Comment & Blogs
Date:30 April 2012
Thinking Outside the Channel
If someone was to ask you what the term ‘social media’
means, you would probably assume they have been spent most of the last decade in
an extremely remote environment indeed. Facebook launched in 2004 and at last
count, had got up to 845 million users. Twitter played an important role for
communications during the Arab Spring. YouTube has grown to become the second
most popular search engine in the world, behind only Google itself.
Yet the question does have some relevance when considered in
the context of business use. Being able to communicate with a wide range of
friends and family easily and for free has clear benefits from an individual’s
viewpoint, but the benefit to a brand is less simple to measure. So what does
social media mean to a retailer?
The ability to reach millions of potential customers at the
click of a button and at absolutely minimal cost seemed, from a marketer’s
perspective, too good to be true. We saw a proliferation of Facebook Stores
opening up only to be shut down again after poor sales. It appeared that
although consumers were happy to engage with brands through social media, they
were not doing so with an immediate purchase in mind.
The very nature of the retail industry means that retailers
need to see return on their investments; they often have shareholders to answer
to after all. Hence retailers have come to view social media as an interesting
one to watch rather than a proven transactional channel. What this means is
that retailers need to find new ways to measure success, because the
opportunity is vast.
This initially requires a reassessment and realignment of
expectation. To use an example, Victoria’s Secrets Facebook page had on last
check over 18 million followers. This is a huge segment of potential customers to
market products to, but actually many of these followers are young and male and
therefore not likely to be among the retailer’s target customer demographic.
Large blanket broadcasts are one thing, targeting the right audience with those
communications is something else.
People use social media because we are social by our very
nature and the internet is moving towards a more interactive model that
supports that aspect of human culture far better. Shopping is a social
experience as we often need assistance or confirmation from friends during the
purchase process to ensure we select the product appropriate to our
requirements. Retailers understand that and the platforms they work with are
becoming more sophisticated in their capacity to support social engagement.
The term engagement has become something of a cliché when
discussing social, but thus far how engaging a social campaign is has been the
only true measure of success. And yet it is a difficult one to quantify; if a
campaign wins thousands of new followers or leads to a flurry of retweets
around the internet, then it is undeniable that this has been a successful
endeavour in some way. Still though, the question of what that success actually
means to a retailer in real terms remains.
Once again I think the expectation of generating measurable
results that can be understood in a traditional business sense is inaccurate. The
concept of being social and engaging with those around us is as old as the
human race, but social in a digital context is still in its infancy. How our
understanding of social behaviour online and how businesses can best operate
within that space develops will be fascinating to see, but one thing would
appear certain; the concept of social on the internet is not only here to stay,
but will quite likely continue to dominate how people approach using it.
There is no ready-made solution that retailers can take out
of a box, read the manual, and then declare that they completely understand social
online. The simple reason for this lack of clarity is that this is still a
fairly young concept that started out as a network for locating old school
friends, then via music act promotion on MySpace ended up as status and
content-sharing networks on Facebook and Twitter. The inception of social in a
digital context was about finding people and communicating with them in new
ways. Businesses are not a natural fit into this environment, so are having to
find their way with tentative steps.
It would appear that the first attempt to turn social into
another channel for retailers to sell through has not been a success, which is
not to say it never will be. At the moment social remains a very interesting
mass broadcast medium for businesses, but what that means to them in real terms
is yet to be defined.
As social develops online the measures of success will
become more apparent, but in the interim period it may be a positive idea for
retailers to think outside the channel, not to interpret social engagement as
happening within separate networks but seeing social as being one of the key
concepts underpinning the operation of the internet. In essence this would be
to stop thinking of social and instead to begin thinking social.
Chief Operations & Policy Officer, IMRG