How to Use Social Media to Exceed Customer Service Expectations

Although merchants struggle to quantify the direct impact on sales, by now there’s little doubt that social media can play a significant role in driving sales and sustaining loyalty. But while opening new outposts on the latest “hot” social networks may hold appeal for reaching coveted demographics, there’s one fundamental aspect of social media no merchant should overlook in 2016: customer service.

As we’ve argued in the past, customer service is crucial as a differentiator in a crowded marketplace — and social media is increasingly an important touchpoint shoppers use to address their customer service needs. Increasingly, more and more consumers are turning to popular social networks for direct communication with merchants. Some two-thirds of U.S.  consumers have used social media to receive customer service assistance, according to JD Powers.

Furthermore, plenty of evidence exists to suggest that social media plays a significant role when interactions go awry and shoppers turn to the Internet to share their stores. Fully 39 percent of consumers say they’ve shared negative experiences with friends and family, and more than 1 in 10 have posted negative reviews on sites such as Yelp or critical comments on their own — or a brand’s — Facebook page. Merchants with robust social customer service teams in place can act quickly to respond before flames are fanned into a firestorm.

To cover the bases, then, merchants might be tempted to multiply service outposts across social networks. But consumers have steep expectations for speed and resolution when it comes to social service: for example, 42% of consumers expect a response to a social media support request within the hour, according to a survey by the Northridge Group.

So in order for merchants to deliver effective social service, it’s crucial to clearly set expectations for what their brands can deliver. By fulfilling or even exceeding those self-imposed benchmarks, brands can surprise and delight followers and engender loyalty.

First, manage expectations for “always on” service — and provide alternatives. Merchants who are unable to staff social channels 24/7/365 must clearly communicate that fact and back it up with alternative options. Among the best practices:

  • List every available service option everywhere, with hours. Consumers should be able to access live chat, an “800” customer service number, email support, and other social support channels from every social media touchpoint. Hours of operation should be clearly stated up-front.
  • Reinforce opening and closing times with status updates. Signing off for the night and saying “hello” each morning lets social followers know when staff are available to field their requests.
  • Similarly, closures for holidays should be both messaged in advance as well as that day. Related customer service information about shipping deadlines and order processing delays should be proactively communicated.
  • Proactively address common questions and concerns with prominent customer service information in the social environment. Whether via a content tab in Facebook or substantive status updates on Twitter, merchants should anticipate consumers’ needs and supply the information that most frequently slows the journey along the path to purchase. By offering this always-available option within the social environment, merchants give shoppers a convenient alternative to live support.

Kibo merchant Figi’s provides Facebook users with a searchable trove of customer service information, accessible via a prominent tab. A direct email link is also available from the customer service tab, while the “About” section of the left-hand column displays still further options.

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Avoid dead ends by giving staff the tools they need.
The temptation to divert serious customer service issues to the call center may be strong — merchants are more familiar with the medium, and the interaction takes place out of the public limelight that is a social media stream. But just 24 percent of social customer service users who are directed to call or email actually continue the interaction, according to social media marketing firm ConverSocial — leading to frustration for the consumer and lost opportunities for merchants. Instead, merchants must commit fully to providing robust service on the social media platform by enabling resolution, not just response — and that means empowering social service reps to:

  • Interact one-on-one with followers within the social environment. Reps should be able to initiate live chat on Facebook and use Twitter “at” replies and direct messages to continue conversations privately if need be. And they should be armed with protocols for when to do so, such as if the interaction requires sharing personally-identifiable information such as an order number or payment details.
  • Provide continuity by accessing customer data from other systems. Social service reps should have access to order management and customer relationship management systems so they have a full understanding of shoppers’ past interactions with the company. By the same token, protocols should dictate which social media interactions should be logged as a “ticket” and the details of qualifying incidents should be accessible to call center reps and even store associates.
  • Mollify customers with substantive incentives and discounts, such as free shipping, promo codes for future orders, and priority admission to store events.
  • Access online product information and inventory from across the organization. Social service reps should be able to resolve product questions and provide detailed buying guidance without shunting shoppers to another touchpoint.

