Holiday Tip #7: Use holiday social content to differentiate your brand

In a crowded holiday marketplace, merchants must use every tool available to differentiate their brands — and that includes canny usage of social media to demonstrate uniqueness and value.

The facts

Shoppers are increasingly discovering Web sites via a variety of sources — and social is a key player. Technology researcher Forrester found that 25% of online adults have used Facebook to find information or Web sites in the past year, second only to natural search as a source of Web site leads.

And when it comes to holiday sales, consumers report that social media carries heightened importance. The MarketLive/E-Tailing Group 2015 Consumer Shopping Survey found that more than half of shoppers turn to social media to get ideas and referrals from friends and to share their own recommendations. Overall, 27% of survey participants said social media had led them to make purchases — a much larger percentage than last-click attribution statistics suggest.

MarketLive/E-Tailing Group research on social media

Given that more than half of 2014 holiday shoppers said they were open to purchasing from new retailers and 41% actually did so, the impact of social media as the matchmaker introducing shoppers to new brands is potentially significant.

The action item

While showcasing product links and promotional offers is a key component of social strategy for the holidays, standing out from the crowd requires more than promo codes. Merchants should use social media to convey the credibility, service, and ethics behind the brands in order to convince new shoppers to commit to purchases. Among the content to highlight:

  • Aspirational, inspirational content. Posting content that provides holiday solutions beyond the immediate gift list demonstrates that brands understand their audience’s priorities and share relevant expertise. Recipes, holiday craft ideas, travel tips, winter fitness inspiration, and cocktail suggestions can flesh out brand personas and increase the likelihood that new visitors will become followers.
  • Craftsmanship and provenance. Highlighting artisanal expertise not only elevates the value of products, but can illuminate a brand’s commitment to sustainability and fair trade. More than two-thirds of shoppers say knowing the provenance of products is important, but just 15% believe brands communicate about it transparently, according to marketing firm Edelman.
  • Holiday charitable campaigns. Another way to demonstrate brand ethics is to spotlight holiday charitable giving, and/or to invite social followers to donate or volunteer. Doing so can not only bolster perceptions of integrity, but inspire purchases as well: for more than half of shoppers, social purpose is the most important factor when evaluating a brand if price and product quality are equal, according to Edelman.
  • Behind-the-scenes holiday fun. Merchants should use social media to pull back the curtain and reveal staff holiday hijinks and tips, both as a way of sharing useful holiday information and to demonstrate that real people stand behind the brand.
  • Customer service essentials. Proactively establishing a forward position on social media with customer service content — from live chat links to deadlines for on-time delivery to return policies — eliminates the need for shoppers to hunt the eCommerce site and signals that the brand goes above and beyond to deliver satisfaction.

Throughout the 2014 holiday season, MarketLive merchant Title Nine, a women’s recreational clothing outfitter, engaged its social audiences with content that went beyond products — from a sneak peek of the staff Thanksgiving buffet the Wednesday before the holiday to service messages about last-minute shipping.

Social media example from Title Nine

Social media example from Title Nine

Want more holiday? Watch for more tips on the blog this week and check out MarketLive’s holiday resource center for best practices guides and more.

3 ways to thrive in the brave new world of acquisition – MarketLive Performance Index

Third-quarter results are in for the MarketLive Performance Index, and the data indicates that merchants are heading into the holiday season with strong growth potential — even as reaching new customers poses a real challenge.

Top-line revenue growth topped 13% on traffic growth of nearly 20%, signalling that shoppers flocked online through the autumn to take advantage of back-to-school and pre-holiday promotions. That strong traffic growth originated from an increase in direct visits to the Web site (e.g. from those who typed in the URL) and visits from email. Both of those marketing channels are typically associated with existing customers, or at least those already connected with the brand: typing in the URL suggests familiarity with the brand, and clicks from email are usually coming from those who’ve already subscribed to marketing messages.

Of couse, improvement in retention is good news. Returning customers currently are responsible for an outsized proportion of total eCommerce revenues: while repeat customers represent 40% of Web site visitors, they bring in 61% of total online sales, according to technology researcher Forrester. Heading into the peak holiday season, merchants should do their utmost to continue appealing to these valuable shoppers with personalized offers that reflect past browsing and buying behavior. (This topic is so important we’ll dedicate an entire holiday-themed post to it; stay tuned.)

But the Index data also suggested a more challenging trend for merchants for the holidays, with declines in traffic from social media and both paid and natural search. Since those sources are often considered acquisition channels for new shoppers, the Index results suggest that merchants may have an uphill battle when it comes to standing out from the crowd to win new business.

