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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.

What Will it Take to Improve the Mobile Shopping Experience?

The eye-popping statistics that permeated this month’s eTail West event made one thing clear: growth in mobile usage and mobile transactions has exceeded just about everyone's expectations. That’s cause for celebration for companies like online travel agency hotwire.com whose head of mobile, Melissa Matross, spoke about how the company has “leaned into the mobile web” from the beginning. Yet many companies are only now discovering unique challenges as their customers pursue all things mobile at escalating rates.

The dizzying array of devices that have entered the mobile ecosystem are bringing unprecedented complexity to the design process in particular. Responsive design is gaining favor with many marketers as it allows them to instantly adapt websites to device differences and resolve compatibility issues. Dell views responsive design as a mandate, since, according to its director of global mobile, Brandon McGee, designing specific applications for all of its business units in 160 countries and across all mobile devices is “impossible and not scalable.”

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Domenic Venneri, lead designer for street wear brand Stussy, agrees. According to Venneri, responsive design offers Stussy’s web designers the ultimate freedom to do what they do best within optimized parameters.

Marketers are also tracking a closer behavioral alignment between desktops and tablets, even as the latter's status as a "mobile" device remains an area of contention. Disney VP Elissa Margolis referred to this synergy between desktop and tablets as a "fat finger" sensibility. Mr. McGee cited it as a reason why companies can get away with using "slightly optimized" versions of their websites for tablets.

According to Tom Leighton, CEO of the cloud platform Akamai, mobile users expect sites to load in five seconds or less and the 30 fastest internet sites load in only two. By contrast, the top 30 mobile sites clock in at a sluggish average of nine seconds, a rate that compares with where traditional websites were in 2001. He cited several reasons, but emphasized that mobile is operating off of an infrastructure that was built for transmitting voices rather than bandwidth-hungry, multi-media content.

Unfortunately, shoppers' expectations have not dialed down accordingly. Mr. Leighton cautioned that abandonment rates escalate with every second, with four-five seconds marking a precipitous drop-off. Adding to the pressure, shoppers increasingly expect mobile sites to offer the rich experiences and full functionality that they've grown accustomed to on their desktops.

Dave Borrowman, senior director of product management at Gap, summed up the challenge by saying the mobile experience can no longer be reduced; it must be optimized.

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Marketers are pursuing a variety of strategies for mitigating mobile pain points, including adding bigger response buttons and text fields, providing optimized keyboards for numeric entries and ensuring that, as they move between devices, visitors' shopping experiences pick up where they left off.

Read Carol's other E tail West articles:

Retailers Stretch Social Media Strategies

Disney Store Makes Digital Magic.

Prescient Points from E tail West. Wrap-up of Carol's favorite moments from the show.

Retail Wire ran an edited version of this article. Check out the discussion.

12 Prescient Points: E tail West 2013

If you haven't already, check out my previous articles pivoting off of the action at the month's E tail West event .

Retailers Stretch Social Media Strategies

Disney Store Makes Digital Magic

What Will It Take to Improve the Mobile Shopping Experience?