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Comment: The Social Method

Facebook has been no stranger to criticism over the past few years, occupying a central role in the wide-ranging debate on what personal privacy actually means in the digital age as concerns are raised over the way websites access, store and display user-specific information. By Andrew McClelland

OMNICHANNEL

Comment: The Social Method

The extraordinary growth and popularity of social networks make them a highly appealing prospect to retailers due to the sheer volume of consumers that can be reached through the channel: 845 million Facebook users; 100 million Twitter accounts; 90 million unique visitors on Google+. The distribution is obviously very skewed, but that’s a total potential audience of over a billion.

And yet there has been a lot of pressure on Facebook recently to prove it is a viable platform for retailers to generate revenue, following critical news stories and blog postings and a raft of closed Facebook Stores (Game, Gap, Banana Republic etc.) after the ROI was just not being realised.

Retailers in general are regarding Facebook Stores as an interesting ‘one to watch’ rather than anything like a priority. The focus for any retailer is to increase revenue; it is the nature of the business and providing resources for something unprofitable is never going to last very long. It is quite possible that the terminology has set unrealistic expectations however, and a focus on the language helps to emphasise this point.

There is perhaps a tendency to think of social as a ‘thing’, as in a dedicated channel or network. I would suggest that it is more appropriate to think of social not as a ‘thing’ as such but rather as an idea, an approach, a method.
The words ‘social’ and ‘engagement’ go together very naturally in a non-internet context; there is no reason why that should change in the online environment. For a retailer, the very idea of ‘social’ is to be just that, to append a human and engaging element to a digital business surface. Just think of the common online term ‘marketplace’; shopping is and always will be a social experience.

Furthermore, consider the term ‘browser’, as in the means through which the internet is accessed. This in itself connotes that the experience is not just about buying something straight off, but browsing through products as part of the enjoyment of the process before arriving at a purchase decision, exactly like when shopping in the high street.

It is already widely understood that the success to be found with social media is through engagement, which extends to mean to involve and include. Social, as the term suggests, is a conversation. The rewards of getting consumers talking about your brand and actually listening to what they are saying may not be directly measurable but the potential is very clear.

Social networks in themselves are a kind of ‘thing’, essentially performing the role of a portal for accessing content all over the internet, but social doesn’t stop there. Much public content offers a raft of opportunities for sharing, rating and engaging. These methods involve the user in the content rather than just offering blank one-way communications which fail to engage users and discourage them from returning to the site again.

The internet is increasingly providing a far more interactive experience, which is good news for retailers who want to drive the customer care angle which some would argue is absent in the digital, ‘unmanned’ environment. Simply listing products with distant, overtly marketing language descriptions will not be sufficient to secure lasting success on the social internet.

In order to really understand what social means in the online context, it is important to avoid thinking of social as only existing in closed-off areas and that having a Facebook page means you are ‘doing social’.

Much activity on the internet now is based around sharing, rather than just the traditional social media content of status updates and pictures. Pinterest works by creating walls of graphical content sourced with a single click from any site, so brands need to understand that they are very much going to be part of this conversation too, whether they realise it or not.

Social networks may be a kind of ‘thing’, but social itself is actually a quite different concept altogether. Just as it is inaccurate to think of social as only existing within independent, closed-off areas of the internet, neither should any retailer’s method for embracing social be limited to anything other than thought itself.
Andrew McClelland is Chief Operations & Policy Officer, IMRG

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