Until recently, Facebook and Twitter were the darlings of the social media space. Yet, while the platforms still dominate most social marketing strategies within the retail sector, updated algorithms and crowded feeds have inspired many brands to explore fresh opportunities for engagement via newer networks, such as Instagram and Pinterest. Visual by nature, such platforms allow retailers to capture consumer attention with vivid content that encourages shares and promotes sales.
Fatigue now dominates the social sphere, as consumers begin to feel overwhelmed by the abundance of content and underwhelmed by the quality of such posts. One study by BuzzStream and Fractl reveals that 21 percent of social users will unfollow brands if content becomes repetitive and boring, while 18 percent will unfollow brands that post too frequently (more than six times per day). Thus, moving forward, retailers must expand their strategies to include channels they have yet to master. However, as Jenn Deering Davis, co-founder and editor-in-chief of Union Metrics, stresses, referring to these channels as 'unconventional' sells them short.
"Instagram has 400 million monthly active users, making it larger than Twitter," she explains. "YouTube, which is 10 years old, has more than one billion users and reaches more people aged 18-49 than cable TV. Snapchat's 100 million monthly users watch more than 2 billion videos per day. These networks aren't niche flashes in the pan. They're important sites where a large percentage of global Internet users spend hours of their time every single day. Retailers can't afford to ignore them or assume they're also-rans in social media."
Just as companies are swimming in excess data, customers are drowning in an onslaught of content. Consumers, subsequently, gravitate toward more visual networks, focusing on easy-to-consume images and videos for their content needs. However, consumers are much more adaptable than the average retailer, for their usage doesn't require enterprisewide buy-in and strategic forethought.
Nate Elliott, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research, notes that, for retailers whose strategies aren't working and for whom reach remains painfully low, new channels are critical, especially if consumers have stopped interacting with the brand. Embracing one or more of these networks, however, will require retailers to study audience data and establish social media listening strategies to determine where customers are spending time and where they're willing to interact. Otherwise, retailers risk investment in questionable channels that may not resonate with their target audience.
"The important thing to remember is that it's better to master a few social media channels rather than spreading yourself too thin across all channels," Darryl Villacorta, social media manager at Sprout Social, adds. "You don't want to find yourself in a situation where you've spent all this time and energy on a network where you're only talking to yourself." By monitoring conversations and posts, retailers can ascertain which channels generate the greatest buzz so they may streamline their focus and target networks with an established audience.
Dr. Natalie Petouhoff, vice president and principal analyst at Constellation Research, explains that it's important to find brand advocates on each channel, as well. Once retailers know who these individuals are, they can begin to engage them in conversations that involve their given product, while also introducing topics that expand upon the consumer relationship. Yet, while authentic, genuine conversations are ideal, retailers shouldn't be surprised that much of their audience doesn't vocally engage at all.
"There's the 1-9-90 rule, which says that about one percent of people in the world post, 9 percent respond to those that post, and the majority-about 90 percent-reads or lurks," Petouhoff says. "If you think about getting brand advocates talking about your brand, while you may only see partial segments of your key audience actually engaging online, there's more going on than meets the eye. That's because the silent majority doesn't engage in the conversation, but does read what's posted. What advocates say about the customer experience affects what others think about it. There's no other faster way to influence customer experience than to have it be great and have brand advocates talk about it."
Ultimately, retailers will have to come to terms with the fact that not all social interactions translate into direct sales. Leaders will be tempted to dive into any and all available platforms, and those same leaders will become discouraged when ROI doesn't demonstrate explicit results. Instead, retailers will need to understand that brand recognition and reputation derive from relationships built, and such relationships often grow over social media. If they wish to bring these relationships to the next level, retailers will need to get to know consumers and cater to their preferences as time progresses in order to drive eventual sales and advocacy.
Visualizing the Evolution of Social Strategy
Despite the fact that most brands are only in the early stages of adoption, growing popularity has triggered much testing among leading companies within the space. Here's a snapshot illustrating how retailers have altered their social strategies to embrace these untapped networks in ways that resonate and engage:
- Nike (Instagram)-Though Nike's basic Instagram account taps into the brand's iconic 'Just Do It' spirit, each subsequent offshoot highlights specific collections, allowing followers to browse through clothing and gear with the option to purchase online. Notably, Nike Women connects with an online InstaShop, which recreates the Instagram experience so consumers can readily locate their favorite styles and buy items directly on-site.
- Nordstrom (Pinterest)-Nordstrom actively fuses its online presence and brick-and-mortar locations by using Pinterest activity to influence its in-store displays. Commonly seen among women's handbags and accessories, Nordstrom now indicates which items have the most 'pins' on the social site by placing the Pinterest logo next to the given products on the shelf. Such behaviors allow shoppers to see which trends are currently surging online, thereby sparking the urge to buy the products, too.
- Whole Foods (Tumblr)-Much like Instagram and Pinterest, Tumblr largely depends on visual stimuli to generate engagement. But, in Whole Foods' case, sales and promotions are only one piece of the puzzle. While the company advertises popular products and upcoming offers, Whole Foods reaches beyond the products themselves by sharing recipes from other bloggers, which promotes healthy eating habits and proactively engages those interested in food.
- Sephora (YouTube)-While Sephora already engages consumers via Instagram and Pinterest, the beauty brand also offers an array of YouTube tutorials that reach beyond the products themselves by teaching viewers how to put these items to good use. From instructions on how to achieve the 'no makeup' look, to guides on how to properly contour your given face shape, Sephora explains how to use their products to drive sales and strengthen consumer trust.
- Free People (Snapchat)-Because of Snapchat's impermanent nature, retailers have the opportunity to instill an air of exclusivity with these interactions. Free People, for instance, used the network to provide users with a special behind-the-scenes sneak peek at an upcoming line of intimate apparel. Since images automatically disappear, these posts revealed new products, sparking interest in the future of the brand and causing users to check back regularly for new announcements.
- Lowe's (Vine)-Brands may not believe Vine's six-second video format provides enough time to generate valuable engagement, but Lowe's strategy blends innovation and creativity to bring users advice on DIY projects and fixes around the house. Labeled #LowesFixInSix, each video demonstrates how to carry out various tasks around the house, such as learning how to deter deer from your garden this fall-advice that may inspire viewers to visit the store to complete the project.
"What sets these brands apart is that they aren't afraid to experiment," adds Union Metrics' Davis. "They join new networks fairly early, and they try new things. They're prepared to make some mistakes as they learn what works and what does not, but they know these mistakes won't damage the long-term brand reputation as long as they are transparent and creative with their attempts."
Moving forward, however, retailers will face increased challenges. Apple's iOS 9, for instance, will force brands to look outside digital advertisements to generate online engagement due to its enhanced ad blocker technology. Guy Yehaiv, CEO of Profitect, explains that retailers must be more cognizant of the engagements and channels they're using to reach consumers. This means placing greater emphasis on the themes and campaigns retailers want to implement. Aligning with alternative social networks will inevitably allow retailers to get their message out and reach shoppers in the most relevant fashion so they may focus on bringing added value to the table-a true differentiator in today's cluttered, confusing market.