Any number of factors could be at play to drive down the incoming traffic from search and social — the difficulty of winning prime natural search results real estate, especially on smartphones;  the steadily rising costs of paid search placements (including PLAs, or product listing ads), changes in Facebook’s news feed algorithm, and more. The sheer competitiveness of the marketplace is also a factor; according to our number-crunching, the top 10 merchants in Internet Retailer’s Top 500 account for more than 50% of total eCommerce sales, leaving the vast majority of the online marketplace to compete for their share of the remaining revenues.

This environment poses a special challenge during the holiday season, when over half of consumers are open to new brands and 41% actually purchase from a new brand, according to Google. To take advantage of that opportunity, and to buck the trend suggested by the Index data, merchants should consider circumventing “traditional” modes of winning referral traffic to engage shoppers effectively. Among the options:

In-social “conversion” opportunities. Whether or not merchants opt to experiment with the “buy” button now offered on social networks, they can offer visitors to their brand outposts more than scrolling status updates. By enabling consumers to connect with live chat, subscribe to email promotions, and even purchase gift cards without leaving the social environment, merchants avoid requiring a transition to the eCommerce site to engage more deeply with the brand.

MarketLive merchant Marc Jacobs Beauty invites visitors to its Facebook page to become “LoveMarc Member”s by signing up for email updates. Filling out the brief form results in a thank-you message displayed within Facebook that includes an instant offer code.

Social conversion opportunity from Marc Jacobs Beauty

Visibility via online influencers. Merchants should actively seek out and court bloggers, haul video creators, and Instagrammers who have significant followings among the brand’s target audience, and participate actively in their communities. In doing so, merchants build visibility, credibility and interest in their brands, while also evaluating whether it’s worthwhile to approach content creators with paid placement or partnership offers.

Amped-up referrals. To boost the already-considerable power of word-of-mouth recommendations, merchants should follow the example of flash sale sites, Amazon Prime, and other cutting-edge sellers to incentivize referrals with cold, hard cash. Formalized referral programs that earn benefits for the referrer as well as discounts for the new customer both introduce the brand to potential new customers and invite repeat business.

MarketLive merchant Cost Plus World Market offers $10 off to referrers whose friends go on to make a purchase, and those customers receive $10 off a $50 purchase. The simple sign-up form requires only a name and email address and offers shoppers the means to invite friends via social media, email, or using a direct link.


Download the full Performance Index report for more data, including results by industry, and read the official press release for further details. Stay tuned for further holiday advice and results throughout the season — and meantime, let us know: what techniques have been successful in earning new holiday business?

6 tips for optimizing Instagram for the holidays

With its alluring combination of stunning imagery, socializing, and mobility, Instagram is among the fastest-growing social networks around. A majority of top merchants have recognized the brand-building potential of the social network — and a set of best practices are quickly emerging to maximize effectiveness as an eCommerce touchpoint.

More than one in four online adults in the U.S. now use Instagram, compared with 17% in 2013 — an increase of nearly 60%. And globally, the influence is even greater: the social network now claims a community of 400 million users, with 75% of users outside the U.S.

Not surprisingly given the numbers and the product-friendly image-centric format, top eCommerce brands have embraced Instagram as a social platform. Close to 73% of merchants on Internet Retailer’s list of Top 500 eCommerce brands have an Instagram presence. Within Internet Retailer’s Second 500, Instagram’s reach is less pervasive, but still represents more than half of the merchants on the list.

One reason smaller merchants may be more hesitant than mega-brands to leap on the Instagram bandwagon is that on the surface, the platform seems unfriendly to purchasing. So far, no “buy” button has been launched on the platform, and URLs in captions of editorial posts aren’t hyperlinked, depriving merchants of a facile way to connect images to products. (The platform’s paid ads do include live links.)

But where there’s a will, there’s a way. Brands are flocking to Instagram, and are successfully engaging new audiences; follower counts have grown an average of 26% since last year, according to research firm L2. So with the all-important holiday season fast approaching, merchants should tap into the engagement potential of Instagram by optimizing offerings to align with emerging best practices. Among them:

Explore third-party offerings for monetizing posts on Instagram. While the social network itself doesn’t offer much in the way of commerce-friendly features, several third-party app providers have jumped into the fray with offerings that enable sales via Instagram. Among them:

  • Via Soldsie and Instaorders, brands can establish a custom gallery at a separate URL combining their Instagram feeds with direct links to individual products.
  • Inselly and 10sec combine individual images with specific product links, but post them to an aggregate marketplace. Merchants opt into the marketplace product by product by adding the app hashtag to images.
  • Soldsie also gives brands the option to take orders via comments on individual photos.

