Webinar recap: what savvy multi-touchpoint shoppers seek this holiday season

The so-called “360-degree view” of the customer is something of a holy grail for merchants. When it comes to presenting shoppers with relevant products and offers, sellers aim to combine data from in-store, online and mobile activity to create a holistic understanding of how their customers behave.

Last week’s 2014 MarketLive Consumer Shopping Survey webinar revealed that the “360-degree view” is important to shoppers, too — but with a twist. As consumers become more savvy and conduct shopping research on mobile devices as well as on desktop computers and in stores, they favor brands that present a unified message across touchpoints, making consistency a crucial differentiator this holiday season.

When asked which components of the brand experience should be consistent and which could be different, a high percentage of consumers said consistency was ideal nearly across the board.

Shopping survey results

Perhaps not surprisingly given holiday shoppers’ hunger for good deals, survey participants reported seeking consistent product pricing, free shipping offers and other promotional discounts across touchpoints. Close to 80% of participants said product assortment was also important; in particular, 45% of shoppers said that a comprehensive product assortment would encourage them to purchase more on mobile devices.

At the same time, exclusive or unique offers continue to appeal to shoppers as an incentive to engage with brands. For example, an exclusive discount available only to followers ranked second only to free shipping as the type of incentive that would spur purchasing via a social networking site. And merchants frequently dangle the lure of exclusive discounts as a reason to sign up for email alerts.

Striking a balance between the demand for consistency and the desire for touchpoint-specific perks requires promotional finesse. To achieve it, merchants should follow these guidelines:

Merchants should message with absolute consistency across touchpoints on:


  • Product pricing and pricing guarantees. With fully 90% of shoppers saying they consult Amazon to check prices even when purchasing elsewhere online, it’s crucial for merchants to deliver the same price in stores that shoppers see on their mobile devices, for example.
  • Site-wide free shipping policies. With free shipping remaining the top promotion shoppers seek, whether via eCommerce sites or on social media, offers such as free shipping above a threshold and free ship-to-store services should be universally and prominently messaged.
  • Key customer service information. Shoppers rate guaranteed delivery and free returns as crucial when deciding which brands to patronize, with 49% rating both as “most important”. The overall flexibility of the return policy and the availability of delivery timelines were sought by 41% and 27%, respectively.


Merchants have leeway to offer by touchpoint:

  • Sneak peeks at exclusive or new products. More than half of shoppers said access to exclusive products would spur them to purchase via social networks, for example.
  • Flash sale items. Email alerts promoting limited-time offers can motivate shoppers to engage with brands more frequently throughout the season.
  • Loyalty or rewards points tie-ins. Close to 60% of shoppers said loyalty rewards offered via social media would prompt them to make purchases, while 46% said the availability of a loyalty program would encourage repeat sales — making an offer of extra points potentially enticing as a means to lure back existing first-time customers.

Download the webinar replay for many more insights on mobile shopping, the role of social media, discount timing and in-store activities and more. And watch the MarketLive site for the follow-up holiday compendium produced in conjunction with the Consumer Shopping Survey.

Holiday first look: How to engage early shoppers — without offending them

Now that Labor Day and back-to-school promotions have come and gone, the countdown to the 2014 winter holiday season has officially begun. For merchants eager to move from planning mode to execution and results, the milestone is significant.

Indeed, research shows that the early season is a crucial time for brands to connect with consumers. More than a quarter of shoppers intended to start researching holiday gifts before Halloween last year, according to Google/Ipsos, with 69% saying they planned to shop around and 59% expressing openness to trying new brands. Not surprisingly, merchants are responding to this early receptiveness with early promotions. In a new survey from ChannelAdvisor, more than 40% of retailers said they’re starting holiday campaigns this month.

But there’s a contrasting sentiment merchants should also keep in mind: the backlash against “holiday creep,” with some consumers and media outlets protesting the appearance of holiday commercialism before Black Friday, whether on Thanksgiving Day or earlier. Even if actual spending patterns indicate that consumers go ahead and shop early despite their grumbling, merchants should remain respectful of the perception that too much promotion too early can deprive the holidays of their true magic.

So where should merchants draw the line — and how can they engage shoppers for the early-season browsing and research that leads to purchases down the road? A few suggestions:

Showcase products and content that make life easier. While shoppers may just be starting to browse and consider gifts, by now they’re likely aware of their holiday plans — whether they’re hosting a major holiday meal, having houseguests, or traveling themselves, and they may even already have a few red-letter festive dates on the calendar. Merchants should cater to these preparatory needs by stressing the convenience of crossing holiday to-dos off the list now. While this tactic is a tried-and-true approach for home and housewares brands, who can preview tools and tips for holiday feasts and hosting, other merchants can translate the message to fit their target audience. MarketLive merchant Delia’s previews the festive season with a home page promotion showcasing party dresses. Text further downpage invites shoppers to “get prepped to party.”

