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?

6 ways to modernize customer reviews for 2014

By now, merchants know that customer reviews are an essential component of product content. Reviews are increasingly widespread, with more than 60% of the merchants in Internet Retailer’s list of Top 500 merchants using them.

As a result, the long-standing best practices surrounding reviews, if not universally adopted, are at least well-known — from avoiding censorship of negative reviews (since negative reviews can actually drive sales) to enabling ratings of individual product attributes to using review content in merchandising and marketing.

But the ubiquity of reviews and the increasingly savvy online consumers who consult them require merchants to up their game. Shoppers’ sophistication about review content, as well as their access to mobile technologies and social sharing opportunities, all play a role in the latest best-of-breed implementations. Among the ways to freshen reviews for 2014 and beyond:

Seek reviews, not just star ratings, from those in the know. Shoppers’ disregard of star ratings was among the surprising findings from a 2013 study of more than 18,000 Amazon reviews. Higher sales were associated with products with a mix of high and low ratings, versus those with uniformly negative or positive ratings — again demonstrating the importance of negative reviews. But what shoppers paid attention to most was the review text itself; positive reviews with a more credible linguistic style had more impact than those that displayed no particular expertise about the product or the product category. So to enhance the credibility of their reviews, merchants should encourage submissions from frequent or long-time buyers who are best able to evaluate and compare products.

MarketLive merchant Peruvian Connection makes submission of a detailed review easy by providing helpful tips for content. The review display includes several indicators of a contributor’s knowledge of brand offerings, from a “First Time Customer?” attribute to badges for top contributors.

Review example from Peruvian Connection

Let shoppers “review the review”.  Allowing shoppers to vote on whether a particular contribution was helpful gives merchants a criterion for prioritizing display of reviews, while the ability to comment on reviews enables a dialogue among customers and would-be buyers. And, of course, customer service staff can use the commenting feature to respond to reviews and provide further information.

Summarize with a representative sample of the best reviews. In addition to aggregating and averaging the star ratings, merchants should provide a summary sampling of the most popular comments so that shoppers can quickly scan to get the gist of opinions. The summary should be representative of the entire body of reviews for the product, good and bad, while showcasing the reviews deemed most helpful.

MarketLive merchant Perricone MD provides a review snapshot that includes the most liked positive and negative reviews, along with a list of popular product attributes as indicated by reviewers.

Review example from Perricone MD

Enable multimedia reviews. Since consumers increasingly have a camera and video recorder — in the form of their smartphones — within easy reach, and are increasingly comfortable with posting pictures and video online, merchants should go beyond text-and-ratings reviews to take advantage of this new potential pool of user-generated content. Review submission forms should prominently invite inclusion of photos and video, and review displays should showcase multimedia content. In addition, merchants should allow shoppers to sort and filter reviews according to whether they have images or video, and even consider adding the presence of multimedia reviews as an attribute for guided search alongside star ratings.

Retro-style clothing and home decor merchant ModCloth includes photo submission on its review form, and pictures are displayed alongside review text.

Review example from ModCloth

Syndicate review content across touchpoints. Social media is an ideal platform for sharing product review content, as brand followers are hungry for recommendations from other customers. At the least, merchants should consider featuring “top-rated” products on Facebook and/or Pinterest, and quoting review text aspart of the presentation.

MarketLive merchant Figi’s prominently features a link to product reviews from its main Timeline page on Facebook. The page offers social shoppers the ability to browse featured products and customer favorites, and to submit reviews directly from within Facebook.

Review example from Figi's

Disclose collection methods up-front. Achieving “critical mass” for reviews is crucial to relevance — but so is transparency when it comes to methods of achieving it. Merchants who aggregate reviews from other sites (e.g. Amazon), or who incentivize customers to contribute reviews with contests or prize drawings, should disclose those practices as part of the review display on the product page. Sears includes a line in its review summary noting that some contributors have received benefits in exchange for their submissions — but emphasizes those benefits weren’t conditional based on review content.

Review example from Sears

How are you maximizing the efficacy of customer reviews?

