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Social Media 101 for Online Retailers: 4 Activities to Shape Your Strategy

Here's my Effective Website column for March's Multichannel Merchant magazine.

“Do we have a Facebook plan?” “Do we need to pay attention to OpenSocial?” “What should we be doing with widgets?” “Who Diggs us?”

If you’re the web strategist in your organization, you’ve been hearing questions like these more often. This article can help you come up with enduring answers. We won’t attempt to catalog every new API and social networking site: That list changes every day.

Instead, we’ll look at the basis for a long–term strategy. We’ll recognize how social media changes the conversation between you and your customer, and then we’ll identify four key activities that can help you engage your customer in this new marketplace.

First, what is Social Media?

When this piece was first written for print publication in January, Wikipedia defined Social Media as follows:

Social Media is the democratization of information, transforming people from content readers into content publishers. It is the shift from a broadcast mechanism to a many-to-many model, rooted in conversations between authors, people, and peers. -- Wikipedia

Wikipedia continues to revise this definition (of course) but even today the the word “Internet” remains absent from the opening paragraph. To understand how social media reshapes the e-commerce landscape, to understand how social media reshapes the e-commerce landscape, first look away from your computer. Consider instead a marketplace in ancient Mesopotamia, a contemporary Middle Eastern souk, or even a farmer’s market in your own city.

In these open air markets, the storefronts are not defined by crisp boundaries. Trade is conducted within the booths and in the alleys in between. The running dialog between consumers has more impact on sales that any merchant’s pitch.

That’s the future of your online selling environment. No matter how polished your pitch, your customers are engaged in a conversation of their own. They don’t need to enter your store or site to learn about you. You need to join their discourse to earn the sale.

The “market is a conversation.”

That’s a central idea in The Cluetrain Manifesto, a book written early enough to not even contain the word “blog” -- but more relevant now than ever.

The Cluetrain authors recognized:

  1. The Internet makes it easier for consumers to form their own communities and conversations.
  2. These networks conduct conversations in authentic human voices that can’t be faked.
  3. Companies that ignore these conversations and simply hope they go away will be actively resisted or completely ignored.

How can your company get on the Cluetrain? Develop a social media strategy based on 4 very human activities:

  1. Writing: Blog and let your content travel.
  2. Listening: Tune into your customer’s UGC (user-generated content).
  3. Talking: Monitor your online reputation – and respond.
  4. Building: Use widgets to let your functionality travel.

1. Writing: Blog and let your content travel.

The written word is still king when it comes to communicating online. Enabled by RSS (Really Simple Syndication), blogs let your content travel. Your customer can consume your prose within the browser-based reader of her choice -- without ever visiting your site.

But depending on what you say and how you say it, your customer may choose to ignore you. The blogoshpere underscores the truth of the market as human dialog. Any hucksterism or corporate- speak that sneaks into your website copy needs to be banished from your blog. Over time, your blog’s straightforward approach can influence your core site’s copy too, but for many companies, blogging first requires finding a new voice and new points of view.

What should your company blog about? Get in touch with your company’s inner-geek. To paraphrase Hugh MacLeod, we’re all geeks about something. What you’re a geek about is what you’re passionate about, what you find all-consuming. If you’re in the right business, some of your enthusiasms are shared by your customers.

Does your company sell light-bulbs? Somewhere in your building there’s a light-bulb geek, a dedicated employee who can tell you everything there is to know about filaments, or the environmental and economic benefits of switching from incandescent to long-life fluorescent.

That person needs a voice on your blog. Does your company sell packaging supplies? Carton-geek is ready to blog. Your customers may or not be interested in the 50-lb stress test, but packing and moving tips always have an audience.

As you unleash your geeks, tune into your blog readers who comment and join the conversation. There are customers who want to share their gardening tips, their own amazing lightbulb stories. Your blog is a place that User-Generated Content helps flesh out your Social Media strategy.

