnerabilities. Those are rightful and important considerations that should be carefully thought out when implementing digital activities by employing a strong end-user-focused co-design approach. But by willfully—or naively—ignoring the immense amount of value business-level accounts on social media platforms hold for micro, small, and medium businesses, which are the main drivers of employment and growth in emerging markets—would do a disservice to business owners we seek to enable with digital tools.
The challenge is, it’s hard to learn about these functionalities without actually using them—reviewing some articles online, or even poking around a proxy business account, does not actually give meaningful insight. So we have two choices: dust off your defunct Instagram T-shirt shop side hustle (here’s mine!), or cozy up to some social media marketing professionals in what might feel like an uncomfortable embrace of Big Tech. Either way, you’ll be a better digital development professional for it.