Getting real about the benefits of account registration

Account creation — when a shopper signs up with a username and password to save information such as wish list picks — is perceived as a sign of heightened engagement, and a significant opportunity. After all, the activities of signed-in users can be more easily tracked and used to personalize products and offers for future visits; using a single login across devices enables a unified shopping experience; and social login has facilitated seamless sharing and instant insight into popular items.

But just how valuable is the user profile on which account creation is based — whether on the eCommerce site or via a social networking login? An array of recent data suggest that retailers shouldn’t put too much stock in the information shoppers offer up. For starts, four in five of the  98% of shoppers who say they’ve been targeted with irrelevant offers admit they play a part in these misfires by providing false or incomplete information when registering on Web sites, according to social technology provider Janrain. Similarly, more than a quarter of all U.S. Internet users admit to attempting to protect their privacy by using a temporary username or email address, while close to one in five admitted to using a fake or untraceable username, and 13% said they gave false information about themselves.

Furthermore, regardless of the factual accuracy of account profile information, registration isn’t an indicator of enhanced brand loyalty. Fully 92% of consumers report having left a site where they’d previously registered when they forgot their login, rather than requesting a password reset or other assistance, the Janrain study found — and close to a third of consumers say they frequently abandon sites in such situations.

For merchants, then, site registration remains a tricky proposition. While social integration tools and the need for mobile-desktop cohesion make registration desirable, login shouldn’t present a barrier to consumers who seek a straightforward brand interaction. And when consumers do register, merchants should provide a heightened shopping experience that encourages a more meaningful brand commitment. Among the strategies to consider:

Guest checkout. We’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: for most merchants, forced account registration is an unwise move. Merchants who require account creation prior to purchase often hope to collect shoppers’ email addresses and thereby salvage any transactions that are abandoned; but it’s a vicious cycle, as forced registration increases friction in the checkout process to such an extent that it increases the very abandonment it was meant to counteract. And considering that shoppers irked at being forced to create accounts are probably more likely to supply false information, the potential pitfalls outweigh the benefits.

In a heartening trend, merchants are increasingly apt to provide guest checkout that does not require account creation. When we revisited the 100 sites from the Internet Retailer Top 500 we surveyed in 2011, we found that a number of them had dropped the requirement, resulting in a 28% overall drop in the number of sites using forced registration.

Statistics on forced account creation

Cross-touchpoint flexibility as a registration benefit. Beyond basic tools such as saved address books, gift registries, order histories and the like, merchants should provide shoppers with additional reasons to take registration seriously, provide authentic profile information and login in again on future visits. Among the features to consider:

  • A global cart that enables logged-in shoppers to access their browsing, purchase and add-to-cart history across devices, whether via the mobile web or an app

  • Account registration that ties into existing loyalty or membership programs

  • In-store benefits to registered users, such as the ability to access exclusive coupons for scanning and redemption in-store, or priority access to in-store events

Target’s new Cartwheel program enables shoppers to sign in to save products and deals of interest, which are then accessible in-store via mobile app. While most merchants don’t have the resources to pull off a program so vast in scope, they should consider what individual elements they might implement — a personalized mobile alerts service keyed off past browsing and purchase history, for example.

Cartwheel app from Target

Social login with purpose. While on the surface, offering social login is a potential convenience booster for shoppers, it’s important for merchants not to assume adding a social login button will solve all their engagement and conversion woes. For starts, even with a fully-integrated social login, shoppers are still going to have to key in their shipping and billing address, payment information and possibly even phone number during the purchase process — so it behooves merchants to find reasons beyond efficiency to encourage usage. Among the ways to make social login work:

  • Use the social networking password as the registration password. Asking consumers to sign in using social media, then to create a separate site password, is counter-productive.

  • Collect only the information necessary for functionality. While it’s tempting to mine consumers’ social media profiles for friends’ information, birth dates, and other data, merchants should be realistic about what information they can actually use to enhance the shopping experience, and only ask for what they need. Adding a screen explaining how data will be used can help allay shoppers’ hesitation about sharing information.

  • Devise social shopping opportunities to sweeten the proposition. By offering shoppers an insight into what their friends are viewing, pinning, liking and buying, merchants can create an interactive experience that makes social login worthwhile.