Early holiday example from Delia's

Encourage signups by listing holiday benefits. Merchants should step up promotions to subscribe to email alerts and follow brands on social media — and spell out the benefits to come throughout the holiday season. Consumers should know what they can expect iIn exchange for committing to follow brands, whether it’s exclusive holiday discounts, product previews or shipping offers; the latest in-store specials; or even special seasonal services such as free gift wrap. MarketLive merchant Modell’s is promoting a “Holiday All-Stars” program that encourages visitors to the brand’s Facebook page to become followers by promising them sweepstakes entries based on how frequently they like and share Modells.com content.

Early holiday example from Modell's


Position layaway information prominently.  Previously we’ve discussed how best to support in-store layaway programs online. Now is the time to dust off those tactics and remind shoppers that they can secure sought-after items early and pay over time. Kmart recently launched a “Not a Christmas Commercial” — a cheeky nod to criticism the brand received last year over its early holiday advertising —  that suggests shoppers with “an event in late December you need a lot of gifts for, like maybe your entire family is having their birthday on the same day.” The YouTube video includes an embedded link to Kmart’s online layaway center, where shoppers can set up layaway online or read details of in-store policies and procedures. Layaway is allocated space in the global header navigation, ensuring shoppers can access the information at any point along the path to purchase.


Are you easing into the holidays, or have you begun full-tilt promotions? What informs the timing of your campaigns?

Priorities for adapting live chat to a multi-touchpoint world

We’ve long argued that customer service can be an important brand differentiator for small- to mid-sized merchants in their quest to win sales and loyalty. Stellar service drives valuable repeat business, while poor interactions can cause site abandonment. And word-of-mouth reputation can hinge on customer interactions with support staff; tales of neglect can go viral, while brand recommendations among friends can spur purchases from new customers.

Merchants seeking further proof of the importance of customer service need look no further than Amazon, which nearly a year ago launched a service called Mayday for owners of its Kindle Fire tablets. With a touch of a button, customers can speak directly with a representative, whose video image is displayed on tablet screens — literally putting a face on a vast organization that had previously offered little in the way of opportunities for one-on-one support interaction. It’s now the most popular means of accessing Kindle Fire support, with 75% of customer requests coming through Mayday, according to Amazon.

Amazon Mayday

While merchants can’t be expected to keep up with Amazon’s every innovation, they shouldn’t ignore the increasingly  widespread adoption of live chat in general. Usage rates are on the rise, jumping from 30% of online consumers in 2009 to 43% as of 2012 — a 43% increase, according to technology researcher Forrester.  And usage isn’t limited to younger consumers; Forrester found that all demographics use live chat, including a third of those aged 57 or above.

As usage levels head toward the 50% threshold, live chat is a must-have for merchants. And they should do more than placing a “live chat” link in the global header or footer; to maximize the revenue opportunity live chat presents, they should adopt new chat features that resonate with their target audience. Among the latest considerations:

Context is more important than ever. We’ve already addressed the importance of context when it comes to prompting shoppers to engage in live chat on the eCommerce site. But the concept of context extends far beyond that, requiring merchants to align chat invitations with shoppers’ individual situations so that chat is a relevant proposition at the very moment a question arises. Among the techniques for presenting chat as a relevant solution:

  • Tailor chat invitation language to match the journey along the path to purchase. Generic live chat promotions should be replaced by category-specific invitations as shoppers narrow their focus. Those using on-site search might be prompted to connect with live chat if they still don’t see what they’re looking for, while viewers of a specific product might see a chat promotion touting the customer service team’s expertise when it comes to fit or style.

MarketLive merchant Title Nine gives live chat increasing prominence as shoppers move along the path to purchase. A text link with small graphic in the global header is supplemented by a “Need Help?” prompt in the center content area of the product page. Shoppers who add items to cart view a prominent chat promotion promising to connect them with a “customer service maven” and listing the hours of live chat availability.

Title Nine chat promotion

Title Nine chat promotion

  • Present geo-aware chat options. Using built-in browser information combined with location data collected with shoppers’ permission, merchants can present not only chat customer service hours in the local time zone, but connect consumers with local store outlet customer service options as well.
  • Use language attuned to the touchpoint. With social media serving as a de facto customer service channel, it’s crucial to promote live chat services via social outposts, highlighting the benefits of connecting with expert staff for in-depth advice.

Women’s retailer Chico’s promotes live chat on Facebook with the offer to connect 24/7 with “style experts,” promising brand followers authoritative advice they can trust.

Chico's live chat promo in Facebook

Mobile live chat matters. As shopping activity on mobile devices continues to grow, so does the need for providing stellar support for mobile shoppers — and that includes offering live chat services. Fully 41% of U.S. mobile shoppers report using mobile live chat for shopping support — ahead of text messaging and mobile social media, the E-Tailing Group found in a recent study. And mobile live chat is poised to play an important role in cross-channel sales, with one in five shoppers saying they accessed mobile shopping support while in physical stores.

