With limitations and safety precautions in place that affect where we go, who we see and what we do in person, the digital transformation of retail has accelerated in a way race car drivers would envy.

In 2020, overall US online spending increased 32% year over year, and social commerce boomed, with sales rising nearly 39%. Powered by ecommerce, 2020 holiday retail sales were bright, growing over 8% compared to 2019.

During the upcoming 2021 holiday season, experts predict that retailers can expect a 7% increase in sales and some consumers will warm up to in-person shopping again—but other challenges remain. Global supply chain restraints, labor shortages and lopsided product supply and demand will draw out the shopping season. To keep the holiday spirit alive, retailers need a festive, foolproof social media strategy to deliver the best customer experience.

Just like any die-hard holiday enthusiast out there, marketers should begin planning long before the busy season. Sprout Social’s data science team analyzed more than 340 million messages across Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to find out how retailers fared through the previous holiday shopping season and what brands can expect for 2021.

A look back at social trends from the 2020 holiday season

Compared to an average of 2,706 messages received per month by retailers from January through October 2020, retailers received an average of 3,202 messages per month in November through December 2020. This represents an 18% increase in average messages received per month during the 2020 holiday season compared to the rest of the year.

[Chart] Average social messages retailers received per month in 2020

The sheer volume of social messages received during November and December is a good reminder for retailers of all sizes to remain present and active on all of their social platforms but pay close attention to Instagram.

There was a strong consumer shift to Instagram during the 2020 holiday season—retailers experienced a 44% spike in average messages received compared to non-holiday months.

As businesses prepare their teams for the surge in messages received, they also need to have a plan for maintaining rapid social responsiveness and a consistent publishing cadence. In November and December, retailers sent 24% more outgoing Instagram messages and 32% more Twitter messages per month compared to the non-holiday months. Retailers’ outbound organic messages on Facebook dropped slightly during holiday months, most likely due to shifting focus on paid ads for seasonal promotions.

Gearing up for the projected 2021 holiday season

The 2020 holiday season posted strong numbers, and in 2021 experts predict total holiday retail sales will reach up to $1.3 trillion. Looking closer at ecommerce, online holiday sales are forecasted to grow by 11-15%, which underscores the importance of giving shoppers a superior omnichannel experience.

Given that we’re in a similar position—still in a pandemic and seeing strong preferences for digital shopping—we predict consumers will flock to social again this year.

To no one’s surprise, retailers can expect an influx of messages during the 2021 holiday season—so get your social (and social customer care) teams ready now. Sprout Social’s data science team projects retailers can expect on average 18% more social messages per month this holiday season compared to the non-holiday months in 2021.

Average social messages retailers received per month (Year over year comparison)

Growth expected across retailers of all sizes for holiday 2021

Breaking down the numbers by business size reveals a projected increase in messages received for all retailers this holiday shopping season.

Small business retailers expected to receive 15% more social messages during the 2021 holiday months. Mid market retailers expected to receive 12% more social messages during the 2021 holiday months. Enterprise retailers expected to receive 23% more social messages during the 2021 holiday months.

Regardless of size, every retailer can take advantage of the increased visibility this holiday by leveling up their social strategy.

In addition to using social to amplify your brand story and appeal to consumers seeking to support local businesses, small businesses should focus on driving one-to-one engagement with customers. Whether that’s through timely customer support, responding to comments or sending promo codes to their DMs, interacting with customers can help small businesses cultivate loyalty and encourage repeat purchases.

In the mid-market segment, social marketers can deepen their connection with customers by creating educational, entertaining and inspirational content around the holidays. To stand out from the crowd, consider collaborating with influencers and creators to fuel creative social campaigns that let your products shine.

Enterprise businesses, especially those dependent on global supply chains, need to provide proactive customer care during the holiday shopping season. Plan content that answers FAQs, listen to conversations around your brand and keep lines of communication open between social and the rest of the business.

As your business grows and matures, make sure your social team is prepared to handle the increased volume of messages by following social customer care best practices. Some businesses may even consider reassigning a few customer service reps to help manage inquiries from social media—or at least have a system in place for social media marketers to redirect messages to the experts.

