Written by Scott Thompson
Retailers are increasingly harnessing the power of social media, although at this point it’s far from an exact science, observes Scott Thompson
I first wrote about social media for Retail Systems in 2008. Back then, the overriding message was, retailers were at best dipping their toes in the water while not realising its full power and at worst dismissing it as a fad. Fast forward to 2015 and the situation has changed dramatically. Social media concerns? Pah, so last decade, although critics remain (more of which later). In the intervening years, Facebook passed the monthly active users mark of one billion. Twitter reached 300 million active users. And Instagram, Pinterest, Google + and Snapchat rose to prominence. As a result, it’s all about social commerce now.
Bernie Segal, managing director, Accenture Interactive UK&I, says: “We’ve seen ‘buy it now’ buttons become more widespread as a natural extension of social media into commerce, to improve convenience. This year, we will probably see companies expand this to reduce the pain of navigating fragmented experiences and also start branching into other parts of their customers’ lives, providing value in unexpected places and surprising ways. For example, Airbnb is reported to be extending their offering to providing a local companion/concierge service and lifestyle magazine.”
He also flags up that researchers at the Accenture Technology Lab in San Jose have been working on an augmented reality shopping demo called WeShop, showing how retailers can personalise the shopping experience for consumers based on available preference and social data. The mobile app not only stores customer preferences and shopping habits, but also behaviour patterns, shopping activities of friends, networks, and people with similar social profiles.
Specific retailers would have access to the app, helping them to provide a custom service and access relevant customer information, such as demographics, interests and shopping activities, details which, historically, have been difficult to collect. Access to the behaviours of customers in-store also provides insight into how they are interacting with products, and offers data upon which store configuration and associate placement decisions can be made.
After a sluggish start, the retail industry has consistently been a frontrunner in adopting social, whether it be online or in-store. This trend has been led by e-tailers like ASOS, who has deployed targeted campaigns across Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Google +. Quick to flex its muscles on new social networks, ASOS has been one of the early Vine adopters, launching its #ASOSUnbox campaign where customers are encouraged to post clips of themselves unpacking deliveries using that hashtag.
“The online fashion audience is highly engaged and the best retailers tap into that opportunity and build exciting and relevant campaigns to connect their communities and make sales. F&F’s #SummerSOS campaign tapped into the need for the fashion audience to seek style and advice in real-time. Their award winning campaign created a real-time catwalk and partnered with key influencers to tackle fashion dilemmas,” says Merinda Peppard, EMEA marketing director at Hootsuite. “For retailers one of the main challenges can be how to appeal to high volumes of customers whilst keeping the experience personalised and relevant. eBay uses platforms like Tumblr to cut through the noise of its four million sellers, using image-based content to promote high end products that then drive traffic back to the e-commerce site. While each brand has its own communication style, when it comes to customer service on social, today’s consumer expects an immediate response. But, while retailers may want to centralise control over their social platforms with an SRP, to scale and deliver a smooth customer experience, they should decentralise the conversations over them. To do that, retailers need to empower employees to engage customers in conversations directly.”
For Christophe Avignon, founder and CEO, Flapit, the standout retailers are simply those that understand why their followers are following them. “Any business or brand can turn social media into a success if they are able to connect with their audience in a way that resonates with that audience. Marks and Spencer, which has typically been seen as a traditional High Street player, did a great job with its festive ‘Follow the Fairies’ campaign. It managed to engage a huge audience on an emotional level. ASOS generally has a great approach to social (bar last year’s spat with Jodie Marsh), focussing on the styling element as well as offers and incentives for customers,” he says.
It really doesn’t require iconic brand status or viral campaigns, he argues. For retailers, connecting with their audience will typically mean offering deals, perks or discounts to those displaying their loyalty on social platforms. “Of course it’s also very much about producing enriching content to extend what retailers are about into how people use the things they buy and how they are an integral part of a consumer’s life and identity. Amazon also stands out as it has managed to integrate social into the retail experience incredibly well, getting fans to post wish lists and purchases. Allowing for this kind of backdoor re-entry of sales content is a very smart way of not making a retailer’s own content creation about sales, which is typically quite unpopular on social.”
With Twitter and Facebook introducing ‘buy it now’ buttons, will the next 12 months see retailers place greater emphasis on selling products via these channels? Or with sites like Pinterest and Instagram registering faster growth in member size and active use than many other rivals, will most innovation in 2015/2016 be image-led?
It’s tempting to assume the embedded functionalities such as the ‘shop now’ button hold the key to online conversions, observes Avignon. They make the promise of a purchase come seemingly all too easily; a button add-on is all it takes. There are two important issues to note, however. First, this is a redirect button that will take users to your site where a purchase can occur.