Attempting to provide an effective live chat experience on mobile devices is a steep challenge requiring particular attention to context. The E-Tailing Group found that two factors in particular determined the success of chat interactions:

  • The position of the chat window, accessible but without covering key content — and the ability to move it to the optimal location of the shopper’s choosing. More than 75% of consumers said this functionality was important, with close to half specifying it was even more crucial on mobile devices.
  • Speed and brevity. Eighty-five percent of consumers expect the customer service agent to respond quickly to the chat initiation queue — and 53% of shoppers said this response time was especially important on mobile phones. Once engaged with an agent, 75% of consumers said brevity of responses was important, and 52% deemed this characteristic especially important for mobile.

Mobile live chat stats from E-Tailing Group

Video is experimental, but potentially impactful. While just 14% of U.S. consumers use live video chat weekly, according to Forrester, the Amazon Mayday example proves that easy-to-use video support can take off. To maximize its potential impact, merchants should deploy video chat only in circumstances where visuals can enhance the customer support experience — whether by having reps use the camera to show shoppers product details the Web site doesn’t campture, or by having shoppers share relevant visuals with agents — a room for which they’d like to buy furniture, for example.

Merchants who’d like to dip their toes into the video chat pool without taking the plunge can consider Google+ Hangouts on the Air, which give brand experts a platform for connecting with consumers and answering questions either one-on-one or in a group presentation. U.K. retailer ASOS has produced a number of what it calls “shop-along hangouts” featuring style experts, who showcase the latest trends as well as take questions from participants. Shopping links on the ASOS site were displayed as they discussed their favorite items.

ASOS shop-along hangout

How are you using live chat to maximize sales and boost loyalty?

Boosting brand engagement on Pinterest

It has only been 2 years since we labeled Pinterest the social media to watch. Based on the concept of a bulletin board, users, individuals and companies “pin” item images to themed “pinboards” they create, reflecting their own interests, personalities and branding. Since then the visual bookmarking site has exploded fetching a recent valuation of $5 billion.

According to the 2014 Digital Marketer: Benchmark and Trend Report by Experian Marketing, Pinterest is the top social traffic driver to retail websites with 30 billion pins on 750 million boards.

As more and more people use social media as discovery platforms, some Internet-watchers think Pinterest could become a serious competitor to Google for searching for objects because people define what is relevant in a given search, rather than a computer algorithm. Search engines are great for answering specific questions. Pinterest helps with questions that have more than one right answer — and you will know you have found the right one when you see it.

Optimize your presence

You have established a Pin Board with categories relevant to your products, and you have covered the basics. We’ve discussed some of them elsewhere on this blog:

  • Promote your Pinterest presence on your website and  in emails
  • Make sure customers can easily pin items from inside your site
  • Your site is employing structured mark-up to take advantage of Rich Pins
  • You are encouraging community and interaction with contests and wish lists
  • You are cross-promoting with other social media and all touchpoints

Now what?

Consider the niche

According to RJMetrics, 92% of users are female and the site has an unprecedented user-retention rate of 84% of users still active after 4 years. Intel Social Media strategist Ekaterina Walter estimates women now account for 85% of all consumer purchases, so this is a segment you will want to invest in.

“Pinning says “I want this.” It’s aspirational. People pin products they’d love to own, recipes they want to cook, and projects they want to tackle” said Robert J Moore of RJ Metrics. Study the most popular categories and see how your brand fits. Look for ways to speak to the audience. Lowe’s has taken advantage of the DIY and home-related interest in Pinterest boards to develop a following of almost 3.5 million people.


Build it and they will come

With Pinterest’s newly introduced Guided Search, descriptive guides will allow users to scroll through and tap any that look interesting to steer their search in the right direction. We’ve written previously on How to Generate Pinterest Interest using theme-based pin boards. Now is the right time to beef up your existing ones and create more content. You can develop a strong brand presence on Pinterest by featuring creative and useful concepts for your pin boards.

REI has a board called The Gearhead which features not only product but amazing places to use it with acknowledgements back to the original sources. This tagging helps to link back and create that all important social synergy of the like-minded.


Aspiration and Inspiration

Users come to Pinterest to be inspired. Inspire them. Make your boards more than just a product catalog. You should repin content found on sites other than your own that your target audience would find interesting. This kind of attention to your customers will pay off in retention of engagement, building your brand’s image, and creating the community that social media sites are all about.

Nordstrom, one of the most popular Pinterest retailers with over 4.4 million followers features product images as well as how-to’s, trends, wedding ideas and travel images.

Title Nine, a clothier for women on the move, mixes product with off-product topic boards like Bookshelf and Difficult Women, to entertain their core customer base, as well as draw in those who would be aligned with their brand but may not know about them yet when other Pinterest users repin the content.

