Social networking is a minefield, so what should retailers do to get it right?

From failing to listen to customer criticism to only talking about product launches, retailers haven’t always got social networking right first time. Signing up for a Facebook account isn’t enough - a retailer’s whole social media strategy needs to be carefully thought through and there are myriad traps to avoid. But done well, it can have a positive impact on everything from web traffic to customer service, and there are plenty of innovative examples to learn from. While the best are gaining a competitive edge, the worst are missing out - and they’ll only lose out more as the number of users keeps growing.


Focus on content

Some of the biggest online retailers make extensive use of editorial content. Net-a-Porter, MyWardrobe and Asos are spearheading the way content is being used to draw people in, in the same way that bricks-and-mortar retailers often rely on in-store magazines to engage and inform customers. Social networks provide an easy, free way of distributing this content but retailers must not overlook what is actually being said via those social networks. “Social media provides a great way to keep in touch with your customers, but you have to keep the customers interested. That doesn’t mean shoving your product down their throats, that means offering something different and showing a different side of your brand,” says Laetitia Wajnapel, an editorial and social media consultant who runs the blog and who has worked with French Connection and TK Maxx.

Ensure board-level support

Social networking is a public-facing endeavour and so high-level backing within a business. Jevern Partridge, an ecommerce consultant who has worked with Boots and Arcadia, recommends making sure there is someone on the board with responsibility for it, and making it an integral part of the overall business strategy instead of something that’s bolted on and seen as separate.

Choose your methods carefully

It’s a mistake to think one size fits all. Partridge says companies need to remember who their customer is and work with them in mind. For instance, Asos allows staff to set up Twitter accounts using the brand name, such as @Asos_James. This suits its young customer base and gives a personal twist to tweets. “But Jaeger, for example, wouldn’t do that because you wouldn’t expect their customers to use Twitter,” he says. Partridge points to online nursery retailer as another good example: “It has created a community on its site and it allows customers to review products, which is exactly what you want if you’re a new parent - you want to speak to others in the same boat and know you’re buying the right things.”

Consider introducing a social element to your own website

Creating a community of loyal customers who regularly return to your site has obvious benefits. It doesn’t have to be a full social network, but a decent blog that allows people to participate through comments can make them feel part of the brand. Fashion retailer Boden has launched a community section on its site and Waitrose has a Scrapbook section where consumers can save and upload recipes. “What is often neglected by companies is the social networking aspect within their own websites,” says Wajnapel. “A lot of companies don’t realise what a great blog could do to their image and to their online presence.”


Partridge says: “Too many businesses using social media think it’s all about broadcasting - they need to realise it’s also about listening.” There are free tools available that allow you to monitor networks to see what people are saying about your company or brand, meaning you can then reply and help if it’s negative. It’s also crucial to adapt to what you learn.

Do not

Do it unless you’re committed

Once you have the tone right, you need to keep going and post something every day. Social media takes time and commitment, and updating pages irregularly could undermine the work you’ve already put in. Wajnapel says: “If you don’t have the time to invest, don’t do it until you are ready. You need to spend a good amount of time building up a profile.”

Just push products

“I would say any company that tweets solely about new products is wasting money on social media and missing the point,” Wajnapel says. It’s best to post content that might start a conversation and steer clear of broadcasting marketing messages that bore customers. Dialogue is significantly more valuable, and it doesn’t mean you can’t mention products at all - you just have to be a bit creative about it. Topshop discusses music and asks for its followers’ opinions on new lines, as well as posting links to products. It has about 120,000 followers on Twitter.

Assume it will directly impact on sales

The value of social networks doesn’t really lie in their ability to sell. It’s more about building and extending a retailer’s brand into the online space, and providing a quick way to contact consumers. Wajnapel says: “Of course, by creating a closer relationship with customers and by making them check your website for new content twice a day you are increasing the chances of making a sale, but this isn’t the priority.”

Blindly spend money on consultants

The digital industry is still pretty young and there has been a resultant rise in social networking consultants. However, it can be difficult to know those who will genuinely get results and those who are just good at promoting themselves on Twitter.

Partridge advises being careful about who you employ and asking for evidence of past successes. It may be worth hiring a consultant at the beginning of any social media project, but the need for a permanent one is sometimes questionable. Wajnapel says: “I think a retailer who has never done social media before should hire a consultant to train their team, but in the long term it should really be an in-house function.”

How to be successful on Facebook

  • Facebook is the biggest social network with users from most age and income groups
  • The two main tools are your Facebook profile and Facebook ads
  • Be open and authentic - people relate to genuine messages
  • Be active and update often - post pictures and ask for feedback
  • Use adverts to drive traffic to your profile page
  • Listen and adapt - it’s not a broadcasting service
  • Target the right people by selecting the right keywords in adverts
  • Ask people to participate - ask them to click on your ads or the ‘like’ button
  • Keep ads and pages fresh by changing images and text, and see what works best

Retailers’ innovative use of Facebook

  • Levi’s ran a cross-media campaign in the summer of 2010 for its new collection that included encouraging people to become a fan of its Facebook page. It increased its fan base by 35% and now has nearly 2.7 million. Its website traffic doubled 15 minutes after a 40%-off offer was posted on the page
  • Last month Gap pledged to donate $1 to charity for every ‘like’ of its Gap Want campaign. The advert has had about 5,000 ‘likes’ so far, with more than 1.2 million people becoming a fan of the retailer’s profile since it joined Facebook
  • Asos has nearly 400,000 Facebook fans and posts ‘Daily Discoveries’ mined from its main site, as well as style competitions and flash Sale announcements. It encourages participation on Twitter by asking customers to tweet links to their best Sales bargains, and re-tweeting them on its own account
  • In April Phones 4U ran a Facebook ad campaign for the launch of the HTC Legend handset. The retailer went from 6,500 Facebook fans to nearly 24,000 in three months, and saw an increase of website traffic of 7%