Also, it is just one of seven calls to action that a page owner can choose from (at least for Facebook). “In the case of the former, there is a suggested disconnect between social and e-commerce as the purchase doesn’t actually take place on the social network and in the end you will still have to rely on a well-designed website. With the latter, the option more suitable to the sphere of social may well be something more along the lines of relationship building such as the ‘sign-up’ button,” he says. “In other words, sales makes up just a very small part of the functions and content of social channels and is more often than not best relegated to the background. Engagement levels on image-led sites are definitely higher. Toward the end of 2014, Instagram cited 50 per cent growth within the space of a year, with 300 million monthly active users, overtaking Twitter. This is a powerful testament to what works on social media and to people’s growing desire for focus on social networks. Does that instantly translate these networks into sales channels? Retailers and brands would be mistaken to think so. You can make your customers fall in love with you on social networks, but it’s really not the best place to propose.”
Hootsuite’s Peppard thinks that retailers are definitely relying more on photo sharing sites like Pinterest and Instagram to drive social shopping and inspire customers to share, post and advocate their products. Retailers don’t have to fight to fit in on Instagram quite as much as they do on Twitter or Facebook; their focus on products makes the photo sharing app a much more natural fit. The mobile nature of Instagram has also made the social network a much easier option for the smaller retailer. Its users are more ready to accept photos taken from a phone or taken on the fly than they are when they’re looking at a website, for example. The acceptance of lower quality means there’s a lower barrier of entry for smaller brands. But the value of Instagram goes beyond just sharing images. “Last year, IKEA launched its new furniture line solely on Instagram, turning its account into an interactive, mobile catalogue where products could also be purchased. For 2015, the biggest innovation for retailers on social will come from video-led content. Platforms like Meerkat and Periscope are gaining traction fast, with their live streaming capabilities proving attractive for retailers. Being able to provide a personalised live view of a fashion show or behind-the-scenes tour is a great way to drive increased engagement on social channels,” she comments.
What else, then, can we expect in terms of forward thinking retailers finding new and more creative ways to exploit the power of social media? Peppard: “In 2015, it will help unlock the power of the in-store experience with the rise of new technologies such as 3D printing, virtual reality and Bluetooth beacons. Platforms like Snapchat and WhatsApp will continue to gain traction through their partnerships with retailers by encouraging users to ‘follow’ new brands to gain exclusive access to new content and products. With the likes of Facebook and Twitter set to launch ‘buy now’ buttons globally, and an increase in advertising on Instagram in 2015, retailers must ensure they provide their customers with an immersive and integrated shopping experience from intent through to point of sale. The experience needs to be personalised and localised, and that’s where social platforms can make their play – by listening to customer conversations, providing real-time feedback and enabling consumers to be inspired to buy and share products from any location, across any device.”
Flapit’s Avignon stresses that retailers need to remember that social media helps to influence customers along their so-called purchasing journey. It goes a long way to influence brand sentiment, it can be a great channel to introduce an audience to a new product or a campaign and it’s certainly a great place to let word of mouth work its magic. But it’s also important to remember that, as things stand, it has a limited direct effect on e-commerce, so retailers need to think of creative ways to tap into the power of social media and channel it accordingly. “In fact, when compared to search (and especially email) social does not fare favourably when looking at e-commerce conversion rates by traffic source. In-store social media is definitely one of those new frontiers in terms of using social media. The challenge will be for retailers to add lasting value for customers in this way and avoid succumbing to spammy or gimmicky approaches that won’t translate into meaningful relationships, or add value to the customer experience,” he says.
Which seems as good a point as any to highlight that, in their rush to embrace the next big social thing, retailers shouldn’t lose sight of the basics or get carried away. There are, after all, those who argue that social media is overhyped, useful for market research, but that’s about it. But while it may not have taken over as the dominant customer interaction channel as many industry observers predicted a few years ago, that doesn’t mean retailers should give it the cold shoulder or go in half-heartedly. Various companies have been thrown into turmoil on the back of a single customer tweet. Twitter is good for quickly acknowledging problems and saying you are fixing them, but if you’re non-responsive or ill-equipped to respond, other customers, competitors and the media can quickly catch on.
As Professor Merlin Stone, a specialist in customer management, puts it: “Don’t aim to cut the volume of complaints. You get them either because your product or service is not good, or it is good but targeted at the wrong people, because your customer service is bad, or because your complaints management process is bad (double jeopardy). Fix these first. If you try to cut them, people who need to complain and whose problems you need to know about will just leave you and/or moan to others. And fix it quickly. We had a dreadful experience with Tesco where they couldn’t sort out our Clubcard problem (our two numbers), and made it very hard for us to tell them what the problem was. They kept telling us what to do, but wouldn’t do it themselves. We gave up shopping at Tesco and switched to Sainsbury’s. They lost at least £300-400/month of business from us. You can quote me on that. We are still angry.
The retail sector may well be a frontrunner in adopting social, but, when heavy hitters like Tesco are still falling down, it becomes clear that overall there is much work to be done in terms of retailers understanding why followers are following them and how they can build something tangible from that.