There are a few online sites that are seriously important to retailers. So what are they and why do they affect your business?

If people had told me in 2006 that they would be phoning me as a blogger rather than a fashion editor I would have hooted with laughter,” says Sasha Wilkins - aka famed blogger Liberty London Girl. Fast forward five years and she is wined and dined by PRs around the globe, bombarded with product in the hope of a plug, bags a front-row seat at fashion shows, and even gets given the odd Roland Mouret dress to boot.

The growth of online communities has been meteoric. Liberty London Girl gets more online traffic than Harper’s Bazaar. Mumsnet has more than 1 million unique visitors per month. MoneySavingExpert.com received 8.8 million visitors in December alone. Fashion blogger Style Bubble has 95,000 followers on Twitter - comfortably surpassing Vogue’s 88,000 followers, and making BBC News’ 75,000 look relatively paltry.

Today, Retail Week examines some of the sites that have the most sway over how people shop. Not all will be relevant to every retail business, but retailers need to keep those that are firmly on their radar.

Some of them may only be one-man-bands, but the most influential of these blogs and forums have morphed into brands in their own right and engaging with them has rightly become a preoccupation for many retailers’ online teams. Those that aren’t should be, because these sites influence consumer opinion, determine where people shop, and help people decide what to buy.

Such was the strength of online traffic to her blog, Liberty London Girl went into affiliate marketing partnerships with retailers in 2009. “My readers are very influenced by what I say, and my level of reader engagement is extraordinary,” says Wilkins. The conversion rate for online readers who click through from her links to retailers’ websites is often as high as 20%, the average being 5% to 10%.

But retailers do not always have a burning desire to embrace some of these sites with open arms because they will tell it how it is. MoneySavingExpert.com can drive traffic but can also be a thorn in the side of retailers. MoneySavingExpert founder Martin Lewis’ section on haggling is a case in point: “When you walk into a shop or phone a call centre, until the money has changed hands, no contract’s been struck,” he writes.

Meanwhile, a quick browse on Mumsnet instantly unearths reams of negative forum discussions and product reviews. One discussion thread kicks off with: “I just thought I would let you know how appalling the Mothercare phone/internet service has been.” Mumsnet co-founder Carrie Longton acknowledges the difficulties retailers face: “Traditional PR has always been about positive spin. The minute you let the masses loose, that’s scary. But you have to embrace it and make it work to your advantage.”

What visitors to Mumsnet and other forums don’t like is the retailer barging in on any negative thread in which they have been mentioned and slapping down the customer services number. “It’s like interrupting someone’s conversation, and customer services tend to just trot out a line. We recommend retailers come to us and give a statement,” says Longton.

Retailers need to take any disapproval from any forum or blog on the chin and not be defensive. As Longton says: “It’s important how retailers react. Our mantra is: ‘Don’t be afraid of criticism’. It’s about saying: ‘That’s really interesting, we’ll take that on board’. And if your product is crap, they will tell you it’s crap, and you need to change it.”

Here to help

It’s not about simply being reactive, either. They may provide the odd challenge, but such sites are more often than not enormously beneficial, too, so retailers need to develop a relationship with them. Furthermore, visitors to all of these sites have an enthused, proactive and opinionated fan base, so see if you can use it. Mumsnet works with many retailers to provide focus groups or give opinion on whether its product or strategy is well-targeted. “We know how to reach our audience. There are so many creative things you could do, so come to us first,” says Longton.

With the fashion blogs, retailers want them to love their brand, love their product and, of course, mention it in one of the much-anticipated posts. The question is, how can you leverage a blogger’s audience to your advantage? One of the most important factors retailers must recognise is that the most successful and most-followed blogs are businesses in their own right and they are not to be underestimated. Wilkins says: “There is an expectation that bloggers are free commercial vehicles.”

Treat them with respect. Equally, beware the unprofessional ones: “There are some who say they don’t write about product unless they are paid for it. If a blogger asks for anything in return for a post, press delete,” she warns.

Ultimately, retailers need to approach bloggers as they would with any other business relationship and they need to pick the ones that they want to engage carefully. As Wilkins points out: “Some blogs can increase people’s desire for a product, but not necessarily increase your desire to pay for it.”

As shoppers’ engagement with the online world continues to gather pace, their power is only going to go one way.

Mumsnet

Who? Officially set up 10 years ago by the then-new-mum duo Carrie Longton and Justine Roberts. The pair was named last November among the ones to watch in Retail Week’s etail power list. But really, the Mumsnet brand is all about its famously vocal ‘Mumsnetters’ who use the site.

What? Described as offering “Product reviews, parenting tips and advice for parents”, an integral part of the site is its online forum because people power is everything to Mumsnet.

