Navigating the social media wilderness is no easy task, but armed with the right knowledge and direction, online retailers stand to make big gains in this area.
As highlighted by Forrester’s ‘It’s Time To Make Facebook Marketing Work’ report, less than 20 percent of Australian online retailers saw Facebook as a source of new customers, with other platforms rating even worse. Demonstrating that despite its phenomenal growth and entrenchment into modern society, many businesses are yet to find effective ways to leverage social media as a method of attracting new customers.
The Evolution of Social Media
In government and the wider media, social networks are increasingly being used as information dissemination resources, providing real-time news and insight into current affairs.
In 2010, the Haiti earthquake caused the proliferation of a strain of cholera to spread via the Dominican Republic to the US, Venzuela, Mexico, Spain and Canada. At the time, researchers investigated the use of social media to track the spread of the epidemic. Using an application dubbed HealthMap, their findings demonstrated that accurate information about the spread of the disease could be garnered much faster than traditional methods.
We have even seen how social media can be used by the general public to expose social wrongdoers, affecting the way nations are policed. In a recent example, a Kenyan man leveraged social media networks to stir local police into action.
For retailers, social media has diversified the way brands communicate with their customers. Where once the customer service dialogue was directed and linear, 2011 saw it become much more. Brands can now engage in real-time with their customer base on many levels.
The focus has been to see how social media can be made to draw in new customers, or market directly to them, however this is not always effective. More retailers are beginning to use these channels in the same way that the media does – as a source of information. However, brands such as Appliances Online have proven that Facebook and Twitter might be good for marketing promotions, but they’re even better for harvesting free, quick and accurate feedback.
On the other hand, we’ve also witnessed a year of social media foibles, with some brands demonstrating how social media has finally shown that not all publicity is good publicity.
A marketing blunder by Qantas saw a huge Internet backlash, unleashing a torrent of abuse throughout the ‘twitterverse’, while a poorly handled customer complaint against Gasp Jeans made headlines and triggered anti-Gasp Facebook pages to be created.
Even clothing giant Bonds got ensnared in a social media gaff when their website – featuring a competition – crashed due to a huge user response. In this case, the business’ mistake was to underestimate the response social media can generate.
There can be no doubt that social networks offer a multitude of opportunities for almost every sector. Unfortunately, there remains a pervasive sense of confusion among retailers worldwide, not just in Australia, regarding how to get social media working for (not against) them.
Social Media Horizon: Google+ and Others to Follow
Although there are already many players within the social media landscape, the rate of growth and popularity of this channel does not seem to be slowing.
Remember Google+? If you’ve managed to ignore it thus far, it may be time for another look.
Google+ Brand pages were added in recent months, however many companies have already adopted the platform, with both large and small businesses demonstrating its potential to reach customers.
Unlike Facebook and Twitter, which have a broadcast-heavy format, Google+ activity is generated by quality, not quantity.
“A lot of people already talk about getting a lot of referral traffic from Google+ than other potential properties out there,” Google+ Group Product Manager Christian Oestlien told Mashable, “Primarily because I think they’re able to hit the right audience and do it in a really relevant way.”
However, it’s not just the Google platform that will gain ground over the next 12 months.
Predictions have tipped specialty video and photo social networks are just beginning to take off, many of these serving to act as plug-ins, or associate applications for the larger social platforms.
Instagram has quickly become the leading photo-sharing network, originally developing an app for iPhones that could share images directly to Facebook. Many retailers are already using Instagram to showcase products and brands, however potential uses are limited only to what you can take a picture of.
Other video-sharing networks, Viddy and Tout are more focused on allowing users to upload short, video ‘statuses’ of where they are and what they are doing. Using video to promote your brand is recognised as a personalised way to connect with your customer. Promotions and competitions that encourage users to upload video related to your brand can also be a highly effective marketing technique.
The Golden Rule: What’s Good for the Goose
With the thriving number of social media channels and potential methods of leveraging them, it isn’t necessarily any easier for brands to choose the correct way forward. The most salient advice for any company is ultimately to keep your customer in mind when making any decisions. Select platforms based on what your customers will be using. Develop content and communications that are directed for them and not at them.
Mark Guinibert, Customer and Channel Partner at KPMG (speaking to Consultant-News.com), recently outlined the three key changes that he believes ‘social media laggards’ must adopt if they aim to boost their performance online in 2012.
- Be prepared for the boundaries of content creation and consumption to fade.
The use of game mechanics will be used more frequently by companies to attract consumers’ attention and generate discussion.“We will begin to see industries applying intrinsic motivators in the form of games to encourage much greater brand management,” Guinibert said, pointing to the fast growing mobile social network Instagram as a leader in this area.
- Wide-scale debate must replace the traditional command and control methodology.
“The rules have changed and conversations can no longer be controlled. Firms will come to acknowledge that, only by being authentic, can they expect to appeal to customers tired of corporate spin.”
- Accept transparency as the status quo.
In the wake of the financial crisis, companies will recognise that allowing greater scrutiny through social media actually makes business sense.
“When it’s clear that they have nothing to hide, they are much less likely to be on the receiving end of public criticism and are perceived as trustworthy,” Guinibert advised.
If nothing else, it is clear that social media channels represent a significant game-changer for all businesses. It also goes without saying that social media is here for the long haul. So while there may be some lingering confusion for some retailers surrounding how best to utilise these channels, 2012 will surely be a time for all businesses to re-evaluate their plans in this area.
With customer engagement and satisfaction as a primary objective, a little bit of added research regarding what’s on offer and a discerning eye for what will work best for the brand, could represent a fantastic opportunity for growth and opportunity for all retailers in 2012.