Manners mistress Emily Post wouldn’t recognize today’s social skills.
Communication styles have changed, with the once-mandatory handwritten thank-you note supplanted by a tweet or a family email blast. These days, good table manners are far less important than proper posting protocol.
Revolutionized social expectations have blanketed the retail industry just as pervasively. Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, apps and blogs are as much a part of the retail fabric as fitting rooms and shopping bags. In fact, naysayers who predicted e-commerce would spell disaster for brick-and-mortar stores have largely been quieted. Mounting evidence shows those retailers that bridge the gap between online and offline today are the brands most likely to emerge as tomorrow’s forces to be reckoned with.
Blending e-commerce, m-commerce, f-commerce, whatever-commerce with the physical space isn’t easy. But everyone has to start somewhere. To enumerate the various jumping-off points toward social transformation, Chain Store Age conspired with digital guru Stephanie Shriver-Engdahl, VP digital strategy for Cleveland-based mall owner Forest City Enterprises (@SSEatforestcity), to create the most basic of must-do lists for retailers that need to ramp up their online presence by the most time- and cost-effective means available. It might just be easier than you think.
1. Leverage what your mall/shopping center owner is doing.
Not every landlord is as social-forward as Forest City, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t piggyback opportunities there for the taking. Most shopping center owners have created a Facebook page for their individual properties, and many utilize Twitter to push out additional content. Even if you already have your own Facebook page and Twitter account, take advantage of what your landlord is doing to maximize exposure of your content.
“Each of our mall’s Facebook pages are two-way communications with shoppers, they promote events and discounts, and feature all kinds of fun and interesting content designed to engage the people who frequent each property,” said Shriver-Engdahl. “Our tenants can leverage that.” Get to know your malls’ Facebook pages and look for ways to participate.
2. Cover the basics and build your programs from there.
The most basic social platform is Facebook, and if you don’t already have a page set up for your brand, you need to get with the program, and fast. Tweeting is the next step. “A year ago, we almost jettisoned Twitter,” said Shriver-Engdahl. “Because it wasn’t getting the same traction as Facebook, we thought tweeting was a waste of time.” Today, Forest City has a robust Twitter presence, but it took some trial and error. “We learned that while Facebook users often look backwards to scroll content that was posted previously, Twitter followers rarely do and only look at the here and now.” The Forest City team learned to tweet with frequency and to pay attention to dayparts, just like a well-planned radio buy.
The point is to grow your users as each channel matures and as you gain understanding; add more inspiring content, get better at customer engagement. Try things, watch what happens and repeat what works.
3. Establish a local voice.
“Our marketing directors are our voice for social media because we believe this is the most authentic voice of all,” said Shriver-Engdahl. The same is true for retailers. In order to engage a local community, it’s critical to include some localized content. Make sure that your Facebook page, your tweets and any other social programs you utilize reflect what is going on in your stores’ immediate trade areas. Don’t rely solely on national programs to build your online brand.
“Retail chains tend to be very protective of their brands, as they should be, but when the voice is centralized from the corporate headquarters, you miss the authenticity that local flavor brings,” said Shriver-Engdahl.
4. Become a social listener.
Too many retailers treat social media as if it’s a one-way conversation, which couldn’t be farther from the truth. Take a break from your constant posting to listen to what your customers are saying on Facebook or Twitter. Create a listening strategy that includes monitoring other relevant social platforms, including blogs and reviews. Establish a response strategy; don’t ignore what others are saying about your brand.
5. Model what others are doing.
Imitation is not only the highest form of flattery; it’s how social media advances. Don’t hesitate to “like” other retailers’ and malls’ Facebook pages and monitor the content. Follow your competitors on Twitter, and adapt the content you like to your own unique brand. Find ways to take what is currently being done in the social space and then spin it to fit your brand’s voice.
6. Communicate with your partners.
“The biggest missing link is the connection between landlord and merchant,” said Shriver-Engdahl. “Together, we’re stronger and better, but too often we’re not communicating.” Don’t forget that the consumer sees the mall and its retailers as a unit; it would behoove everyone to act accordingly. “We’re scraping content from the Web being posted by our retailers so that we can then, in turn, post it on our mall Facebook pages or tweet it out. We could be better partners if there was better communication between us.
“I honestly believe there is a technological answer to this, but I don’t know what it is just yet,” Shriver-Engdahl added. The communication between brands and landlords is extremely important for the future of retail. “I challenge each reader to reach out to me and start the conversation. I want to hear your ideas on how we find a solution. I’m certain as an industry we can come up with answer.” (See sidebar.)
7. Stay ahead of the curve.
“Techniques and strategies change, and we have to keep on top of what is evolving,” said Shriver-Engdahl. Forest City has secured Pinterest names for its shopping centers, even though it’s not actively using Pinterest portfolio-wide. “There’s a new thing every week or every day or every hour, and we need to take care of the meat and potatoes before we put the parsley on the plate.” Pinterest and Instagram currently fall under “parsley” at Forest City, but probably not for long.
8. Become more than “likeable.”
“It’s time to raise the ante on social strategies,” said Shriver-Engdahl. Forest City will be experimenting with social discounts based on a customer’s social clout and sharing. It will roll out social shopping. It will add more video to its social media channels. It will layer in an abundance of local flavor, with local blogger content from stylists, decorators, perhaps daddy bloggers. “We all have to raise the bar, to make sure that we’re giving the most informative, interesting, valuable and engaging content available anywhere. Consumers have too many choices for any of us to become complacent or to believe we have exhausted all of the different ways we can use social media to enhance the shopping experience.”