According to eMarketer, US retailers can expect a happy holiday season in 2015, as eCommerce sales are expected to rise by approximately 13.9% since last year's holidays. This year, one of the most exciting drivers of growth is "contextual commerce," a phrase to describe shopping that can be completed in other digital channels outside of merchants' online shopping sites, for example, via social media. The great promise of contextual commerce emerges from the power of data, especially data delivered by devices like smartphones and wearables that capture consumers' behavior when exploring in both digital and physical spaces. "Contextual commerce" aims to help connect merchants and consumers in both of these spaces, presenting purchase options at the very moment of discovery. Tightening the relationship between discovery and purchase holds previously unimagined potential for merchants to find new prospective customers, target them with the right message at the moment of truth, and to drive immediate conversion.

Facebook, Pinterest and Instagram are examples of consumer tools that are gathering vast data on our general interests, our product browsing history, and our purchases. But to the consumer, these are valuable tools to interact with friends and family, and to discover new things in the world, including new products or services. This intersection of word-of-mouth trust and discovery is exactly what is so potentially valuable to sellers. The data about our preferences and those of our friends and family can be harnessed to drive increased relevance of the product information presented. Then, with highly-relevant discovery in the context of their trusted experiences, consumers will be able to make purchases with just a few taps from within a social media app, rather than having to click through to another website to make a purchase, enter a credit card number and shipping information, and on and on. Transactions that used to take two to three minutes will be completed in less than ten seconds.

But how can merchants take advantage? Quite simply: Merchants will soon be able to activate a "buy-now button" directly in these tools - for example - within a social media feed. To cost-effectively participate in these channels, merchants must determine how to merge this brave new world of digital commerce with their existing social media strategies and broader advertising business models. As such, below are some thought-starters on ways for merchants to optimize their social media strategy to help find new buyers and increase sales this holiday season:

1. Create interactive product experiences distinct to the channel

Tools like Facebook make it easy for users to comment, share, rate, review, and - of course - see images of products. Merchants should take advantage of this, and enable their marketing to be shareable and work within the context of the user experience in that channel. Not only is it a more engaging form of marketing, but it drives trust with consumers, as shoppers find interactions and feedback from other consumers more trustworthy and authentic than traditional marketing or advertising. In short, shoppers trust the voices of other consumers who have experienced your products, and these tools can help you create an authentic and trustworthy discovery experience for your prospective customer.

2. Embrace engagement-based incentives and loyalty programs

The holidays are the perfect time to implement "engagement-based loyalty programs," and many of the social media channels present ample opportunities to introduce these unique type loyalty programs. For example, a program such as "share with 100 friends, and get 25% off your next purchase" can help merchants deepen relationships with their existing customers, while also attracting new ones. To enable this, make sure you give your best customers the opportunity to quickly and easily tell their friends about your products and services. Have social media links displayed prominently and frequently on your website and on your mobile site. Make it as simple as possible for shoppers to tell their friends how great your shop and your products are. Combined with loyalty programs, you can easily encourage your shoppers to spread the love, and then reward them for doing so.

3. Enable seamless checkout with "buy buttons"

When a user sees a product online, it's really a matter of "micro moment" in which the decision is made to purchase a product or not. In your social media marketing, make sure your "buy button" is prominent, and supplement it with meaningful information about your products. But also don't assume that all customers that discover you in social media will want to check-out in the contextual experience. In other words, make sure your own check-out process is as simple as possible too. Create seamless shopping experiences in all your channels. Merchants can integrate with payments partners that enable seamless checkout regardless of channel. PayPal's One Touch checkout is a powerful example of how friction can be removed from checkout in any context, including on your own eCommerce or mobile-commerce site.

So don't wait to get on board. Now is the time for contextual commerce to deliver exciting growth opportunities for merchants, and to simplify shopping experiences for consumers as well.

Published on: Oct 1, 2015
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.