Here is an example of a company that empowers its social service reps with the tools above. Kibo merchant Beauty Brands responded to a customer inquiry on Twitter with precise product information, and followed through over a multi-day exchange.

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Go the extra mile to exceed expectations.
To shift from crisis management mode to proactive service that satisfies consumers, merchants must go above and beyond. To bring their social service to the next level, merchants should:

  • Monitor beyond the brand page. Employing “social listening” services that go beyond branded Facebook pages and explicit mentions in Tweets and Instagram posts can help merchants proactively address nascent issues before they become high-profile problems.
  • Don’t forget to call out positive experiences. Even as they focus on swift resolution of problems, merchants should also ensure that they respond to those followers who take the time to relate a positive experience or to praise products or the brand as a whole.

For example, Kibo merchant Modell’s retweeted a mention and photo of thanks from the recipient of donated sporting goods bound for a school in Namibia. Not only does the original poster’s cause receive a “signal boost” within the Modell’s fan base, but the retailer’s good works are on full display for followers to endorse.

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How are you using social service to meet and exceed customer expectations?

Straight off the Runway: New York Fashion Week eCommerce Tactics You Can Deploy

Whether you consider yourself a fashionista or fashion-challenged, it is hard to deny that the leading retailers participating in New York’s Fashion Week are at the forefront of eCommerce experimentation. When new clothing collections hit the runways and cutting-edge marketing techniques hit the Internet, merchants of all stripes would do well to review the strategies deployed for the recent New York Fashion Week.

Because leading fashion brands are fashion-forward when it comes to online innovations, there was experimentation aplenty during one of fashion’s biggest weeks. Instagram coverage was heavy, Snapchat accounts lit up with ephemeral views of shows and custom geofilters, and live video feeds were available for those beyond New York.

Focusing on visual content and especially video was a wise move. For start, consuming visual content is a significant activity on mobile devices, where shopping activities are on the upswing: 60% of smartphone users have used their devices as cameras, and half use them to watch video, according to Pew Research.

Additionally, new image-centric social networks such as Instagram and Pinterest cater to mobile users, who make up 57% of the total social media audience, according to Merkle/RKG. New social media formats are almost exclusively mobile-oriented and image-centric, from micro-videos on Vine to live-streaming via Periscope to social messaging on Snapchat.  

But it’s not just overall Internet trends that are dictating merchants’ drive for visual content — they also have concrete results proving its value to the bottom line. For example, larger product images have been found to boost conversion by 9%, while the presence of video on a landing page can boost conversion by 80%; and visitors who go on to view those videos  are 1.6 times as likely to buy than those who don’t.

Merchants who are upping their investments in visual content and video can reap valuable lessons from last month’s New York Fashion Week experiments. Amidst all the experimentation, there were hits and misses, and lessons broadly applicable in the world beyond high fashion. Among them:

If you’re going live online, understand — and meet — the expectations.
In a world where consumers can download feature films and binge-watch favorite TV shows via the Internet, expectations are high for uninterrupted streaming and high picture quality. Merchants who decide to go live using Periscope or other means should test their technical prowess and their Internet connections extensively to avoid delays, and should devote considerable thought to camera placement to ensure lighting is adequate and background distraction minimized. While murky live streams were plentiful during fashion week, designers such as Tory Burch scored wins with clear high-definition images and embedded sharing tools.

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Cross-promote online events relentlessly.
To optimize the ROI for big online events — whether live or not — merchants should deploy a widespread promotional campaign that ties together social media, on-site resources, and in-store opportunities. To make the most of their moments in the spotlight, Fashion Week merchants shared content comprehensively across touchpoints and employed hashtags strategically to generate still more engagement. Kate Spade presented live coverage of its show on no less than five social platforms, as well as on katespade.com.