Connect user-submitted photos to products on the eCommerce site. Featuring user-submitted Instagram photos on the eCommerce site burnishes products with all-important social proof. Not only should merchants endeavor to sort and feature Instagram images on the product page; but they should also experiment with user-submitted galleries to browse that encourage serendipitous finds. MarketLive merchant Helzberg Diamonds features a home page gallery of hashtagged images that, when clicked, display a product summary and link to further details, as well as the option to share the product on still other social networks.

Instagram usage example from Helzberg

Instagram usage example from Helzberg

Develop purposeful hashtags. Rather than encouraging users to slap a hashtag on any and all photos of them wearing or using brand products, merchants should develop campaigns that address real needs. Whether launching a contest to showcase innovative solutions or finding ways to tap into existing memes with a fresh and inspiring point of view, merchants should use hashtags to demonstrate their social savvy and expertise.

Transform text into images. Merchants whose products don’t seem to lend themselves to visuals have no excuses. There are many ways to make social media posts visual — including on Instagram. MarketLive merchant Country Curtains makes the most of its Instagram account with a variety of images, from photos of drapery in room settings to behind-the-scenes peeks at the artisans behind the fabrics. Just after Labor Day the company posted this “thank you” to followers displaying a free perk – printable Mason jar labels available for download on the brand blog, perfectly timed for making preserves and other edible goodies to be shared during the upcoming holiday season.

Instagram example from Country Curtains

Take advantage of Instagram video. Here’s an opportunity for merchants to maximize their video investment while also providing valuable Instagram content. The social network’s 15-second looping video clips are perfect for repurposed footage, whether in the form of outtakes, behind-the-scenes moments, or simply abridged versions of longer videos.

Consider the global audience. Given Instagram’s global footprint, it can be an ideal social network for testing the waters internationally.  In addition to tracking the demographics of their own followers, merchants can identify, follow, and comment on submissions from users in the target country who have attracted large audiences around relevant subject matter, as a means of both raising visibility of the brand and learning about local cultural norms.
How are you using Instagram to drive engagement and sales?

Last-minute mobile upgrades for the holidays

As the holidays approach, the question on many merchants’ minds isn’t whether mobile is important, but rather just how much growth they’ll see in mobile sales, visit and engagement.

While a total mobile overhaul isn’t feasible before the holiday rush, merchants can still tweak their mobile offerings in seven crucial areas to improve the shopping experience.

Last year, mobile usage surged by 50%, with a quarter of all online revenue in Q4 attributable to mobile devices — and all indications are that this year is is poised to see total mobile dominance. With fully three-quarters of brand interactions occurring on mobile devices as of the second quarter of this year, and with prognosticators estimating that online will influence a whopping two-thirds of all retail sales this holiday season, mobile couldn’t be more crucial.

That’s all well and good for merchants who are sitting pretty with highly-optimized mobile sites. But for the majority of brands, mobile remains a work in progress — which means that there’s still room for improvement in the final weeks before holiday shopping hits its peak. In his latest post for the eTail Blog, MarketLive founder and CEO Ken Burke reassures merchants that they have time to enact seven relatively simple, but crucial changes to their offerings to position themselves for mobile success.

Among the winning tactics: adding social sharing buttons to mobile site product pages. These tools are often given short shrift on mobile due to the constraints of screen real estate, but as Burke points out, “share” buttons are a gateway to higher brand visibility around the Web:

Social media has more influence on shoppers than current attribution models can show. Almost half of social media users report discovering new products via social media, and 36% recommend products themselves. Let those products be yours.

Burke cites MarketLive merchant Wilson’s Leather for pervasive placement of social sharing buttons; wish list and “forward to a friend” links complete the range of options for shoppers to save and pass along product information via their mobile devices.

Social sharing buttons for mobile - example from Wilson's Leather

Read the full eTail Blog post for all 7 last-minute mobile tips — and stay tuned right here for further holiday planning advice.

Build critical mass on social media now for holiday success later

As the holidays approach, many merchants are planning promotions targeted at their social media audience. But as they plot the substance of offers, merchants would also do well to launch initiatives now to build a critical mass of followers so those holiday promotions can have an impact.

Designing social-specific campaigns for the holidays is a wise move, as discounts and promotions are the top reason by far that shoppers follow brands in the first place. But with directly-attributable revenue from social media stubbornly persisting at or below one percent of the total, merchants must cast a wide net in the hopes of seeing an appreciable impact on sales during the holidays.

