The concept of social commerce has been around for a while, but there seems little consensus on how businesses should best approach it. The challenge is not only to build a viable and active online community, but also to turn that online community into real and continuing customers – and without alienating them in the process.
It’s worth repeating: the statistics are amazing. Almost a billion Facebook users; 140 million active Twitter accounts, sending 340 million tweets a day; 62% of adult internet users using at least one social networking platform. And the figures are all the more amazing because social media didn’t exist 15 years ago.
The question confronting businesses appears to be how to leverage all these potential customers, and use this – still-new – opportunity to drive commercial value and build sales. Well, it’s probably the wrong question – or at least, it’s not the first question a business should ask about using social media.
Most people join a social networking site to keep in touch with friends and family or, in the case of LinkedIn, to build and maintain a network of like-minded business associates. OK, many might subsequently become fans on a particular company’s Facebook page, or follow them on Twitter, but the dynamic is still essentially social. Research and empirical evidence consistently show that most users of most social platforms simply don’t like being overtly sold to.
The clue is in the name
Mark Pickering of full-service digital agency 9xb reckons that social platforms should never be considered as purely sales channels: “Yes, social sites can lead to customer acquisition, but if that’s your sole aim, you could well be barking up the wrong tree. The clue is in the name. Social sites are just that – a place to be social. Use them to become more accessible to your customers, listen to what they have to say, engage in conversation with them, learn from them, and be open to their thoughts and needs. It’s this engagement that makes social sites such an important part of modern marketing – not direct sales.”
This is not to say that social media platforms have no place in building sales. Using social channels to engage with customers and potential customers can be immensely effective. Fashion retailer Diesel uses its Facebook page to communicate directly with registered fans in Diesel retail outlets. A recent campaign enabled fans to use their smartphone to scan the QR code alongside certain in-store products, and these ‘Liked’ products were displayed on the user’s Facebook Wall, and thus shared with their Facebook friends. Previously Diesel had in-store photo-booths in which shoppers could take pictures of themselves wearing Diesel clothes, which they then shared through Facebook.
Shepherd fans in the direction of a website
Martin Petts, managing director of social media specialists Social Stamp says that although social media is not really for selling. “There are ways of selling via social media that work well. Followers or fans want to feel that they are part of a club and that they are getting something exclusive.”
One of the best ways of doing this is to use a Facebook page or Twitter feed to shepherd fans and followers in the direction of a website or online store: special offers and promotions limited to fans and followers can have multiple roles, in both building and rewarding the fan-base, and in driving sales. Martin Petts quotes the example of Brand Alley, which gives its Facebook fans a preview of sale items and an opportunity to buy before the same items are on the Brand Alley web-store.
Whatever the core objective, Martin Petts says that the most important rule of social commerce is to “Use your common sense – treat your audience, followers or fans as intelligent people. Respond to their comments, even if they are negative.” 9xb’s Mark Pickering agrees: “Don’t be boring, overly commercial or ‘spammy’ – be current, unique and daring. Perhaps most importantly of all, however, be engaging – join conversations, answer questions and respond to feedback, both good and bad.”
Martin Petts has a neat analogy: “Act like you would as a host at a party: don’t insult any of your guests – entertain them and keep them coming back for more.” He continues, “Successfully using social media within your business takes a lot of hard work, creativity with some outstanding ideas.” He points to the American retailer Best Buy, which uses Twitter as a tool for customer service: “It’s genius: why not use well trained in-store staff to answer technical questions over Twitter during quiet periods? It improves customer service levels while using a resource that they already have.”
The fact is that many businesses spend a large and increasing proportion of their marketing budgets on social platforms, and it’s only natural that they should look for a return on this investment. Ultimately, that return has to be reflected in increased sales. Social commerce programmes need careful handling, and it’s important that the fans are made to feel special.
Mark Pickering of 9xb says: “If you are set on using social as an out-and-out sales channel, you’d better be offering something very ‘cool’. The product, service or campaign has got to match the demographics of the users of the social channels you are targeting and it’s got to be interesting enough for people to share. Get it wrong however, and the viral nature of social sites could well have quite the opposite effect on your campaign from the one you were hoping for!”
The message is clear: use social media to maintain and increase customer numbers and brand loyalty, but be very careful about aggressive selling. The key phrase to always apply to any social media activity is to ensure it remains social at all times with commercial messages coming second.