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In person, make the experience immersive.
Designers went all-out in staging their events — from Jay Z’s two-hour extravaganza of fashion and music at Madison Square Garden to Tommy Hilfiger’s recreation of the deck of a luxury steamliner, complete with “deck chairs” for VIP viewers. While most merchants aren’t likely to go so far over the top, the takeaway that in-person experiences have the potential to be more than a shopping trip is an important one. Marrying the best of online content — such as access to customer reviews, expert guides, and even how-to videos — with the unique in-store opportunity to touch and try items can evoke a mood and a lifestyle that resonates with shoppers and compels them to purchase.

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Online, make the experience actionable.
However much merchants experiment with new formats, they should always keep the connection to commerce immediate and prominent. Fashion week brands enabled immediate purchasing with embedded links in videos and specialized category pages on their websites that opened up for browsing and buying the items just featured on the catwalk. Designer Rebecca Minkoff featured products in panels overlaid on the live video stream of her presentation, giving remote viewers the opportunity to claim pieces that resonated right as they appeared and boosting in-the-moment spontaneity.

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How are you employing cutting-edge visual techniques to drive sales?

Making the leap from mobile to “buy anywhere” – MarketLive Performance Index

Throughout the holiday season, mobile stole the show. The surge in mobile traffic — and, happily, mobile purchasing — capped a year that demonstrated time and again the importance of catering to shoppers on small screens. Now, quarterly and annual data from the Kibo Performance Index point to a new trend that goes beyond merely mobile to embrace contextual purchasing anywhere.

Throughout the year, commerce-related activity soared not only on mobile devices but on social networks, which drove traffic to merchant sites at a rate 46% higher than in 2014, while revenues attributed to social networks increase 76% year over year. Crucially, on smartphones, social fared even better, with traffic originating from social networks on smartphones increasing 236% and revenue 247% — underscoring the rich symbiosis between mobile and social.

Of course, the totals are still small when it comes to the total commerce picture: social drives just 1.5% of traffic and a little more than 0.5% of revenues (at least according to last-click attribution). But the data hints at the ways mobile is upending commerce in ways beyond the mobile commerce web site and brand app to transform interactions across the Internet. From  the predicted rise of mobile wallets to heightened expectations for online/offline fluency to mobile-enabled “shoppable windows” that are increasingly a feature of urban hubs, consumers are on the go not only physically, but in their browsing and transactional habits.

Mobile buying via qr code

In order to meet these expectations, merchants must not only standardize their processes so that nothing stands in the way of a swift, smooth, and secure purchase; they must also syndicate that functionality so that shoppers need not leave their current environment to transact. While this goal may present technical challenges, the potential upside is that merchants can win business via serendipitous finds arising organically from content or community engagement, rather than expecting shoppers to set aside time to “shop online”, or interrupt what they’re doing to visit an online store.

To stay ahead of the “buy anywhere” trend, merchants should:

Aim beyond functional for mobile experiences. But while functional, many mobile sites remain workmanlike, with little accommodation for mobile shoppers’ unique priorities – not an encouraging sign in an era when relevance trumps all.

One possible culprit behind generic mobile experiences may well be responsive design, the coding methodology by which multiple iterations of sites for different screen sizes and devices can be derived from a single base of code. We believe responsive design delivers significant benefits, especially when it comes to standardizing checkout and payment options; after all, ease of checkout and availability of alternative payments topped consumers’ wish lists of features that would convince them to buy more via mobile devices, according to the MarketLive/E-Tailing Group Consumer Shopping Survey.

But the standardization that’s so welcome during transactions can translate into monotony when it comes to site merchandising and content. Designing truly differentiated experiences within a responsive framework — for example, by moving functions such as the store locator and click-to-call customer service front and center for mobile users — requires significant coding prowess, but it’s a necessary investment if merchants are to prove their brand’s relevance to smartphone shoppers.

Kibo merchant Marc Jacobs Beauty creates a compelling mobile experience via responsive design by making apt content choices. Video, a crucial element for mobile shoppers, is front and center, along with reviews, and product details are available in an accordion-style layout.

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Experiment with “buy” buttons.  As we’ve discussed previously, nascent “buy” button offerings from Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, and Instagram deserve a cautious approach —  but that doesn’t mean merchants shouldn’t wait to use them, especially as early results suggest they’ll be an effective way to encourage purchasing. While Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, and Instagram are still in the process of rolling out their “buy” button programs, Pinterest reports that pinned items with “buy” buttons convert at twice the rate of regular posts on mobile devices.