MarketLive Performance Index data on social media impact

To build up social media audiences now, merchants should:

Offer plenty of substantial, visually rich content for sharing. As discussed previously, visual content should now be the centerpiece of social offerings — and the more merchants provide eye-catching content existing followers are willing to share, the more likely they are to win new social fans thanks to word of mouth. Not only should social media posts be visually-oriented, but shareable product images and content on the eCommerce site should offer pinners and posters the option of choosing a picture that goes beyond showing the item in question to portray the personality of the brand. This recent shot from MarketLive merchant Peruvian Connection is about more than a jacket, but speaks to the adventurous, opulent lifestyle of their target audience.

peruvianimagesFocus contests on solving shoppers’ real needs. Rather than spawning yet another hashtag campaign just so shoppers can tag photos of themselves using a brand’s products, merchants should solicit ideas for how to address real needs. To gauge what solutions shoppers seek, merchants should study on-site search and search engine queries and popular content related to their category, and then design contests or sweepstakes that align with those needs.

Ikea encouraged contestants to submit ideas for how to decorate their patios for summer. The winner was chosen by popular vote from a group of finalists, upping visibility of the contest.

Social example from Ikea

Follow influencers, and earn the follow back. Merchants should be authentic participants on their social media platforms of choice, following key influencers in their category and earning mentions and reciprocal follows. Rather than constantly posting canned comments and product promotions, merchants should strive to demonstrate subject matter expertise by posting knowledgeable comments and contributions, and also show the brand’s responsiveness to feedback from customers and influencers by highlighting changes or improvements to products made based on community input.

Invite existing email subscribers and customers to socialize. Encouraging shoppers already connected to the brand to become social media followers is a wise move. Increased opportunities for engagement up the chances of converting shoppers to buyers; and for existing customers, social media is a way to stay connected with the brand and receive notice of relevant new products and offers.

MarketLive merchant Title Nine let email subscribers know that their contributions were welcome on social media — a campaign that underscores the brand’s commitment to showcasing styles for real active women.

Social example from T9

How are you building social media followers prior to the holidays?

Unwrap the potential of unboxing and haul videos for the holidays

In the quest to find ways to channel user-contributed content in the service of sales, merchants often contrive contests or social media hashtag campaigns. But there’s another category of content with origins that are decidedly grassroots: haul and unboxing videos.

For the uninitiated, haul videos feature shoppers showing off piles of loot, whether shopping trip picks or gifts from birthdays or Christmas. Unboxing videos depict shoppers unpacking and inspecting products they’ve received, with the focus usually on single items; depending on the items, unboxing videos may include demonstrations of setup or footage of using the items for the first time. Commentary during the videos may include rundowns of the purchase experience, mentions of pricing and discounts, notes about product quality and features, and remarks about the ease or difficulty of using products.

Unboxing video for Apple watchThese unvarnished views of shopping are increasingly popular, with views of videos with the keyword “haul” in the title growing 170% year-over-year as of last fall. In the same timeframe, unboxing video views grew 57%, with one in five YouTube viewers saying they’ve watched one.  Makers of popular videos can attract millions of followers to their YouTube channels, and can reap substantial financial rewards via advertising. Teen “haul star” Bethany Mota earns an estimated $40,000 per month from her videos, has a talent agent, interviewed President Obama, and released a clothing line in cooperation with teen retailer Aeropostale.

Bethany Mota's 2013 Black Friday haul video

Merchants, too, stand to gain from haul and unboxing videos. Consumers say that the videos have value beyond sheer entertainment and help guide purchase decisions; 62% of those who watch unboxing videos say that they use them for researching products, and more broadly, views of haul and unboxing videos spike around key shopping events such as Black Friday, suggesting that shoppers turn to them for information prior to purchase.


The challenge for merchants is to tap the potential of haul and unboxing content without destroying the authenticity that makes it popular. Among the methods to consider:

Study what’s already being posted, and incorporate it into brand offerings. Merchants should be conducting keyword searches for haul and unboxing videos featuring their brands and monitoring the content. Many of these videos are enthusiastic endorsements of the brands and products under discussion, so merchants would do well to share noteworthy examples to social media feeds and even incorporate especially useful unboxing videos onto eCommerce site product pages.

Revamp packaging and inserts. Unboxing videos in particular put the spotlight on how items are packaged and presented, and for items requiring assembly or installation, the how-to instructions are paramount. Merchants shouldn’t neglect these important components of the product experience, and should consider what marketing materials might be of interest and gain visibility on unboxing videos.

Buy targeted video ads to complement the content. Merchants can reach viewers of unboxing and haul videos in relevant categories via ad placements.