Title Nine Pinterest Board Difficult Women

MarketLive merchant Design Within Reach (DWR) created a retreat-themed board that features both great places to rejuvenate and products for sale that fit the category.

Design Within Reach (DWR) Pinterest Board

DWR has also created a category landing page, Backyard Escape 101, on their website for products featured on the Pinterest board that can help consumers create their own retreats. This is a great example of cross-selling and an ideal organic result of a Guided Search for “retreats.” Be sure to link back to specific category or product pages from your Pins, not just the home page. Get customers as close to the buy as you can.

DWR Backyard Retreat

Make the highly active niche Pinterest user, your evangelizer and customer. Bring them content outside your usual brand promotion materials to help engage them in what your company is about. Then guide them through how your products can help them find the lifestyle they seek.

Lies, damn lies, and statistics: Getting real about social media’s eCommerce impact

The blogosphere is a-twitter (no pun intended) about the recent report from Gallup which found that close to two-thirds of consumers believe social media has no influence on their purchasing behaviors.

The study has prompted a flurry of posts and articles, including a statement from Facebook itself, pointing out that consumers’ self-reported behavior is unreliable; measuring what they actually do online reveals that social media marketing and advertising pay off, these sources claim.

But then how to square findings such as the attribution data from the latest MarketLive Performance Index, which found that social media directly drives just 2% of traffic and 1% of revenue? With such miniscule potential payoff, it’s no surprise that just 3% of marketers named social media a top-3 priority for 2014, according to technology researcher Forrester.

As a result, merchants attempting to allocate limited resources in advance of the all-important holiday season may be tempted to sideline social media. But that would be a mistake — because social media can help with the very strategies the Gallup report itself advocates adopting.

Gallup claims that the crucial differentiator for brands is engagement — which Gallup defines as an emotional connection that includes alignment with the brand’s identity and confidence in the brand’s ability to deliver what it promises. Gallup found that engaged consumers contribute 23% more to brands — using measures such as revenue, profitability and share of wallet — than those who are merely neutral; while consumers who are disengaged represent a 13% drag.

To maximize the return on social media, then, merchants should use it to support engagement — which is markedly different than simply chasing followers and using outposts to “push” marketing messages. Specifically, brands should:

Choose their social media lineup carefully. As we’ve reported previously, the growing number and diversity of social networking sites means that some are more likely to appeal to a brand’s target audience than others. Merchants should assess where their market is, and only establish brand outposts where it makes sense — even if that means ignoring the hype about the latest and greatest social phenomenon.

One way to gather data on how shoppers use social media is to permeate the merchant’s flagship eCommerce site with social links — the kinds that enable sharing of products and content on an array social networks, regardless of whether the brand has an official outpost there. By tracking the performance of these links, they can get a snapshot of where shoppers who visit their sites congregate and interact.

MarketLive merchant Delia’s includes a bevy of social media sharing tools on product pages, including for the fashion-specific niche site Polyvore, where the brand maintains an official presence, and for sites StumbleUpon, Tumblr and and Google+, where it doesn’t.

Social media example from Delia's

Emphasize the individuals behind the brand — on both sides. Merchants should find ways to spotlight the people who power the brand, both internally among the staff and among its followers. Rather than asking consumers to connect with a nameless, faceless organization, merchants who spotlight individuals give shoppers the opportunity to connect on a personal level.

Blog posts from staff experts and behind-the-scenes snapshots and videos demonstrate how employees embody the brand, such as in this Facebook post from women’s recreational outfitter Title Nine, whose employees cycled from San Francisco to Los Angeles and summited a mountain.

Social media example from Title Nine

Position social media for stellar customer service. Delivering a consistent brand experience across the notoriously fluid landscape of social media requires much more than a style guide.  Since both rapid response and authentic dialogue are valued by social media followers, merchants must empower social media customer service staff to act — not just post scripted replies. By allowing employees on the front lines to resolve problems, merchants not only cut response times and deliver superior service; they demonstrate how deeply and widely held are the brand’s principles, reinforcing the brand’s image for existing customers and followers.

MarketLive merchant Berkshire Blanket demonstrated the depth of the brand’s loyalty to its customers when a previous buyer wrote a Facebook message describing how the plush dog included with a blanket had become her child’s favorite, and how the stuffed animal was now wearing out and in need of replacement. The customer had searched high and low for a similar item with no success, and was appealing to Berkshire Blanket for help. Not only was the social media staff able to respond quickly to the reply, but they were able to access inventory, locate a similar plush dog, and ship it to the customer complete with a personal note. The effort earned the brand priceless word of mouth praise as well as repeat business.

Social media example from Berkshire Blanket

How are you using social media to create a personal connection — and active engagement — with the brand?

