What link changes from Instagram, YouTube mean for social commerce

Instagram is allowing multiple links in bio, while YouTube is opting for an affiliate program over product tagging.

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Social commerce remains under construction.

Social media platforms have long seen the promise of providing tools for brands and creators to shop within the platform. But the execution is in the details like the placement of links and tags, and that requires lots of testing and feedback to get right.

A pair of developments this week show new paths on this front for key platforms. Instagram is allowing users to put multiple links in bio, while YouTube has settled on an affiliate program for creators as opposed to product tagging. While these changes aren’t a signal that social commerce has officially arrived, they are steps on the path to discovering what a workable shopping journey may look like.

Here’s a look at the latest:

Instagram makes more room for links in bio

“Link in bio” is a common refrain on Instagram. Now, it will be “links in bio.”

On Tuesday, Instagram upped the number of links that can be included in a bio from one to five. In an announcement on his broadcast channel, Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg said allowing multiple links in a bio is “probably one of the most requested features we’ve had.”

What it means for social commerce: Links to external sources are commonly used by creators and brands in commerce to provide direct paths for users to discover shopping channels. Now, they will be able to promote multiple destinations, such as a direct-to-consumer website, social media channels or storefronts on multiple marketplaces.

It’s a reversal for Instagram. The platform is already unique in that it doesn’t directly link to outside content within a post. For years, it attempted to restrict links that can be included in a bio to keep traffic on its own platform. The limitations of the single link in bio spawned a host of solutions, such as Linktree and Shopify-owned social storefront tool Linkpop. With expanded links available directly from the platform, their utility is now in question, to say the least.

YouTube opts for affiliate links

After a period of testing, YouTube is prioritizing affiliate links as the vehicle by which creators can earn commission. This means that the platform will be phasing out product tags that appeared in videos.

As reported by Insider, YouTube launched the product tagging feature in beta in 2021. It allowed creators to tag products from outside brands and retailers. Then, shoppers could view the items more closely in a YouTube video, and check out on the retailer’s website. Creators could earn monthly payouts of between $50 and $100 from YouTube.

Now, YouTube is moving forward with an affiliate program that allows creators to earn a commission, rather than a monthly payout. Partner brands on the program include e.l.f. Beauty, Allbirds and Wayfair.

“We strongly believe that YouTube is the best place for creators to build a business and that an affiliate model will be the most beneficial way for creators to earn money at scale,” a message from YouTube about the shift said. “As we invest in the affiliate program as a long-term solution to earn from tagging products on YouTube, we’ll be phasing out the ability to tag products from other brands and related short-term incentive programs.”

What it means for social commerce: It indicates YouTube has made a decision about a key social commerce feature after a period of testing. The Google-owned channel made a splash with a host of new shopping features last year, but on-platform ecommerce remains without a tried-and-true model. YouTube painted this shift to an affiliate program as a move to tweak its approach to how creators earn, not abandon social commerce. Affiliate programs are common across platforms like Instagram and TokTok, so implicit in the message is that YouTube is sticking with a method that has shown success, rather than moving to a newer approach that promotes direct in-app shopping.

“In 2022 alone, there were over 150B views on YouTube Shorts, videos and live streams with tagged products – featuring everything from the latest tech accessories to skincare products,” the platform’s message said. “We’ve learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t through these pilot programs and have heard clear feedback that we need to provide creators the opportunity to earn from product tagging.”

This move isn't just about link placement, but how creators earn. If social commerce is going to be effective, a model must be in place that works at scale. With this move, YouTube is placing its bet. We'll be on the lookout for the results.

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