Consider courting content creators – but tread with care. While it may seem the easiest way to win the hearts and minds of haul and unboxing video viewers would be to send a bevy of free samples to top influencers, most say they avoid that practice — and legally must be disclosed. Paid product placements and promotions such as offering video creators free merchandise to use for giveaways are alternative methods to consider; the site FameBit offers brands the opportunity to collect bids for collaboration from content creators. Whichever route merchants choose, they should ensure that the content itself retains the authentic appeal that made its creators popular in the first place.

Ulta Cosmetics collaborated with popular beauty blogger Tori Sterling to create a series of haul videos, which are featured on the Ulta site with direct links to products featured below as well as on Sterling’s YouTube channel.

Ulta beauty haul with Tori SterlingMake original unboxing or haul videos. Brands can use the haul and unboxing concepts to showcase products themselves. A number of brands have used unboxing videos for product launches, often with a unique twist — from the ultra-dramatic unboxing of the PlayStation 4 from Sony, the launch of a new version of the Firefox Web browser with an unboxing video, or the witty introduction of the bookbook from Ikea, which gently pokes fun at Apple with its use of hyper-inspirational vocabulary and tech jargon to describe its printed catalog.

Ikea BookbookAre you using unboxing or haul videos as part of your holiday strategy? If so, how?


When to jump on the bandwagon – and when to go it alone

If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

The old adage came to mind last Wednesday, as headlines about Amazon’s Prime Day sales event peppered news feeds and email inboxes were full of discount offers — and not just from Amazon itself. While the competing sale offered by Wal-Mart grabbed most of the media attention, dozens of retailers calendared deep discounts and free shipping days to coincide with Prime Day in an effort to ride Amazon’s coattails to a revenue high.

These sales events, while competing with Amazon for shopping dollars on the big day, were at the same time tacit endorsements of the mega-merchant’s power — “allowing Amazon to wag the Internet,” as one analyst put it. The world’s top Internet merchant, in effect, created a sales event out of nowhere, and achieved Black Friday-like revenue results.

Third-party marketplace merchants on Amazon also enjoyed a bounce, with sales 93% higher than the comparable date last year. Other merchants who jumped on the bandwagon may have seen their boat rise with the tide — or they may have inadvertently reminded their customers to check out Amazon’s event instead.

The question of whether to join forces with big players or to go it alone is relevant beyond Prime Day. In fact, with the ultra-competitive holiday season on the horizon, it may be more crucial than ever.

In our opinion, merchants who engage with their larger competitors via marketplaces and other tactics stand to gain visibility and new audiences they would otherwise be unable to achieve. The key is to strike a balance and, moving beyond the initial sale, to engage those shoppers to interact directly with their own brands. Among our recommendations for when to jump on the bandwagon — and when not to:

When to join:

  • Gain mobile visibility via social networks. Mobile is now the default touchpoint for social networking, with some 71% of social traffic now originating on mobile devices; and the latest crop of fast-growing social sites, such as Instagram and social-messaging services such as Snapchat and WhatsApp, are designed primarily for mobile users. As a result, merchants with brand outposts on social networks have another avenue for reaching shoppers via their mobile devices — one they can capitalize on by ensuring that relevant customer service and content links are fully integrated in the social environment and by stimulating connections with brand-owned resources. And with the new spate of “buy” buttons debuting on social networks, the time may soon come when those social pathways lead even directly to purchase.
  • Leverage mobile payment options. Use of mobile wallets is forecast to rise steeply in the next few years, rising from 3% of U.S. shoppers today to 18-20% by 2018. So merchants would do well to assess which payment provider is the best potential partner, track whether third-party marketplaces are offering integrated mobile payments, and survey customers to understand their interest in and usage of mobile payments.

When to go solo:

  • There’s no substitute for native mobile prowess. While merchants can partner their way to increased mobile visibility, that heightened consumer awareness will lead nowhere unless brand sites are usable and offer a seamless transition from device to screen to physical store location. If they haven’t already, merchants should invest in fully optimizing their mobile Web sites, whether through responsive design or as a standalone offering, and devise the means to track meaningful mobile performance data.
  • Give loyal customers a home in a brand-owned community. While social networking on the leading sites such as Facebook and Instagram is a good way to attract a new audience and invite existing followers to take action, ultimately merchants should establish direct relationships with their best customers — and feature their contributions — within the walls of their own brand’s flagship site. Such “owned” communities aren’t subject to the vagaries of social networks’ algorithm changes, privacy policy revisions or functionality upgrades. Loyalty club content and perks can be incorporated into the community to encourage members to use the site, alongside expert content and user-submitted video and/or images. Offering discussion forums and the ability to vote on ideas for improvement gives the floor to consumers in a meaningful way.