To take an appropriately measured approach, merchants should identify the social networks where their most engaged audiences gather and pinpoint which product categories or sale offers would be most effective — essentially viewing social media outposts as a new form of third-party marketplace, with all the attendant potential benefits and drawbacks.

Go deep with content/commerce connections. Marrying Web content management and eCommerce platform functionality has been the initial hurdle for merchants to overcome in order to provide shoppers the perfect mix of content and products. Now, with social media and mobile offerings further complicating the picture, it’s become even trickier for merchants to ensure that pathways through engaging content lead to actionable products and offers. Tools such as Paypal’s “In-Context Checkout” provide a model for merchants to emulate for delivering truly seamless purchasing alongside their most compelling content; on the path toward realizing that vision, merchants must avoid actionless dead ends with a relentless focus on integrating new content sources with existing touchpoints and commerce functionality.

Kibo merchant Helzberg Diamonds blends commerce and content effectively by showcasing photos submitted to its branded hashtag campaign on the eCommerce home page. Product images and links are displayed alongside the submitted photo, with a prominent “shop” link as well as the option to share on social media.

Content and commerce example from Helzberg

Download the latest Performance Index for further data from Q4 and 2015 as a whole, including detailed breakouts by sector, and read the official press release for further statistics. How are you enabling shoppers to buy anywhere?

Why relevance is paramount in 2016 – webinar preview

Our last post enumerated ways merchants can keep the momentum of a successful holiday season going. But to see lasting success in 2016 and beyond, merchants must undertake a fundamental shift that goes beyond individual strategies: they must find ways to prove relevance, or risk being left behind with the laggards who must rely on scattershot results from generic shopping experiences.

Increasingly, shoppers seek a highly individualized relationship with brands they follow. More than half of consumers say it’s important for brands to recognize them personally, whether they choose to shop on screens or in stores. Brands that successfully deliver relevant experiences are rewarded with increased sales and loyalty: 53% of shoppers say they buy more from brands that tailor recommendations based on past purchases and browsing behavior. Similarly, failure to move beyond one-size-fits-all offerings results in diminished interest, with close to 40% of consumers reporting irritation when brands fail to take into account past interactions when sending marketing messages.

Given the heightened competition for consumer dollars online and the continual price pressure exerted by leading mass merchants such as Amazon, merchants can’t afford to risk alienating their audience. Indeed, delivering relevance is so crucial to commerce that technology research firm Gartner predicts that brands offering a fully-personalized experience will outsell those that don’t by 20% by 2018.

In an exclusive webinar set for this Thursday, Jan. 28, at 10 a.m. PST,  Ken Burke, founder of MarketLive (now Kibo), will examine the ramifications of the increasingly critical need for relevance, and identify the five trends for 2016 that will shape merchant priorities for optimizing touchpoints to deliver a unified and relevant experience.  They include:

  • “Buy anywhere” capabilities. Shoppers increasingly expect to transact anywhere that’s most convenient to them, and merchants should meet that expectation with swift, smooth, and secure transactions across touchpoints.
  • Universal inventory access. By making the brand’s entire inventory available to shoppers across touchpoints, merchants can make “out of stock” disappointment a rarity, and instead offer an array of order fulfillment options to suit their budget and timing needs.
  • Digital store experiences. Stores play a crucial role in connecting buyers with physical goods as well as live brand experts, and merchants should do their utmost to bring brand assets from outside the store walls into the experience.
  • Predictive insights. Using cutting-edge technologies, merchants can now marry big-data trend indicators with data from individual shoppers’ profiles to anticipate their next clicks and deliver ultra-relevant products and content.
  • Algorithmic merchandising. To meet shoppers’ expectations, merchants must optimize the on-site experience to the utmost using dynamic, data-rich merchandising – not a static hierarchy of rules.

In an experiment launched over the holidays, The North Face employed IBM’s Watson intelligence engine to match shoppers with jackets right for their needs after a brief Q-and-A to solicit input.