Fab.com uses social data to show recently-favorited items, as well as the most popular picks, in addition to products specifically from shoppers’ friends.

Social integration on Fab.com

How are you making the most of account registration?

How to focus social media efforts for 2014

For many merchants, social media continues to be a tricky proposition when it comes to achieving ROI. Direct sales from social networks amount to just 1-2% of all revenues, according to the MarketLive Performance Index, which means that merchants must dig deep to justify their investment. And that investment needs to be significant if merchants are to adequately staff social media for responsive service and innovative content — making the value proposition even more potentially lopsided.

For those reasons, many merchants are striving to focus social media efforts. With an ever-expanding array of social networks to consider, that task may seem impossible — but recent data suggests the opposite may be true. With more options than ever, consumers increasingly being selective and gravitating toward individual social networks that cater best to their needs, making it easier for brands to reach their intended audiences.

For merchants to successfully reach their target audience, they should:

Consider the demographics. December 2013 data from the Pew Internet & American Life project gives merchants insight into the leading social networks — both in terms of numbers of users by factors such as age and ethnicity as well as frequency of usage. This combined information can help merchants not only select appropriate social networks, but also throttle resource allocation. For example, while Pinterest has replaced Twitter as the third most popular social network, Twitter users log in far more frequently, with double the number of Twitter users reporting they check the site at least daily.

Data on social media from Pew Data on social media from Pew

Dig deeper into Facebook engagement for younger audiences. As the Pew report shows, Facebook dominates both in terms of frequency and popularity, with 71% of all Internet users reporting they use the site. But while 84% of 18-to-29-year-olds report using Facebook, and 94% of teenagers aged 13 to 19 report doing so, survey responses suggest they consider the social network the purview of adults and assume their posts are monitored by parents and potential employers — prompting them to prefer other platforms for unfettered social interaction.  Research firm NextAdvisor found that Tumblr ranked highest among social networks, with 66% of teens reporting usage, while 9% fewer teens in 2013 versus 2012 named Facebook as the most important social site. In addition to Tumblr, the photo-sharing site Instagram ranked high in NextAdvisor’s survey, with SnapChat — which delivers photos, then deletes them after 10 seconds — becoming popular as a means of sharing images without the fear of leaving a permanent online record.

Data on social media

Incorporate mobile into social strategy. Regardless of demographic segment, merchants should assume their audience will access brand social outposts via mobile devices. Fully two in three smartphone owners say they use their devices to connect with social media, according to eMarketer — slightly higher than the 65% who visit social media sites on their laptop or desktop browser. More than half of tablet owners use them for social media.   All in all, eMarketer forecasts that more than one in three consumers will access social media via smartphone this year.

Data on mobile/social use from eMarketer

To adapt to this usage, merchants should design social strategies with mobile in mind, from posting links to mobile-friendly landing pages to featuring mobile-friendly content such as store locators within Facebook.

Go beyond the numbers. While demographics and industry-wide statistics can serve as a guide, ultimately merchants must rely on in-depth knowledge of their audience in order to develop effective social strategies. To understand the preference of their existing and potential customers, merchants should use:

  • Surveys. Ask existing customers about social media usage and what social content would be helpful.

  • Analytics. Study traffic logs to identify social sources — both mobile and desktop — of existing traffic.

  • Competitive data. Examine what social offerings exist for brands that cater to relevant audiences.

  • Product shares. Merchants can enable sharing of products from the eCommerce or mobile site even to those social networks where they haven’t established official brand profiles. Destinations where items are frequently shared merit further exploration.

  • Social “listening”. Monitoring social sites for brand mentions and unofficial pages or profiles enables merchants to both identify social opportunities and provide responsive customer service.

How are you fine-tuning and focusing social strategy for 2014?

Riding the second wave: post-season sales

While the holiday gift-buying season is wrapping up, the next shopping frenzy is just about to begin. Post-season sales and gift card redemption purchases are poised to fuel a busy leadup to the New Year — and data suggests that consumers will start this wave of spending earlier than ever.