Fitness company and MarketLive merchant Beachbody provides customers with a comprehensive community that offers training support, recipes, and more for those who aim to get in shape. Content such as customer testimonials and tips are cross-posted to Facebook, but valuable lookup tools for finding workout trainers and partners are exclusive to the brand’s site — as is content from the message boards and direct-messaging capability.

Cmmunity example from Beachbody

How are you leveraging partnerships with big players, and what areas does your brand “own”? And why?

How to focus holiday priorities (and the input to ignore)

With the Fourth of July in the rearview mirror, it’s time to realistically assess the status of new features merchants planned to roll out before the holidays, and to put the final touches on holiday campaigns. Choosing the right priorities for the remaining weeks before holiday kickoff is crucial — and too often, merchants are looking in all the wrong places for guidance.

The stakes are higher than ever when it comes to holiday sales. Online holiday sales accounted for more than 16% of all retail sales in 2014, according to the National Retail Federation. With double-digit eCommerce growth once again expected for the holidays in 2015, merchants stand to win big — or to suffer repercussions for missteps.

That’s why, when it comes to paring down the final list of holiday to-dos, we advise merchants to focus squarely on their own unique business needs, and to tune out hype and conjecture in favor of solid data. To determine which priorities are worth pursuing, merchants should:

Mine the right analytics data for guidance on site tweaks. Site usage data can be a gold mine of actionable information on what shoppers seek and where sites need further improvement to resonate. Among the data to study:

  • On-site search logs. “Zero results” logs can reveal gaps in content and discrepancies between merchant and shopper terminology. Searches for specific brand names and product types can suggest new categories to create or at least attributes to tag for guided search. And searches for customer service-related terms can suggest what service content to elevate and highlight throughout the path to purchase.
  • Mobile vs. desktop discrepancies. Comparing popular site paths, fallout analyses and product page performance reports on mobile and desktop sites can illuminate where mobile versions are falling short and need further optimization — and where it can be useful to encourage (or at least support) screen switching with features such as “save for later” or “save cart”.
  • Usage of online/offline features. Identifying where shoppers hesitate when using features such as “buy online, pick up in-store” or even registration for in-store events can help merchants smooth the transition from screen to store. And close analysis of how shoppers access content promoted within stores on mobile devices — and what actions they choose to take after viewing that content — can give merchants a more complete picture of cross-touchpoint activity.

Double down on social networks with engaged followers. While merchants should be prepared to provide responsive service via all the brand’s social outposts, they should focus their most creative holiday efforts on the networks where followers are more likely to actively respond, share and contribute their own content, versus passively scrolling past brand offerings. In addition, merchants should use their attribution model of choice to determine which networks drive the most direct revenue and consider experimenting with new “buy” buttons to further motivate purchasing.

Consult store staff for online content gaps. Amidst the chatter about beacons, facial recognition, dynamic shelf tags and other whiz-bang technology surrounding the digital store, we’re fans of old-fashioned human interaction and believe store staff are the most important asset for supporting online/offline brand interactions. Not only can store associates help shoppers navigate online resources and complete transactions, but they can gauge consumer sentiment and identify gaps in brand content, whether for products or for services such as in-store pickup or ship-to-store. Merchants should find the means to tap these valuable front-line information sources and act on their recommendations.

Invite existing customers to drive holiday promotions. For guidance on promotional strategies, merchants should look to customers themselves — whether by studying purchase patterns of loyal buyers and loyalty club members or by explicitly asking shoppers to choose which items they’d like to see featured on Black Friday or Cyber Monday, as Target did during “March Madness”. Users of the Target Cartwheel app could vote on which items to discount for the basketball tourney’s kickoff weekend.

Example of voting on a promotion from Target

And just as these sources can provide reliable guidance, there’s plenty of input that merchants should ignore. Two of the biggies:

What the competition does isn’t relevant. This advice may seem counterintuitive. On one level, it’s useful to know what other merchants in the industry are offering shoppers.  But merchants shouldn’t strive to keep up with the features another site offers without knowing whether those strategies are actually delivering results. Even if they have access to such intelligence, merchants should recognize that even within industry sectors, differences between individual brands’ audience demographics, product offerings and price points, and the number and locations of stores, among other factors, mean that a true “apples to apples” comparison simply does not apply.

