Social media adds a "buy now" button

I'm currently in the midst of buying a car for my aging mum whose back has packed up. Now in her eighties she can no longer cope with climbing up in to the cab of her big old Nissan 4x4.

Mum's idea of retirement was fishing the salmon-spawning rivers of Canterbury during the summer, the high country lake trout in the autumn and the whitebait-infested rivers of South Westland during the spring. And the turbo-diesel Nissan was ideal for carting around her little Stabicraft boat and her old school Zephyr caravan.

Sadly, after a fall down the Tekapo Canal in her mid seventies, her back started to pack it in, so her fishing days ended a bit prematurely. But she kept her big Nissan as a memento of rivers fished and places travelled. Now her octogenarian back is acting up again, necessitating a new used car. This has seen myself and my daughter looking at more Honda Jazzes than I had ever imagined existed.

My mates think this is pretty hilarious given my petrolhead pretensions, and my normal ridiculing of the shopping cart genre of automobiles. However it's been interesting to get a taste of how the power balance has fundamentally changed in the car-buying relationship, as consumers harness the twin opiates of online research and social media before they even think about setting foot on the traditional car buyers haunts like Moorhouse Ave or Kent Terrace.

A couple of years ago Cap Gemini found that 95 per cent of all car buyers conducted research online before they viewed any actual cars. Last week a car dealer explained it in slightly more colourful terms: "Google makes everyone a freaking genius mate - half the folks that walk onto my lot know more about the cars I'm selling than I do."

The rise and rise of social media has taken this to another level. When a person is getting ready to buy a car they will naturally enough tell their friends, ask their advice and post real-time updates as they go to look at cars. Again quoting the Cap Gemini study, 78 per cent of respondents reckoned they would be swayed by positive social media comments or recommendations.

And it's not just cars, but all consumer commodities from designer shoes to big tellys and small mobile phones. Social media networks like Facebook and Twitter have capitalised on this with increasingly targeted products that harness their scarily incisive understanding of your life with uncannily timed advertising offers.

However there's always been a step whereby you have to leave the familiar and (apparently) non-partisan environment of Facebook, to take a paid-for trip to a third party website to buy the good or service. Last month that changed with the two horsemen of the social media apocalypse switching on "buy" buttons.

Twitter kicked things off at the start of July when a "buy now" button started appearing in the Twitter feed. Right now it's unclear if the button appeared as an experiment or a beta release. But just a couple of weeks after it started trialing the button, Twitter bought CardSpring, a payments infrastructure company. Twitter's rationale for the purchase was to help bring "in-the-moment commerce experiences to our users."

Twitter demographics are heavily tilted towards the more educated, influential and well-heeled, so having the ability to deliver targeted instant gratification buys to this group with predictive analytics could be both effective and lucrative. CardSpring is likely to provide the payment mechanism.

Soon after the Twitter trial went public, social media giant Facebook blogged it was testing a new advertising feature that encourages members to hit a 'Buy' button in ads or on posts in their newsfeed.

This new functionality enables consumer to buy directly from advertisers without ever leaving the social network. According to the blog, members' credit card data will be able to be captured to enable more "convenient future purchases". Facebook hasn't said how widespread this will be when it gets properly rolled out, but the example shown on the blog uses wristwatches and sporting goods.

While both developments are likely to be motivated by the social media companies' desire to increase engagement rather than reposition themselves as mainstream ecommerce platforms, analysts will already be working out the potential impact on revenues.

The developments also raise some interesting trust questions. Do you trust Facebook or Twitter enough to accept their buy recommendations? And do you trust them enough to give them your credit card?

After a good deal of looking around we settled on a mint, yellow 2005 Jazz with just 30,000 kms on the clock. The dealer we bought it from has a big commercial warehouse, advertises entirely online and harnesses Facebook for lead generation. After we did the deal I asked him what he made of social media?

Look mate it's all about people. Any trust I have in social media comes from my trust of people I know there, it's really nothing to do with the site itself.

Mike "MOD" O'Donnell is an ecommerce manager at Trade Me and a professional director. His Twitter handle is @modsta and he's seldom seen in a Honda Jazz.