Social networks are a confusing phenomenon for many businesses, and retailers are no exception. The industry tends not to feature high up on lists like the recent Social Brands 100 by the UK consultancy Headstream – only three retailers made it into the top 20 of this one.

Headstream is quick to point out this is not a definitive list of the only good brands on the web, but it does give some indication of where retailers stand. There are only three in the top 20, including Zappos and Asos, and one in the top five, which is Best Buy UK.

You might expect to see more retail brands nearer the top, with many of them being so well known and so strong as brands in other environments. There are plenty of challenges for retailers when it comes to doing well on social networks – their size, the difficulty of making sure the company’s voice stays consistent, the lack of control over content – but other big companies like Dell and Nike have worked to overcome these. Headstream’s head of consulting Chris Buckley says it comes down to a lack of commitment at a senior level in retail.

This is a shame, he says, because there’s a big opportunity for retail brands to make an impact using social media – both on websites owned by retailers and on networks like Facebook and Twitter. It has implications for marketing, customer service, sales and brand awareness, including in international markets. Even the big innovators like Tesco have admitted that they’re not sure of their role on social networks yet – although perhaps this is about to change, with the grocery giant recently setting up a Facebook page.

It might take retailers a while longer to cotton on, and perhaps their place on social networks will be different to the one most businesses occupy. The business case will certainly get stronger as more early adopters prove the benefits.

Buckley says businesses need to be useful and help solve people’s problems, entertain and inform them, and reward and incentivise them.  Most of all, though people want personal value – they want to associate with brands that reflect something about themselves. The key is to be community focused, and publish content that users want rather than what the business wants. It’s this relinquishing of control which is difficult for many, but once retailers get the hang of it it’s likely to be worth it.