That hot new social network doesn’t matter. With the ROI of even established sites like Facebook being difficult to justify for most merchants, they should be leery of jumping on the bandwagon of the latest social network just for the sake of “being there” — especially during the holidays, when consumers are likely to have heightened expectations for responsive and savvy customer service on social outposts. With the number of social networks proliferating, merchants should select social opportunities based on where their audience already gathers — or where a specific target audience can be tapped, such as for new international markets — rather than launching new outposts willy nilly.

How are you prioritizing holiday strategies, and what will you forgo?

4 ways to stay visible in Facebook’s news feed

For many brands, Facebook is the default anchor of their social media strategy. But as with all social media, the direct ROI for Facebook has been difficult to prove — and with visibility via “organic” news feed posts on the decline, merchants must work harder than ever to reach their followers.

Facebook is popular with merchants largely due to its sheer critical mass. Some 71% of U.S. online adults use it, more than any other social network. Facebook is the site of choice for 79% of those who use only one social network, and of the 52% of online adults who use multiple networks, Facebook is in the mix for the vast majority of them: more than 85% of Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter and Pinterest users say they’re also on Facebook.

But Facebook has become increasingly problematic as the visibility has steadily dropped for unpaid business Page posts. Partly, the difficulty is a byproduct of Facebook’s massive popularity; as more brands join the social network and post ever more frequently, competition for news feed visibility has risen precipitously. The number of branded posts is up 31% in the first quarter of 2015 versus the same period in 2014, according to the Adobe Digital Index.

Partly in response to this growth, Facebook has taken two significant steps to prioritize non-commercial content. In mid-January, Facebook downgraded content deemed “too promotional”, including posts pushing purchases, downloads or sweepstakes entries and posts that mimicked ad content verbatim. Then, following an April announcement that coincided with with Google’s “mobilegeddon” update, Facebook gave top priority to original status updates from friends versus Pages, and, furthermore, downgraded notifications showing friend activity such as liking or commenting on other posts.

While the effects of Facebook’s April update have yet to be quantified, data for the first quarter shows that the January algorithm change alone has accounted for a significant drop in “organic” traffic to business Pages. Unpaid impressions for brand posts overall dropped a whopping 35% for the first quarter of 2015 versus the same period in 2014, according to the Adobe Digital Index. Specifically within retail, the rate of interaction with branded posts dropped 12% to 4.1%.

Given Facebook’s dominance, the changes are likely behind falling referrals to eCommerce sites from social media overall. In Q1, visits driven by social media dropped to 1%, down from 3% in the prior quarter and 2% a year ago, according to the MarketLive Performance Index.


In our view, renewed skepticism toward Facebook is a healthy reaction to these new challenges. The key is to act on that impulse by analyzing the behaviors that lead to strong brand connections — and to determine whether and how Facebook can support those behaviors. Among the tactics to consider:

Smart segmentation for paid Facebook posts. In a way, Facebook’s changes suggests that merchants should undertake a similar shift to the one that’s already occurred in search engine marketing, where merchants have increasingly dropped their obsession with keyword-driven organic rankings and upped investment in paid search campaigns in response to Google’s algorithm changes.

Similarly, merchants may want to consider paid Facebook placements, with or without “buy” buttons attached, to make up for lost organic visibility — but, as with search, the key to ad effectiveness is to target relentlessly. Merchants undertaking paid Facebook ads should integrate social campaigns with data from Web analytics and CRM systems to connect followers (and would-be followers) with social ads tailored to their situations. Browse and cart abandonment remarketing, post-purchase promotion of complementary or replenishment items, and loyalty or membership club promotions can be effective social advertising strategies using Facebook’s Custom Audiences tool.

Activation of influential followers. With the most recent news feed adjustment, even followers’ “likes” of and comments on brand posts may not be enough to make the content show up in their friends’ feeds. So merchants need to go further to spur individuals to post their own original content about brands. A good place to start is with existing advocates — those brand followers who already “like” posts, share and pin products, write reviews and otherwise take an active role in social media. Engaging those individuals on a one-to-one basis and inviting them to up their involvement can result in the kind of traction that boost brand visibility in news feeds across the network.

MarketLive merchant Francesca’s uses its Facebook page to give props to style bloggers, who, in turn, give visibility to Francesca’s page and products in their coverage. Francesca’s own post featuring the blogger HapaGirl garnered 28 “likes”, while her own post and link to further blog coverage received more than 450 “likes” from her audience of more than 70,000.

Social example from Francesca's

Social example from Francesca's

Empowering customer service. We’ve touched before on the crucial role customer service plays in building brand reputation on social networks and beyond. Merchants should both promote stellar service on Facebook and promote examples of above-and-beyond care along with customer service offerings such as personal shoppers and free returns. Service-oriented content both reinforces followers’ allegiance and provides fodder for their own posts about the brand.

