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Retailers Stretch Social Media Strategies

Carol Spieckerman covers eTail West

Carol Spieckerman covers eTail West

Not that long ago, social media was regarded a simple game of multiple choice by many retailers and brand marketers, with "A and B" (Facebook and Twitter) seen as manageable choices, but "all of the above" (Instagram? Vine?) being out of the question. This was the case even as consumers delighted in exploring the growing number of social platforms available to them.

Presentations at this month’s week's eTail West conference illustrated just how much marketers' mindsets have changed in terms of both social media's promise and the exercising of new options. The perception of social media as a necessary evil with dubious ROI has quickly evolved toward that of a playground of possibilities, particularly when it comes to user-generated content (UGC).

In particular, social media is becoming a cost-effective resource for satisfying marketers' insatiable appetites for images. Streetwear brand Stussy recently leveraged online content aggregator Social Board to grab all social content that included the "Stussy" hashtag, garnering millions of photos that the brand is using "for all kinds of things," according to its lead designer, Domenic Venneri.

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Meanwhile, Under Armour's successful, female-focused "what's beautiful" contest, which encourages women to share their goals and success stories, has allowed the company to glean a treasure trove of multi-media, user-generated content. Several companies, including Jetblue, have now made integrating more socially-derived UGC into corporate websites a top initiative.

Under Armour's mobile app gathers vital stats from users.

Under Armour's mobile app gathers vital stats from users.

Many companies are awakening to the power of the "visual web," which is also driving accelerated interest in Instagram and Pinterest. Steve Hartman, Urban Outfitters' managing director of direct marketing, called Instagram a "huge" engagement venue for the brand, noting that even pictures of employees' shoes have immediately grabbed over 40,000 likes. By contrast, Urban leverages Pinterest for showcasing product. Katie Laird, Blinds.com’s social media manager, said that it wasn’t until they “dug deep” into the data that they realized how important Pinterest is to their business.

As new options proliferate, fewer marketers are defaulting to a "Facebook first" strategy, although Twitter seems to have only gained in popularity, despite the crowded field. For Urban Outfitters, JetBlue, blinds.com and others, Twitter plays a vital customer support role and, in some cases, marketers are intentionally leveraging the platform to take the pressure off of call centers and other traditional customer service solutions.

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Some are also taking more measured approaches to Twitter promotions. According to JetBlue's head of digital commerce, Maryssa Miller, its deep discount promotions on Twitter have been so successful that the company has had to deploy them sparingly. Under Armour selectively uses Twitter to promote flash sales and to get the word out as it makes forays into new categories such as basketball. The preponderance of players who are active on Twitter ensures exponential reach by association.

In terms of up and comers, Twitter-owned Vine, a micro-video platform that is being called a mashup of Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube, was cited most often as the "one to watch" in my conversations at the event.

Read Carol's other E tail West articles:

What Will It Take to Improve the Mobile Shopping Experience?

Disney Store Makes Digital Magic

Prescient Points: A wrap-up of Carol's favorite moments from the show

This article also ran on Retail Wire. Check out the discussion.

Retail's Deconstruction Eruption

I recently interviewed the principal of digital agency, Coexist, which has developed a platform that layers commerce capabilities onto the popular blogging and photo-sharing platform, Tumblr. Our conversation got me thinking about how hunter-gatherer platforms such as Tumblr, Pinterest, and Instagram are continuing a deconstruction and recontextualizing movement that is now manifesting in retail. Just as users of these platforms have turned appropriation and reassembly into an art form, the retail world is busting up, dissecting, and recombining elements that once seemed destined to remain in their original contexts forever.

For example, showrooming is really just the deconstruction of the previously self-contained in-store shopping process. Thanks to mobile apps, retailers’ walls are now permeable, and shoppers are researching, comparing prices, browsing, and purchasing at any time or place, and in any sequence.

Not long ago, retailer acquisitions involved retailers taking big bites of others and digesting them thoroughly. A prime example is Federated’s 2005 acquisition of May Company, and its subsequent decision to make its crown jewel, Macy’s, its national moniker. In contrast, Walgreen’s recent moves represent deconstruction at its finest. When it acquired Duane Reade in 2010, rather than swallowing the chain whole and folding it under the Walgreen banner, it maintained a separate Duane Reade banner, and wasted no time in deconstructing and relocating select assets. First up was Duane Reade’s DR Delish private brand, which Walgreen plugged into its stores simply as Delish. Duane Reade’s Look Boutique concept was also brought over to select Walgreen stores, as a major vault into the highly-competitive beauty category. The next phase will see Look Boutique serving as a home for brands that Walgreens plucks from Alliance Boots’ portfolio, after having taken a stake in the UK health and beauty group in June.

Retailers have taken to deconstructing their portfolios in order to blow out high-margin opportunities and grab bigger market shares in key categories. Best Buy is looking to open an additional 100 Best Buy Mobile stores, even as it shutters 50 of its big box locations, and its decision to carve out mobility products from the mix in its mainline stores may have been one of its best to-date. Best Buy Mobile stores currently generate 30 percent of the company’s profits, at a time when it is struggling to hold its ground with its legacy businesses.

Only a few months ago, Amazon seemed on track to becoming the ultimate virtual generalist. These days, it’s usurping Walmart as the opportunistic category killer to watch. Walmart has famously disrupted multiple categories that already had homes in its stores, including grocery, toys and entertainment, simply by paying more attention to them. Amazon’s recent rash of category-crashing plays in gaming, action sports, and apparel has it leveraging event marketing, sponsorships, and celebrity tie-ins to seize market share in offerings that would otherwise have stayed buried in its massive marketplace.

Clearly, the monolithic past of retail is splintering. Today, the parts, and how they can be moved around and reassembled, are more important than the whole.

This article originally ran on the International Licensing Industry Merchandisers' Association (LIMA) website.