Social media watch: 3 tips for optimizing your new Twitter profile

It’s been a month since Twitter began rolling out a new design for profile pages, which was made universally available a fortnight ago. Predictably, reaction has been mixed, with some lamenting the “Facebook-like” look and others lauding it. While the new design is still optional for now, merchants should make the transition soon — and not just because it’s inevitable.

In fact, the new design better showcases merchant content, while also affording more control over what profile viewers see. To optimize the new look, merchants should:

Use the new header to emphasize community. The most striking changes to the new profile are all about images — not surprising given that photo content drives the highest engagement on Twitter and the Web overall is increasingly visual. The new Twitter page features a large profile picture and anchors a link just beneath the header to photos and videos, which are presented in a large Pinterest-style format.

And while some have grumbled about the loss of the background image as an opportunity to anchor iconic images or even content such as customer service contact information, the fact of the matter is that visibility of the background image always depended on viewers’ browsers, screen resolution and window size — and the image wasn’t visible on mobile.

In any case, the new profile more than compensates with a massive new header, which at 1500×500 pixels gives merchants a vast new canvas on which to convey their brand. While single bold hero shots can be effective, the most engaging content puts the spotlight on brand community — whether by featuring user-contributed photos, featuring popular hash tags, or playing off a popular meme.  MarketLive merchant BeachBody showcases an images of hundreds of brand enthusiasts working out at twilight to emphasize the level of commitment of its active community.

Twitter example from Beachbody

Use “favorites” judiciously. With a link elevating “favorites” to an anchored position just below the header images, merchants would do well to use this tool carefully. Rather than clicking “favorite” on any tweet mentioning the brand, merchants should curate the collection to highlight testimonials, reviews and other third-party endorsements, as well as content links and retweets that demonstrate lifestyle affinity.

The tool is especially handy now that replies are by default filtered from the main profile page, which means that viewers won’t see posts beginning with the @ symbol. Since these posts are usually intended as direct conversation with another user, for example a customer service inquiry and reply, the change is generally positive. But replies also sometimes contain brand-building kudos, which merchants can now highlight with a “favorite”.

MarketLive merchant Griot’s Garage features a diverse sampling of content in its “Favorites”, including praise from customers, pictures submitted by followers, and links relevant to its target audience.

Twitter example from Griot's Garage

Monitor “best” tweets, and pin as needed. One feature of the new profile merchants can’t control is the selection of “best” tweets, which are presented in a larger font on the page. These tweets, which are based on popularity as measured by retweets, favorites and replies, can be content merchants want to highlight — or they could be controversial posts that get retweeted with negative commentary, or even a gaffe that merchants would rather forget. Merchants should monitor the action on their profile pages closely to see how the “best” tweets pan out for them.

Merchants can also “pin” tweets they’d like to spotlight to the top of the page, much as in Facebook’s current design — giving them a potential avenue for counteracting the unwanted popularity of a particular tweet.

How are you using the new Twitter format to enhance engagement?

Guest post: Creating a seamless omnichannel loyalty experience

Alinn Louv of Social Annex Marketing, a member of the MarketLive Agency Network,  contributed this post.

By now, most merchants know that consumers expect to shop across touchpoints. And they also recognize the importance of improving loyalty.   After all, it costs 6-7 times more to acquire a new customer than to retain an existing one. Perhaps that’s why from 2008-2012, loyalty programs grew by 10% each year.

But it’s not enough to award shoppers points for purchases; to meet the needs of the always-connected consumer, merchants must develop an omnichannel loyalty strategy that caters to customers – and entices them to make repeat purchases — wherever they interact with the brand. We’ve come up with a four- step plan to help you develop and implement your loyalty strategy across all channels for a seamless experience for your shoppers.

1. Create a seamless mobile experience. As of last year, more than half of all American adults own a smartphone (Pew). More and more consumers are starting to shop online either through a mobile device or tablet, with the time spent on mobile surpassing time spent on desktops last year (eMarketer).Of those mobile users, nearly three-quarters say it’s important that websites are mobile-friendly (Search Engine Watch). So the first step in moving toward an omnichannel experience is creating a mobile experience. Make your site mobile friendly, with large visuals and simplified navigation to help mobile users quickly find what they are looking for. Integrate loyalty across all channels, including mobile apps, to ensure that customers are receiving points and rewards no matter how they shop.

2. Focus on the customer experience first. Forty percent of consumers buy more from retailers who personalize the shopping experience across channels (Internet Retailer). So merchants should ersonalize the experience at every step possible. Utilize a social login tool in order to gather insights and create a more complete customer profile. Collect data from social network APIs for structured data, such as verified email addresses and birthdates, and unstructured data, such as interests, likes, friends, and more. Use this information to structure your loyalty program. Find out which rewards and perks will resonate with your shoppers and how active your users are on each social network. This information can help build your loyalty program with a focus on Facebook contests or “Pin to Win” Pinterest campaigns.

