The increasing use of social media has opened up a world of possibilities for retailers to connect with consumers, but there are rules of engagement

What online channels are consumers using to engage with retailers?

The power of social media and the importance of getting it right was made clear last week when Paperchase admitted its errors after an online outcry on Twitter over alleged plagiarised designs.

Consumers are using social media platforms, like Twitter and Facebook, and tools on websites, like ratings, reviews and forums, to talk about their shopping experiences. They are engaging online and this provides retailers an opportunity to join this conversation.

How can retailers engage with their customers in order to manage their online reputation?

“Less than 9% of people on social networks want to be friends with the brand,” explains Katy Howell, managing director of PR agency Immediate Future. “Most brands have only 3 to 500 followers. So building a network is important to connect to your customer base.”

A brand should find out who are the most connected to their customers and speak through them. “These people can’t be part of your brand, otherwise communication will lack credibility. Through them you can connect with their network and create a virtual community of advocates,” adds Howell.

How can retailers manage negative criticism and avoid any pitfalls of customers engaging with them online?

Social media should not be used as an advertising tool as it will hit brand credibility. It needs to be managed by people who understand social media.

By building a relationship with a network of customers, people will tend to jump to defend the retailer when negative comments come up. Deal with any negative feedback promptly and remember that it can be used as a business tool. Carphone Warehouse, for example, uses Twitter to deal with customer service queries.

How will consumers engage with retail online in the future?

People like to share their ideas and consult others about their purchase decisions. Retailers should give people the tools to encourage collaborative shopping. Next are testing a new “dress up” application on its website allowing users to put together an outfit, share it with friends via email or social networking sites and then purchase it.

Retailers have to make sure the information and insight they provide is useful. “You will be able to see your success when a customer no longer goes to search, but goes directly to your retail site for what they need,” says Howell.