Is social media/Web 2.0 for retail just hype or an essential part of doing business in the 21st century? Web 2.0 includes leveraging social commerce on Web sites, blogging/podcasting, and participating in social networks like YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and anywhere a retailer or its customers can create and share content.
Many retailers find themselves wondering what Web 2.0/social media activities they should be involved in. This article ranks social commerce activities by business impact, with No. 1 having the highest impact and No. 9 the lowest.
No. 1: Customer Reviews
Ninety-six percent of retailers rate customer ratings and reviews as very or somewhat effective, according to Shop.org, the online division of the National Retail Federation. Reading reviews helps sellers better understand their customers and their own products, which will also help them improve product descriptions and marketing strategies.
Customer reviews can be condensed into short summaries and posted on blogs. They may include user-generated photos or videos.
No. 2: Shopping Widgets
Shopping widgets are pieces of portable content that can be displayed almost anywhere on the Internet. Widgets have a graphic user interface (GUI) that displays product or other information, which retailers can use to push out an interactive experience to affiliate sites, customer sites, social networks, and more.
Zazzle’s MySpace widget provides over 15,000 bands with the ability to sell band merchandise (printed on Zazzle products) right through bands’ MySpace pages where fans hang out.
Amazon offers affiliates an “Omakase” widget which matches Amazon products to the keywords on the affiliate’s Web site, store or blog.
No. 3: Questions and Answers
Some sites offer question-and-answer tools in addition to customer reviews. Customers may ask the shopping community or the merchant to address specific concerns about a product, such as “Does this brand fit true to size?”
Like reviews, questions and answers improve product information and can improve conversion. They also help retailers improve their product copy by allowing them to understand what’s important to their customers.
The downside is the time lag between a question asked and answered and, in some cases, the quality of consumer-generated answers, which may need to be moderated for accuracy.
No. 4: Twitter
Another way to ask and answer questions is through Twitter. Users can get nearly instant answers to questions directed at a retailer or the general Twitter universe.
Twitter allows retailers to monitor what is being said about them and can be used as an alternative form of RSS/email marketing, a way to share deals and coupons, promote contests, or other simply put a human face to a company. Due to its growing popularity, some customers will prefer using Twitter to communicate rather than telephone or email, so it’s important to offer it.
Despite Dell’s claims of driving millions of sales through Twitter, for most retailers, Twitter will serve as a customer service and marketing channel rather than a sales channel.
No. 5: User-Generated Cross Sells
User-generated cross-sells/photos provide suggestions to consumers on available related products or services and are ideal for fashion, cosmetics, and home decor. They are typically less effective for electronics, software, and industrial supplies.
User-created lists like Amazon’s Listmania and the iTunes Store’s iMixes can help customers discover new items through similar consumers and provide one more way for Amazon and Apple to move more products.
Wetseal customers can use the Wetseal Runway to create outfit sets and browse outfits that other visitors have created.
Like customer reviews, customers prefer to see what other people like them would bundle rather than what the store’s merchandiser would bundle. There is reason to believe that user-generated cross-sells will have similar popularity to ratings and reviews as more e-stores adopt them.
No. 6: Facebook Pages
Though it is free and easy to set up a Facebook account, the business impact of using Facebook is often determined by the popularity a firm has at the outset.
Facebook pages allow sharing and inviting friends to participate, rather than simply forwarding emails or product pages to drive customers to a Web site. Despite the low cost, maintenance, and promotion of Facebook pages, this presence still requires human resources.
Big brands that have successfully built their Facebook fan base include Sephora and Victoria’s Secret. Sephora leverages Discussions and Polls, among other features of its page, and even asks fans what Sephora’s ideal posting frequency should be.
Victoria’s Secret has special features like Angel Profiles (bios of famous models), information on how to find the best fit, and links to the store to mix and match products, which can all be shared with fans’ Facebook profiles.
No. 7: Co-Browsing
Co-browsing describes the navigation of a Web site by several people at the same time and is ideal for consultative situations where people want to shop together. It holds great potential for customer service, especially when it comes to improving live chat capabilities.
Products like ShopTogether and PurchLive add a social component to a retail site by offering the ability to invite a friend to co-browse an online store in real time. For example, Charlotte Russe gives shoppers the option to invite friends through Twitter and Facebook. It updates its status with a short link for anyone who wants to join them on their visit.
No. 8: Retail Blogging
Blogs can be a great way to connect with customers, talk about new products, and share interviews, videos, podcasts, news, photos, and jokes, although they are less likely to drive sales than other Web 2.0 initiatives.
They can be a branding/loyalty vehicle attracting links and search engine traffic. Retail blogs require a lot of love and nurturing to stay fresh and popular. Posting a random article every three months doesn’t cut it.
Bluefly, Powell’s Books, and Sephora have stuck to strategies that work for their audience and support long-term engagement and loyalty that hopefully translates into sales — or at least better search rankings.
No. 9: Video Sharing
Video sharing can greatly improve conversion rates and reduce returns. It’s very simple to set up an account with YouTube — or any other video-sharing site — and upload videos.
However, there’s a disconnect between watching a video and buying a product through a video-sharing site. This could change if YouTube builds out its click-to-buy capabilities beyond iTunes. (The click-to-buy feature embeds links to purchase products right in the video.)
Adding video to Youtube and other video-sharing sites can help retailers obtain additional search engine exposure since Google likes to mix in video results with regular Web pages, news stories, and image results (blended search).
YouTube itself has search functionality, so for the effort required to upload video already in use on its site, a retailer gets an extra benefit. As with widgets, people can post videos to their blogs and Web sites if they find it interesting.
Linda Bustos is an emerging media analyst and e-commerce consultant at Elastic Path Software, an enterprise e-commerce platform provider.