3. Manage user data. Fifty-four percent of marketers revealed that the biggest inhibitor in establishing a consistent omnichannel customer experience is not having a single view of customers across channels (Retail Systems Research Institute). Gathering data is only half the challenge; still more important is sorting through and organizing the ‘big data’ so merchants can actually derive useful strategies from the information. Standardize all information gathered from a variety of social networks in order to maximize the full potential of personalization. Ensure you have the right infrastructure in place to store massive amounts of data and the ability to access it quickly as well. Organized data makes it easier to scale marketing efforts and target the right customers, at the right time. Leverage this data to inform email marketing efforts, to target new buyers, repeat buyers or inactive buyers. Remind inactive buyers of their expiring rewards to drive them back onsite. Reward repeat buyers with bonus loyalty points or rewards for making their third purchase. Motivate new buyers to sign up for loyalty with large first-time incentives. Keep your loyalty program segmented with staggered rewards to keep your members excited about exclusive access to sales and perks.

4. Engage with customers across all channels. Actively engage with users to foster user generated content, boost SEO, increase referrals, time spent onsite and ultimately conversions. Implement loyalty across all channels and reward users for shopping on each one. Once the channels are in place, engage with users on each channel with social media to boost your loyalty program. Run social contests within social apps or onsite. Interact with users and build a branded community with ratings and reviews. Fully 90% of consumers would recommend a brand after interacting with it via social (IAB, 2013). Furthermore, 64% of Twitter users and 51% of Facebook users are more likely to buy the products of brands they follow online (Business2Community). Reward users for cross promotion to further drive engagement to every channel. Use point incentives to motivate shoppers to download mobile apps, or shop in store for bonus perks.

Leverage customer data and insights to personalize the omnichannel user experience and create an authentic, immersive customer experience that is sure to increase brand loyalty and lifetime customer value. All businesses and customers are unique; loyalty programs should be too.

Social media watch: Mobile messaging apps – the new frontier

Just as merchants are learning to adapt to the ever-proliferating and fragmenting social media landscape, with new communities springing up tailoring to ever more niche interests and demographics, a whole new frontier has opened up: social messaging apps.

These platforms, which use the mobile web to deliver messaging, picture exchanges and even voice calls “over the top”, without having to pay mobile carrier messaging or call fees, are proliferating even faster than browser-based social networking sites. And a flurry of recent headlines signal that major technology players believe these apps hold plenty of revenue potential.

First came the news that SnapChat, which enables one-to-one and group sharing of photos that disappear after viewing, turned down a $3 billion buyout offer from Facebook late last year. That figure was dwarfed in February when Facebook shelled out $19 billion for WhatsApp, which provides one-to-one and group messaging capabilities as well as photo sharing and video and voice calls. And some of the biggest brands are getting into the game, with Rakuten (Buy.com) acquiring Viber for $900 million in February and Chinese commerce giant Alibaba investing $215 million for a minority stake in Tango.

The reason for such heady valuations is the potential to tap an exponentially-growing audience. Technology researcher Forrester estimates that more than one in five U.S. online consumers use a mobile messaging app daily, and globally the picture is even bigger, with WhatsApp, WeChat and Viber all claiming audiences to rival Twitter’s, according to analyst Benedict Evans. More than 500 million photos are exchanged via WhatsApp daily — 150 million more than Facebook and several orders of magnitude more than on Instagram.

Furthermore, users are highly engaged with these apps, with the minutes spent in-app globally dwarfing usage of Facebook’s messaging service, Forrester reports.

Forrester data on mobile messaging apps

But while the high valuations mark strong potential, actual revenues so far are scant — and the apps present a host of challenges for merchants. First, the services are intended for private or semi-private use among individuals — making commercial messages more potentially intrusive than a status update on Twitter. Perhaps for that reason, the apps currently feature no advertising units; brands must seek permission for users to receive their messages, much like with an SMS campaign. Finally, if the proliferation of social networkng platforms seems dizzying, that’s nothing compared with the array of mobile messaging apps — more than 50 of which have more than a million downloads on Google Play, and a dozen of which have more than 50 million downloads, according to Evans.

So how should merchants proceed? A couple of guidelines:

Take an experimental approach — with exceptions. For most, mobile messaging apps represent an intriguing frontier to explore, rather than an urgent mandate; they shouldn’t unseat mobile Web site optimization as a priority, for example. But as always, there are exceptions, depending on the brand’s target audience. A couple of notable ones:

  • Merchants doing business (or planning to) in Asia. With mobile phones serving as many consumers’ primary connection to the Internet in Asia, mobile messaging apps are especially popular, with top apps Line, Kakao and WeChat originating in Japan, South Korea and China, respectively. Merchants seeking to engage shoppers in Asian markets need to invest in these services sooner rather than later, and to consider participating in nascent eCommerce messaging efforts, such as Line’s flash sale program. Response to the flash sale alerts has been strong, such as with this promotion for Maybelline, which sold out in 13 minutes.