Measurement firm comScore reported that in 2012, online sales on Christmas Day itself rose by 36% to $288 million — not a huge sum compared with billion-dollar holiday events like Black Friday, but a significant opportunity nonetheless. Overall, online sales for the first quarter have topped $50 billion for the past two years, according to comScore, signaling that merchants mustn’t let their focus lapse after the peak fourth quarter.

To kick off the post-season, merchants should:

Balance email promotions for Christmas Day. Many merchants thank shoppers for their support in a year-end email that has no commercial strings attached. But with shoppers increasingly logging on immediately after the gifts under the tree have been opened, merchants must strike a new balance with their messaging — whether by scheduling a second message to highlight the kickoff of post-season sales, or by subtly combining the two functions, as Totes-Isotoner did last year. The MarketLive merchant positioned its 50% offer as a thank-you gift to its customers.

Christmas email example from Totes

Spotlight recent favorites and exclusives on the eCommerce site. The fresh wave of shoppers visiting merchant sites is likely to include recipients of gift cards or gifts to exchange who aren’t already familiar with the brand. That’s why, in addition to crucial customer service information, merchants should spotlight popular products and brand exclusives to tantalize them into purchasing. Showcasing top gift picks from the recent holiday season, top-rated products, or trending items on social networking sites such as Pinterest demonstrates the breadth of the brand’s offering, as well as providing endorsements from other customers.

Be prepared for a social rush. Social media users rely on that channel to interact with brands for customer service: nearly half have relied on “social care,” according to NM Incite, and 30% of consumers prefer to access customer service via social media than the phone. A positive customer service experience can lead to a boost in word-of-mouth recommendations: shoppers who use social networks for customer service are three times as likely to recommend a brand after a successful interaction, according to NM Incite. So it behooves merchants to staff up for instant response during the post-season sales rush, as shoppers flock online in search of information about returns and exchanges and gift card redemption.

Merchants should even consider proactively posting customer service information on social networks, boosting efficiency and convenience. MarketLive merchant Figi’s anchors a link to customer service information at the top of its Facebook timeline page, providing users of the social network direct access to a searchable set of frequently-asked questions, along with the ability to ask a question directly online.

Facebook customer service example from Figi's

We have a lot of great content planned in 2014 — starting with a MarketLive Performance Index wrapup of holiday season sales and a look ahead at the trends set to shape online commerce in 2014. Stay tuned, and meantime, best wishes for a prosperous holiday!

The 3 locations merchants overlook when promoting gift cards

As the holiday season rounds the bend into the final fortnight, merchants would do well to step up promotion of gift cards. As we previously reported, gift card sales are poised to soar again this year, with more than half of shoppers reporting they’ll turn to gift cards for at more than one in 10 recipients on their list, according to the MarketLive Consumer Shopping Survey. Industry-wide, the National Retail Federation reports that 8 in 10 shoppers will purchase  a gift card this season, and the amount spent on gift cards will jump 4% compared with last year.

Given the importance of gift cards, most merchants by now know to promote their offerings prominently, and to pre-empt customer service enquiries by clearly spelling out delivery options redemption policies. But while there’s almost always a home page link to gift card purchasing and mention of gift cards in email campaigns, there are several key junctures merchants are missing when it comes to gift-card messaging.

As shoppers become increasingly desperate to find gifts for the final names on their lists, and as order deadlines for items to arrive in time pass, merchants should use every means available to promote gift cards. Tweak site presentation and promotions now to highlight gift cards:

In transactional email. Recent buyers are low-hanging fruit for merchants; they’re already familiar with the brand and have committed to purchasing. And as we’ve reported earlier, the majority of consumers now expect to receive promotional information along with order and delivery confirmation emails, according to a study from the E-Tailing Group and MyBuys. Merchants should remind these customers that after scoring a valuable gift find the first time around, they can take care of other recipients on their list with ease and convenience using gift cards.

Via social media. It’s one thing to post a status update or Tweet reminding followers to pick up last-minute gift cards; it’s another to anchor gift cards into the social experience. Merchants should make gift card information — or better yet, direct gift card purchase — one of the main links from the Timeline page in Facebook, and include a direct link to gift card purchasing from Twitter. Merchants can even get creative and build Pinterest pinboards around top items for gift-card recipients.