Integrate user-generated content everywhere. By featuring the customer voice throughout the shopping experience, not just on Facebook, merchants give followers incentive to use Facebook to link to eCommerce site content or to branded community resources they’ve helped build. MarketLive merchant Beachbody features the Beachbody Challenge, which rewards customers who submit testimonials with cash prizes, on its eCommerce site and on a dedicated Facebook page. Contestants are encouraged to solicit votes as part of the process, thereby creating a popularity contest that drives traffic to both the brand’s Facebook and eCommerce sites.


How is your brand faring in the Facebook news feed? What strategies have proven successful for engaging followers and their friends?

Checklist: making the most of user-generated social content

User-generated content on branded social media outposts is highly valued — but for many merchants, the reasons why remain murky. Often, the utility of endorsements, photo submissions and home-made video clips starts and ends with nebulous terms such as “engagement” and “credibility,” as merchants struggle to articulate the concrete value of letting shoppers articulate in their own words and images how brand offerings meet their needs.

Less than a third of merchants use social content curation tools to parse incoming feeds; of those, just 5% cite revenue generation as a primary goal of social curation efforts, versus the 50% who say they use the tools to generate customer insights, according to technology researcher Forrester.

But by now, merchants can — and should — have directly-attributable sales within their sights when it comes to user-generated social content. Brands that have connected user contributions with relevant offers and products leading to the “buy” button have boosted sales significantly; New Balance’s #hknd photo campaign, for example, led to a 39% increase in sales for the duration of the campaign, according to Forrester.

Harnessing the power of user-generated social content is even more important in the runup to the all-important year-end sales push, when shoppers turn to social media for gift inspiration. Close to half of shoppers prior to the 2014 holidays said they would both look to social networks for gift ideas and heed referrals from family and friends, according to the MarketLive/E-Tailing Group 2014 Consumer Shopping Survey.

To begin syncing users’ social content with concrete commerce opportunities, merchants should:

Lay the privacy and permission groundwork. The ability to repurpose user-generated content into promotional campaign material starts with securing the permission to do so. Merchants should be transparent about their intent when it comes to gathering user submissions via social media contests and hashtag campaigns, and include a prominent disclaimer — not one buried deep in contest rules or the privacy policy — about their reserving the right to use images for promotional purposes.

In addition to crafting blanket usage policies for contests and hashtags, merchants should also seek explicit permission from individual users for images and content they plan to repurpose extensively. Birch Lane uses vendor Piqora to solicit opt-in permission for re-use of images from Instagram with the hashtag #yesbirchlane.

Permission example from Birch Lane

Align user-submitted content with call-to-action pages. Integration of user-submitted social content with actionable product information is the foundation on which monetizing social media is built. Merchants must develop the means to link social followers smoothly and seamlessly to products and transactional capabilities — whether using the new generation of built-in “buy” buttons developing a custom feed of user contributions for display on eCommerce product pages, or inserting product links into streams of user-generated content, as MarketLive merchant Armani Exchange does in The Credits. The eCommerce site content area features meticulously-curated endorsements and “as seen in” magazine editorial citations mixed with candid social media photos. Product links are displayed beneath the image caption and credit; when clicked, a separate window opens the full product page for the item in question.

The Credits from Armani Exchange

User submission from Armani Exchange's The Credits

Even without a sophisticated method for integrating social content and eCommerce product information, merchants can go a long way toward driving social commerce with savvy linking policies that prioritize product promotion. MarketLive merchant Francesca’s showcases fashion bloggers’ stylings on its Facebook page, using the platform’s tagging mechanism to gain visibility on the bloggers’ timelines while pointing the URL within the post to the featured product on the Francesca’s eCommerce site.

Francesca's Facebook exampleConnect to events IRL. Merchants should invite social submissions in connection with in-store and other offline events, which have a built-in audience of potential contributors. Showcasing the content they generate can both inspire other social followers to explore the products and topics the event featured, and can give contributors an opportunity to check back for ongoing follow-up information and relevant offers.

Throttle user-submitted vs. brand lifestyle content to achieve critical mass. While some brands have legions of committed and active social followers to fuel campaigns, most merchants will achieve critical mass more quickly, at least at the outset, by creating a blended environment that features the best of user-submitted content alongside brand expertise and product promotions. MarketLive merchant Sport Chalet has built a series of robust communities focused on individual sports and recreational activities, showcasing user-contributed social content, learning videos and expert profiles interwoven with featured products.

Community example from Sport Chalet

How are you integrating user-generated social content with sales opportunities?