Maybelline Line campaign

(image from TheNextWeb)

 Social media data from GlobalWebIndex

Plan for complementary SMS and messaging app strategies. Recently we recommended that merchants consider developing an SMS marketing strategy — and that advice still holds. But merchants should delve into their target audience’s behavior to determine whether mobile messaging apps are likely to overtake the messaging services native to their devices, and plan accordingly.

It’s also crucial to recognize the distinct qualities of SMS versus messaging apps, and build campaigns accordingly. Plain-text delivery of transactional updates might better be suited to SMS, for example, while video snippets and images more seamlessly integrate within a messaging app.

And then there are the stickers. The decorative icons are used pervasively in mobile messaging apps; some cost users a small fee, while others are provided by brands, who pay for the service to offer them free to users. The stickers can help brands introduce themselves to users across mobile messaging app networks — a strategy that worked for musician Paul McCartney, whose series of stickers on Line helped build a following of over 3 million (compared with 1.87 million on Twitter).

Paul McCartney Line campaign

(image from TheNextWeb)

Are you investing in mobile messaging apps, and if so, which one(s)?

When disaster strikes – best practices for problems large and small

Over the holidays Target and Nieman Marcus experienced security breaches – proving that even the largest mass merchants aren’t immune to hacking. Even if you avoid massive security problems, there are bound to be web site problems, product recalls or even email errors that need correcting … it’s not a matter of if, but when.

It’s imperative to be prepared with plans and transparent policies that reassure customers and spotlight proactive service. Here are a few of our favorite disaster recovery tools:

1) Full and fast disclosure

In this age of information, full and early disclosure quickly followed by steps to move forward is crucial. While most agree that Target eventually came through with a comprehensive program to salve customer trust, the company waited far too long: rumors of the breach first surfaced on December 12, yet the company’s official statement wasn’t released until December 19. A millenia in Internet communications time. Nieman Marcus didn’t chart bold new territory in its disclosure either, waiting 2 weeks before it alerted customers.

“…Target was behind when this first broke,” Levick strategic communications firm’s Jason Maloni told the Minneapolis StarTribune. “Anytime you are not controlling the release of information, you lose the opportunity to cast yourself in the role of the hero rather than the villain.”

Forbes reported in February that Target’s sales figures fell in the second half of the fourth quarter by as much as 46% attributed to lack of consumer trust.

We hope your errors aren’t as big, but no matter the size, getting out in front and leading the parade of information is huge.

2) Work that web site and email list

Now is the time to capitalize on your web real estate and coveted email list. In addition to admitting an error or disclosing a problem, find ways to help your customers, with links, videos, or other resources. Here are some damage control examples:

Catching up at Target

Target highlighted the security breach on its home page during the busy holiday season, and a midpage reference to a “data incident” can still be found today, three months later. Some complained that the plain black and white banner was too subtle, but the retail giant also emailed customers and offered free credit monitoring for a year.

Target Home Page Dec 26

Target’s web site now also offers a comprehensive section on their security misfortune, with information and resources including a video with CEO Gregg Steinhafel discussing the handling of the breach.

Screenshot: Target's Security Breach Crisis Web Response

Product Recalls at Diapers.com

Diapers.com takes a proactive stance about product issues and spreads the word on behalf of a manufacturer with an email notifying buyers of new information about recalled car seats. The email, whose plain format distinguishes it from potentially skippable marketing messages, links buyers to resources found at both the online retailer’s and the manufacturer’s web sites. Such “pre-emptive” service can not only stave off calls to customer service, but helps time-starved customers connect immediately to the resources they need to act on the recall — thereby establishing Diapers.com as a brand that delivers convenience and efficiency as well as products.

Diapers.com Graco Product Recall Email

Email marketing oops at Sur la Table

The kitchenware aficionado Sur la Table even cleans up mistakes with panache. What do they do when the subject line of the a promotional email announcing a special dinnerware sale doesn’t match the content featuring in-store cooking classes? They make it right by sending out another message that uses both humility and humor. Let’s try again … “sometimes emails are like souffles – they don’t turn out. Here’s the dinnerware sale email we meant to send you.” Note that the tone is appropriate for the relative lack of severity of the glitch; no one would want to receive as breezy a message if identity theft were the issue.

Sur La Table Ooops Email

The Sur la Table email gaff is minor in relation to the Target and Nieman Marcus public relations nightmares, but true character is often revealed under pressure and handling mistakes with forthrightness can even be an opportunity to boost brand image because customers know details matter always.

3) Step up social media response

Now that social media is an integral part of the culture, a daily (or hourly) ritual for many, using it for customer care is moving from cutting-edge concept to business necessity according to experts at the recent Wharton School of Business Social Media Best Practices Conference. There’s a good chance your customers will take their grievances to social media — whether you’re monitoring there or not.