MarketLive merchant Sport Chalet has anchored a link to gift cards from a prominent spot on the brand’s Facebook Timeline. Followers can buy either a physical card or an e-gift card directly from within Facebook, upping convenience by enabling them to complete gift purchases without leaving the social environment.

Gift card promotion from Sport Chalet

On product pages. While most merchants include prominent promotion of gift cards on their eCommerce site home pages and in holiday gift guides, many shoppers now enter brand sites directly on product pages via search engine results. A text link in the global header doesn’t suffice to alert these incoming visitors to gift card options; merchants should incorporate a promotion within the center content area — if need be, by using a cross-sell slot, as ThinkGeek does with an anchored “Gift Certificates” link.

Gift certificate promotion from ThinkGeek

Where and how are you promoting gift cards this holiday season?

Performance Index: Holiday season off to strong start

The initial results are in from the Thanksgiving and Black Friday weekend, and merchants have reason to rejoice. Data from the MarketLive Performance Index, which reports aggregate data from leading specialty merchants, shows year over year sales gains of more than 50% on both Thanksgiving Day and Black Friday, with Saturday and Sunday each earning revenue growth of more than 40%.

The increased sales were driven by double-digit growth in visits throughout the weekend that peaked with a 44% jump in traffic on Black Friday. Improvements in the add-to-cart rate, conversion rate and abandonment rate indicated that merchants have fine-tuned offerings to present relevant products and offers that spur shoppers to become buyers.

Performance Index data for Black Friday weekend

These results are especially heartening after indications that the weekend brought lean results industry-wide. The National Retail Federation estimated that overall sales in stores and online totaled $57.4 billion — a 1.7% drop compared with the organization’s 2012 estimate of $59.1 billion for the same weekend. Online, the news was brighter, with measurement firm comScore reporting revenue gains of 21% for Thanksgiving and 5% for Black Friday, when online sales topped $1 billion for the day.

The even stronger results from the MarketLIve Index suggest that small- to mid-sized merchants are winning buyers without necessarily resorting to the deep-discounting strategies adopted by leading mass merchants whose combined revenues make up the lion’s share of the industry results. By presenting shoppers with comprehensive product and lifestyle content, building a community of like-minded enthusiasts, showcasing superior customer service and encouraging repeat sales and long-term loyalty, merchants are successfully competing with Amazon and other top online destinations, even during this ultra-competitive season.

To continue outperforming the industry for the remainder of the season, merchants should:

Encourage repeat engagement. Many merchants we surveyed over the peak buying weekend had launched extended initiatives spotlighting one product or deal per day. Such campaigns not only entice shoppers to continually return to the site and potentially make additional purchases as new offers are revealed, but they also provide buzz-worthy fodder for sharing via social media. MarketLive merchant World Market launched its “24 Days of Deals” over the weekend, with a daily discount presented via an Advent-calendar type layout on the eCommerce site.

Holiday promotion from World Market

Entice social followers into deeper interaction. Social media can be an effective tool for driving new visitors to brand sites, and during this peak season, savvy merchants are capitalizing on the buzz on social outposts to encourage further engagement from followers. Among the tactics in play:

  • Sweepstakes that allow shoppers to enter daily or earn extra entries when they share products or offers with friends

  • User-generated content submissions that express the brand’s identity

  • Direct purchasing via Facebook — especially for gift cards

  • Email signup via Facebook

MarketLive merchant dELiA*s offers Facebook followers the opportunity to sign up to receive email updates without leaving the social network environment. Followers can even register using their profile information, further smoothing the signup process. By promising that subscribers will “always be the first” to learn about new products and promotions, dELiA*s appeals to social followers accustomed to receiving constant updates and being instantly in-the-know. By subscribing to email alerts, followers will receive word of brand offerings even if they happen to miss an individual post or Tweet.

Social email signup from Delia's

Stay tuned to the blog for further holiday results throughout the season. Meantime, how was your Black Friday weekend, and what tactics are seeing the most success for your brand?

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