Followers The site has 1.2 million unique visitors per month, with about 27 million page impressions. It has about 9,000 followers on Twitter.

Level of influence Gordon Brown hailed the site as “one of the great British institutions” at its 10th anniversary party last March. As he pointed out at the time: “You have more members than all the political parties put together, you have already more readers than most newspapers and you certainly ask more difficult questions than Question Time.” Enough said, really.

Why it matters to retailers Annoy a Mumsnetter at your peril. She will waste no time telling the world about it, and you can then expect a barrage of people adding similar stories. Equally, do something right and she might just like to chat about that, too. Also key to the site is the product reviews section. According to Mumsnet, 79% of Mumsnetters consult it before buying a product. Everything from buggies to books to baby wipes to breadmakers is given the Mumsnetter treatment and they do not mince their words. A review can send sales skyrocketing or plummeting.

MoneySavingExpert.com

Who? Former city spin doctor Martin Lewis set up his personal finance website in 2003 for £100, and has since been described as a “modern day Robin Hood”.

What? MoneySavingExpert.com - a “free site that saves you money” - tells readers how to “Beat the system on credit cards, shopping, special offers…”.

Followers More than 37,000 followers on Twitter and more than 5.5 million people receive his weekly email. In December alone, the site had 8.8 million visitors alone and 78.6 page impressions.

Level of influence Hitwise has ranked it as the number one UK business information and finance site since 2009, and Lewis blogs about his invites to Downing Street to advise on the consumer finance agenda.

Why it matters to retailers It has an entire section devoted to saving money while shopping and outlining consumer rights. “Don’t pay for shop electrical warranties, get ‘em free”, shouts one headline. In another sub-section entitled “shopping tricks”, it unearths retailers’ tactics - such as hidden signs that certain products are about to go on Sale. Store cards - or “the devil’s debt” - are one of his major gripes. But MoneySavingExpert also helps retailers by publicising some of the best discounts on the high street, publicising Sales, and if you are among the handful of retailers that offer financial services, if your offer is competitive then this site can generate significant consumer interest.

Liberty London Girl

Who? English-born former fashion editor Sasha Wilkins publishes her blog while living between New York, London and LA.

What? More of a lifestyle blog than Style Bubble’s pure fashion pages. As well as extensive musings on fashion, Liberty London Girl invites readers to join her as she cooks, holidays and generally enjoys life.

Followers It is approaching 200,000 page views and 100,000 unique visitors per month, and Liberty London Girl has 21,000 followers on Twitter.

Level of influence Liberty London Girl is among Vogue.com’s “pick of the world’s most exciting fashion blogs” and was named by the Sunday Times as one of the best 100 blogs in the world. It was also one of the five global finalists for the Best Fashion Blog at the 2010 Weblog Awards.

Why it matters to retailers Recent retail mentions include a Whistles coat with accompanying discount code, a pair of LK Bennett boots and memories of a trip to London’s Nike Town when she “ran out in horror”. She also includes links directly to retailers’ sites, such as this month’s mention of a cashmere beret: “My mother bought this one at Bicester Village outlet centre in the UK and I can’t find it online. N Peal has other lovely cashmere hats here [link], The Outnet has some lovely N Peal cashmere here [link]… Asos has lots of hats to choose from here [link.]”, and so on. Also significant is “LLG recommends”, in which she cites her favourite products of the moment.

Style Bubble

Who? Susie Bubble - aka Susie Lau - is a 26-year-old Londoner with a history degree, who describes herself as “merely a fashion lover/consumer”.

What? Style Bubble is all about observations, insights, reports and well-shot, quirky photos, and it’s earned her a cult-like status in the fashion world.

Followers The site reportedly receives about 30,000 hits a day, and she has an astounding 95,000-odd followers on Twitter.

Level of influence Susie Bubble was among a handful of eminent young creatives - including actors, choreographers and comedians - to appear in Gap’s US TV holiday campaign last year.

Why it matters to retailers Aside from being a source of inspiration to in-house designers, her site is littered with mentions of product she likes - be that of the high-end designer ilk or those on the high street. She also chats excitedly about retailers’ press previews for new collections and raves about individual stores. In October last year, she blogged about her invite to style Cos’ windows on Regent Street, Covent Garden and Westfield: “I have indeed expressed my love for Cos on numerous occasions and somewhere in Cos’ lofty head office, someone picked up on this!” The blog also features a “Style Bubble Shops” section, directing followers to a Google Map of her favourite London shopping destinations. Her love of individual designers has also caught retailers’ attention - Topshop collaborated with Angie Johnson of I Heart Norwegian Wood after Style Bubble lauded her talents.