A Target Facebook reply during security breach

While they have since been tidied up, on Target’s Twitter and Facebook pages, many incensed shoppers complained about still not being able to access their accounts, being on hold for hours or not being able to call into the customer service line. To its credit, Target’s social media staff responded to posts in a timely manner, but often didn’t have much advice to give other than to apologize.

It is important to respond to every Tweet and Facebook comment that mentions your brand and its problems. Wharton’s social media panelists agreed, responses must be personal, and it’s essential to strike the right tone. This requires constant adjustments based upon your customer’s reactions. It can be a huge undertaking with more and more social media outlets making inroads into the daily lives of countless Americans, but social media is now a mandatory communications tool.

Both Target and Nieman Marcus tweeted about their hacking debacles, but too late and unprepared for the onslaught. Customer service responses were canned, and Target’s service web site even went down. Ouch.

4) Be ready to respond to your customers

According to most reports, even once Target began disclose, communication with customers was far from adequate. The online pages customers were being sent to were down, call centers were overwhelmed and staff at store locations did not have answers, as the Facebook response above indicates.

Your entire customer service team needs to be fully informed and on the same page. Make sure your offline human resources are at the ready. Staff up. There is nothing that adds insult to injury like misinformation, long lines, being on indefinite hold or suffering through multiple transfers or redirections on the telephone.

Don’t force staff to rely on scripts or cardboard public relations statements either. Critics commenting on Target’s shortcomings pointed out empathy is key. Your customers are more likely to accept your mistakes and move on if you are earnest and sound human.

Then you are on the road to building relationships, regaining trust and resuming business as usual.

What are some challenges your brand has faced with damage control? What worked?

How to boost engagement on Twitter beyond discounts

There’s plenty of data out there showing that people follow brands on social media trolling for the discounts. Indeed, it’s the top reason given in a recent Price Waterhouse Coopers survey of 8,000+ consumers. And according to Twitter itself, of it’s legions of users, 94 percent reported they follow brands for the discounts and promotions. Not far behind, at 88 percent, are those who follow brands for the “free stuff.”

So how’s a merchant supposed to boost engagement on Twitter without giving away the store? Try a little eye-candy. Embedding eye-catching photos into your Tweets is one of the most effective ways to grab people’s attention, like this one from Armani last month.

Armani Valentine's Day Tweet

No discounts necessary

The data demonstrating that images boost Twitter engagement is undeniable. Tweets for brands offering links through pic.twitter.com, Twitter’s image service, are the highest performing type of link when it comes to engagement, according to a survey by social media analytics firm, Simply Measured. Tweets that embedded an image through Twitter received an average of 210 engagements, defined as a reply, retweet or mention. No other links come close.

Visual content is key on Twitter

The next two highest performers, tumblr.com and pinterest.com, also include photo sharing services, while the third was micro-video service, Vine.co, also owned by Twitter. All further confirm the point that visual elements are a crucial engagement drivers.

Consider creating a hashtag-based picture-sharing campaign that stimulates follower contributions. Here’s one from Armani responding to and sharing a follower’s pic/tweet. This is smart because it asked a question and invited a return response.

Armani Exchange Twitter Hashtag

Don’t be afraid to share works in progress or products in development, either. They can heighten anticipation and give customers a sense of having an inside track on what’s just over the horizon.

Griot’s Garage, a car care products supplier based in Tacoma, Wash., offered this sneak peak at the classic car — a 1957 Buick Special Estate Wagon — to be featured on it’s upcoming catalog cover connecting its Twitter users to Instagram.

Griot's Garage Tweet

Griot's Garage Instagram

No worries if you don’t have images of classic cars or sultry models lying around. Fans of brands like to see what’s going on behind the scenes, too. Design Within Reach, the innovative New York-based furniture and accessories retailer Tweeted this image of it’s animated and stylish staff in its new San Francisco office.

DWR behind the scenes Tweet

A few other pointers for making sure your Tweets are well-received, according to the social enterprise software firm, Buddy Media, include:

— Keep it short. 140 characters may seem short enough, but Tweets with less than 100 characters see a 17 percent increase in engagement.

— Use hashtags, but sparingly. One to two hashtags equals a 21% increase in engagement, more than two sees a 17% decrease in engagement.

— Ask followers to retweet. 99% of brands don’t do this, but the analysis suggests doing so increases “amplification” by 12 times. If you spell out “retweet,” it jumps to 23 times higher.

As for content, it’s limited only by your creativity. Links to articles and stories of interest to your target audience are a great method of keeping the conversation going, as is retweeting follower contributions.

Participating in popular social media memes, like “Throwback Thursday,” is another way connect with your highly social audience. Or, start your own meme. Skin care retailer H2o Plus shared this alluring photo on what it dubbed Water Wednesday.

H2O Plus Water Wednesday

What Twitter strategies have you found drive engagement?

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