2. Listening: Tune into your customer’s UGC (User-Generated Content)

If your site offers customer ratings and reviews, you’re already publishing User Generated Content (UGC). While product category and pricepoint affect their utility, don’t hesitate to add reviews simply because you fear negative comments could hurt sales or vendor relations. Your customers don’t believe every product is perfect. When you allow a negative review to appear, you enhance your credibility as a resource, potentially seeding a future sale. Negative reviews may also shed light on problems that you or your suppliers need to fix.

While reviews are the most prevalent example of UGC, retailers can go further. Look for opportunities to showcase what people do with your product. Do you sell seeds? Let your customers upload growing tips and pics from their gardens.

Are your products used in craft or hobby projects? Let customers show off the results to an online gallery. When you give people their own page on your site, you give them pride of ownership, reasons to return and send their friends.

3. Talking: Monitor your online reputation – and respond.

When you join the conversation, now and then somebody says something about you. People interact with your website, products and company, have experiences good and bad --and write about them online. Good news travels fast and bad news travels faster. How does your company respond?

Old-school “command and control” marketing relies on lawyers and PR agencies to let employees know what to say and when. The result can be unfortunate silence or happy-talk that hurts your company’s reputation at the very moment you need to build it back up. (Google this: Kryptonite Bike Lock.)

Instead, listen to what’s being said about your company, and don’t be shy about speaking up. While there are paid services to help you monitor your online reputation, a DIY approach can be effective: set up Google alerts to receive emails when your company or products mentioned by name. On a weekly basis, perform these searches on Technorati, Google News Search and Blog Search, too.

When someone says something about your company, respond in a voice that humans will recognize as one of their own. If something went wrong, let people know what you’re doing to fix it. If you’re receiving praise, say thanks but resist the temptation to devolve the dialog into a sales pitch.

4. Building: Use widgets to let your functionality travel.

Widgets are small applications, little AJAX web experiences. To your developers, they’re lines of code. Because social networking sites are releasing APIs that help your programmers place this code within new environments, functionality you develop for your website now has “legs.” It can find your customer where she hangs out.

While RSS lets your customer read your content on sites other than your own, widgets let your customer use features from your website on her Facebook page, or within one of the half dozen sites who’ve adopted the OpenSocial platform – Google’s answer (or challenge) to Facebook. The potential? Your online marketing no longer lives and dies solely by driving traffic to your site. Your customer can now experience your brand online -- beyond the walls of your site.

So should your web developers move widgets to the top of their to-do list? In Q1 2008, for most retailers, the answer is still no. The new APIs may be open but there’s likely to be some debugging and you may want to learn on your competitor’s nickel.

And just because you build it, doesn’t mean anyone will use it. So while the technology is being fine-tuned and privacy concerns are sorted out, take inventory:

Beyond your Cart, what are the applications most important to your site, today? What are the features current web visitors deem most compelling, and what functionality have you slated to improve your site’s shopping experience in the months to come?

Ideally, each of these applications or projects gained importance because it ties directly to something essential about the products you sell and the reasons someone should buy from you. That makes these projects strong candidates for gadgetization. Strip them to their essence. Would anyone want to use this functionality on a website other than yours? And if someone did, what would that mean for you?

Say you’re an apparel merchant selling custom clothing and your site offers a virtual model that visitors personalize for their own body type. You could “widgetize” to get someone thinking about the perfect fit before they visit your site.

Or maybe the products you sell require compatibility with your customer’s house or car, instead of their body. If you’ve built a “fit finder” for your site, does it contain a potential gadget that’s waiting to get out and find prospects on car and home community sites?

Are the products you sell tied to seasonality, or special events? A calendar may be the skeleton of a widget to remind people about the” to-do’s” for their event – and the ways you can help make it memorable. Even if your selling proposition comes down to rock-bottom price, you can still offer unique functionality, providing a mini price comparison app on content sites frequented by your clientele.

I predict that by Q4 of 2008, widgets will matter to an increasing number of retailers. But ultimately the gee-whiz factor of the technology will be a lot less important that the usefulness of the functionality. For widgets to gain popularity in a social network, customers needs to choose to use them.

So think back to that souk or your open air city market: what is the value that you, the merchant, is adding to move the conversation—and the sale— forward? Your answers form the cornerstone of your social media strategy.

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