News that over a quarter of British shoppers now follow a retailer on social media reminds us how far social has come in the last decade.

I remember the discussions, not so long ago, about whether social media really had any part in retailing at all. Now that debate can be laid to rest.

With more than 30 million small and medium businesses on Facebook, they have built the foundation for a conversational marketing economy. Indeed, 66% of retailers now have a social strategy in place - up from 48.5% in 2012, according to recent Retail TouchPoints research.

The problem with this approach is that it is siloed. By marketing to a single set of online customers, brands risk restricting their potential audience to a single channel.

In an omnichannel world, this is counterintuitive. So businesses must use social media also to drive customers at bricks-and-mortar premises. It works: 40% of social media users have purchased items after favouriting them on Facebook, according to Vision Critical.

Either way, however, the peculiar thing about both of these strategies is that they each exist to convert people in to customers; they each view a purchase as the end of a journey.

What if it was just the start? Only 24% of retailers promote their social media presence in their stores at check-outs, Vision Critical’s research says.

But brick-and-mortar punters represent a far more valuable target audience than online users. That may surprise many people, but consider this - people who have already stepped in to your store have already elected to become your customer at least once. From this moment, it becomes far more likely they can be encouraged to do so again; you’re working less hard to convince and, instead, working simply to relate.

In other words, your in-store visitors are filtered traffic. They are more likely to be a quality following than Twitter visitors who may never have so much as driven past your shopfront. Social proof may be in the numbers - but social engagement rests with quality followers.

Use of social media in stores to drive retail transactions online could be more effective than the other way around. After all, the overwhelming majority of retail transactions, 92%, still occurs in physical stores.

When you think about in-store use of social media today, however, it is rudimentary - we are lucky if the best that we see is window stickers bearing nondescript Twitter or Facebook icons, or a chalkboard display yelling “Follow us!”. It drives little engagement, yields no specific online action and is the equivalent of a boring old banner ad, rendered in physical form.

This is all so one-dimensional. When they are in-store, customers are ready to be converted to new, next retail experiences. But these passive social promotions encourage little conversion.

But there are three ways you can turn your real-world real estate in to a social machine:

1. Bring social proof in to the real world

In-store sales staff know how to put on a great display. But online customers are an invaluable source of product data. US fashion retailer Nordstrom combined the two when it began adding Pinterest logos to its most-pinned handbags and shoes in its 117 stores.

With nearly 4.5m Pinterest followers, the brand has a rich source to mine. Because those pinners represent real customer viewpoints, their views really help validate in-store products. Customers trust other customers - so find ways to reflect your followers online opinions in the physical realm.

2. Tap trends to amplify messages

When a brand goes omnichannel, it needs complementarity between its online and offline activities. So don’t waste valuable time and effort building an all-singing new campaign idea that is disconnected from reality - instead, tap in to existing habits.

That is what fashion brands French Connection and Urban Degree did when their recent projects leveraged “selfies” as both competition entries and payment currency. After all, customers are already taking snaps of their prospective new outfit in the dressing room - why not encourage existing activity, using customers to amplify your brand’s messages to an even wider audience?

3. Privileged access drives footfall

These days, a brand is more than just a retailer. By bringing customers closer to real-world activities they might not otherwise have access to, a company can create a valuable relationship.

That is what fashion retailer Topshop did when it invited winners of a social media competition in to its flagship Oxford Street store to take a catwalk-side seat at nearby London Fashion Week via the Occulus Rift virtual reality headset.

I will wager that those girls will never forget their experience, thanks to Topshop, and that countless others will be minded to enter such contests in future.

Of course, your company need not be in fashion to harness real-world activity online. Just as FCUK did in clothing, a cafe could similarly easily stage a #lattelips selfie contest, incentivising existing customers to spread the word.

It’s time to start realising the value of your real estate. It has a stronger social life than you might think.


By Christophe Avignon, CEO of Flapit

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