Once everyone’s gifts are unwrapped and returns season begins, retailers can use social listening to learn from their holiday experience and apply those insights towards their 2022 social strategy. With listening, retailers can glean information that can inform product development and even improve the customer experience year-round.

Growth expected across all social channels, especially Instagram

Retailers should expect to see a spike in messages received across all platforms during the holidays, but Instagram is expected to see the greatest end-of-year spike. Matching last year’s trend, retailers can expect 44% more messages on Instagram.

Average Instagram messages received by retailers during the 2021 holiday months is projected to increase by 44%

However, this doesn’t mean retailers can afford to ignore their other social platforms. Beyond Instagram, businesses should expect to see a 14% increase in average Twitter messages and a 4% increase in average Facebook messages received over the 2021 holiday season.

To maximize your reach and drive engagement during the holidays, social marketers should consider a combination of paid and organic social strategies. Paid ads on Facebook, for example, give retailers the ability to build custom audiences and target consumers who have previously interacted with your business in the past. Retailers can also run an Instagram Stories campaign to promote specific offers or tease special announcements, two creative ways for businesses to keep customers glued to a brand’s social feed.

As retailers gear up for the 2021 holiday season, it’s important to lead with the consumer and tailor campaigns around where your audiences spend most of their time online.

Social commerce continues to command attention

Social commerce sales are expected to increase by more than 35% in 2021. Retailers that want to remain competitive and profitable can’t afford to ignore social and it’s incredible value during the holiday season.

According to Salesforce, social referrals to ecommerce sites will increase by 30% during the holidays this year. On Instagram alone, link clicks increased by 5% in November and December 2020, but looking closer, consumer electronics retailers received a 17% increase in IG link clicks during the holiday months—the most of all retail categories. Between deals on doorbuster days and a greater need for home entertainment, work-from-home tools and remote learning, it’s understandable that electronics were a category leader last year.

Instagram link clicks rose 5% during the 2020 holiday months vs. non-holiday

Since 2020, Instagram has doubled down on its social commerce offerings. Instagram “Drops” give brands in all retail categories an opportunity to unveil curated holiday catalogs and exclusive shoppable content. The platform also phased out the swipe up feature for links in Stories and introduced clickable link buttons, which may increase opportunities to attribute holiday revenue to social.

There’s also a new kid on the social commerce block: TikTok. According to the platform, TikTok users are 1.7x more likely to purchase products discovered through the app. As TikTok expands its own social commerce options and the creator economy continues to boom, the 2021 holiday season is a great time to get in on the action.

‘Tis the season to bring your social “A” game

Social is not only a place for brands to get in the holiday spirit, but also to drive holiday sales. Make sure to add UTMs and tracking tags to all holiday social content so you can show the direct impact on your business.

Beyond sales, how marketers approach social engagement and customer care across various platforms is crucial. The holidays are stressful, and providing shoppers with the best experience possible goes a long way in building customer loyalty and affinity that lasts beyond the holiday season.

Brands need a customer care plan in place that gives social teams the support they need to avoid burnout during the busy season.

Social marketers are most likely managing the brunt of the inbound social messages—so equip them with tools, resources, additional team members and clear workflows to scale smoothly. Not only will this keep your social team in good spirits, but customers will also appreciate more personalized care and quicker response times.

Don’t lose sight of providing social customer care after the holiday season. Download this checklist to provide exceptional customer service on Instagram all year round.

About the data

All referenced data on social messages received and projected is based on 23,598 public social profiles (12,771 Facebook; 5,045 Twitter; 5,782 Instagram) of active accounts between January 1, 2020 and September 30, 2021. More than 340 million messages sent and received during that time were analyzed for the purposes of this report. The 2021 holiday message volume was estimated via segmented year-over-year and year-to-date ratio projections.

The messages analyzed included Facebook posts and Tweets directed to a brand via tagging or @message, posts and business reviews on public Facebook pages, comments on brand-created Facebook and Instagram content, and retweets with comments.

For questions about the data, please contact pr@sproutsocial.com.