The Social Channel – Keeping Pace With the Power of the Consumer

Facebook and Twitter have become two very effective sounding boards, giving consumers a platform to communicate with friends and followers in an instant, reading and sharing opinions of products, services, and brands. With 140 characters or less, consumers have the ability to influence the buying behavior of hundreds of their peers in short period of time in a casual, friendly, trusted environment.

The importance of these communication channels seems to be understood by many retailers from a marketing standpoint. Brick & mortar companies along with online-only retailers continue to adopt what has become a smarter and more powerful consumer market, full of product reviews, company research, price comparisons, and peer recommendations on a global scale.

Having the ability to communicate directly with customers on a daily basis gives retailers more insight into their own business, allowing them to provide better customer service and make necessary operational or product adjustments based on popular feedback. It also gives them the opportunity to share relevant product information and offers to loyal customers, who in turn may share the information immediately with their peers within the same channel.

The issue is no longer whether the channels are important; the issue is primarily around execution, how to communicate through the channels effectively, engaging the intended audience while maintaining the integrity of the brand.

Though many companies now have a Facebook business page, the successful brands are those that use the channel with the understanding that it is primarily a social communication tool for friends and associates, not the typical marketing channel. Successful retailers use it as a way to enhance the shopping and brand experience, fully aware that they are in the customers’ home turf.

In this environment, marketers must play by the rules of their customers, providing them with the information that their audience will “Like” or “Share while respecting their customers’ privacy and overall user-experience within the channel. Pushy “buy now” marketing messages will not play very well, whereas honest engagement through “sharing” and excitement about a product or offer may be welcome.

Communication through this channel also requires a degree of caution. Anything the retailer does can be shared instantaneously within this Social Channel to an incredibly broad audience, permanently affecting their brand and reputation, for good or bad. A simple “tweet” mentioning the brand can noticeably (and measurably) affect the awareness and perception of the brand.

While many retailers are still behind the ball when it comes to effectively executing in these social channels, others have responded quickly to consumer demands and are putting resources behind what has become the new face of online marketing.

One such retailer is Tea Collection, an online children’s clothing store based in San Francisco, CA. E.B. Boyd recently highlighted their efforts in a Fast Company article, specifically around the success Tea had with a Facebook promotion last summer; Tea gave their Facebook fans the opportunity to vote for their favorite piece, promising to provide a significant discount to the piece that received the most votes.

Not only did Tea Collection fans have fun with the promotion and vote down the price of a $59 girl’s dress to $10, Tea had one of their biggest sales days ever, selling out of the dress as well as several other items.

The success of this promotion was largely due to Tea’s ability to engage their audience with a fun and valuable offer, then following it up with great customer service and quality products.

This well-balanced mix of engagement, service, and quality has been a decisive factor for marketing campaigns from the start. These three principles of marketing continue to be critical to the success of any retailer, especially those looking to capitalize on the current popularity of the Social Channel. Without these basic principles, retailers may jeopardize relationships with even their most loyal customers, ultimately losing any influence they may have had.

Early this year, CNBC’s Consumer Nation published an article posing the not-so-rhetorical question, “Consumers, Do You Know How Powerful You Are?” In her article, Barbara Thau points out that shoppers are “…becoming the critical influencers over what their peers buy…” due to social tools such as Facebook and Twitter. With retailers losing some of their influence due to smarter consumer choices, many retailers are “…grappling to keep pace with an increasingly digitally connected consumer.”

Retailers must also have a sense of how massive this channel has become. According to the most recent Social Bakers numbers, Facebook alone has grown worldwide by over 80 million users worldwide since the beginning of 2011. That is an average of approximately 700 thousand new accounts per day! This number includes the rising number of retailers that continue to do their best to keep up with this ever-changing online marketing channel.

Since success and return on investment are more difficult to measure in some cases and may not be apparent as quickly as they were with Tea Collection, many retailers are hesitant to put additional resources into any online campaign that cannot be tracked from a bottom-line standpoint. However, as the Social Channel continues to develop, new tools and resources are becoming more prevalent and effective, allowing for greater, more holistic insight into all online marketing campaigns, including the Social Channel campaigns.

Regardless of success measurements and ROI, the fact of the matter is that the Social Channel is full of consumers capable of reaching and potentially influencing hundreds if not thousands of their peers, literally, with a click of a button. If retailers are to be effective on any level within this environment, it will help them to have an appreciation for how powerful the channels and their primary users have become.