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Register for the webinar now to learn about the research behind the trends and the related strategies that will help merchants make relevance a reality — leading to heightened engagement, increased sales, and long-lasting loyalty.

4 ways to use social media and content to re-engage holiday shoppers

As January rolls along, merchants are working hard to beat the winter blahs following a successful holiday season. A key part of that effort should be luring back the gift buyers they earned and converting them into long-time customers.

The data is incontrovertible: loyal customers are a valuable asset. Returning customers’ average order value is 12% higher than that for online buyers overall, and although they comprise just 40% of the customer base, they account for 61% of online revenues. Furthermore, with paid acquisition efforts such as Google Product Listing Ads and social networking advertising becoming more expensive, retention efforts can achieve a higher ROI and require less spending.

So merchants would do well to capitalize on the surge of new gift givers who purchased on their sites during the holidays, and increasingly, they’re implementing well-known best practices such as post-purchase email series that go beyond mere transactional details to include engaging new offers. Additionally, seasonal messaging is now in full force to entice shoppers back to indulge in items for themselves now that the season of giving is over, from gift-card redemption invitations to early-spring sneak peaks to advice and products to help stick to resolutions.

Additionally, merchants should bring their social media networks and lifestyle content into play, emphasizing brand expertise in subject areas that matter to their target audience and inviting engagement in ways that deepen connections. Among the options:

Start by cross-promoting ways to stay in touch. Merchants should invite engagement on social networks, via email subscriptions, and on mobile devices, with an emphasis on how the brand stands by to help followers start the year right. Kibo merchant Eastland Shoe announced the debut of its Instagram account early in the New Year,  giving subscribers who joined the email list during the holidays a new way to learn about the brand, engage in visual content — and show off their new shoes with a hashtag campaign.

Instagram promotion from Eastland Shoe

Invite product input. The outset of the year is an ideal time to solicit substantive feedback about product offerings — an invitation that merchants can follow up on later in the year by featuring products or promotions driven by followers’ suggestions. Kibo merchant Berkshire Blanket asked email subscribers and social followers to take a survey about their products, offering entry in a prize drawing as an incentive.

Product survey from Berkshire Blanket

Promote deep expert content. Merchants should give shoppers cause to revisit brand sites even when they’re not explicitly researching purchases. Content that demonstrates brand credibility and authenticity can both help consumers address their immediate needs and suggest serendipitous items to help them fulfill their goals. Outdoor outfitter REI is celebrating the 100th anniversary of the national parks with a new content app that includes user-contributed content. The promotional email not only shines the spotlight on REI’s knowledge of the outdoors, but promotes mobile tools and its charity work with the parks service all in one fell swoop.

Content example from REI

Offer social as a step-down option for email-weary subscribers. The holidays brought an onslaught of promotional messaging, with volume jumping some 25% year over year. Understandably, some consumers are now seeking to trim their inbox contents by unsubscribing, especially if they signed up to receive a discount in the first place. Merchants are required by law to accommodate this desire with a direct “unsubscribe” link in email messages — but that doesn’t mean they should punt and remove subscribers from their lists without at least one further attempt to keep them engaged. Savvy merchants offer an array of “step-down” options, from receiving emails at a lower frequency to selecting only emails pertaining to particular product categories or subjects. Social media links should also be prominent on the unsubscribe page, giving former subscribers a way to stay in touch with the brand without crowding their inbox whatsoever. Kibo merchant Griot’s Garage does so with a message in keeping with its automotive product focus, promising “there’s always a space open for you” and inviting former subscribers to stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.

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How are you keeping holiday shoppers engaged in the New Year?

 

Relevance differentiates brands as shopping peaks – holiday flash report

As the 2015 holiday season chugs along, merchants are holding on to year over year gains, even as the season’s peak period of research and comparison has brought a slowdown compared with the highs of Black Friday weekend. As shoppers come to a decision point about gift purchases, a steady focus on serving relevant products and offers can win merchants sales and widen gains for the season overall.

Merchants in the MarketLive Performance Index saw revenues for the week starting with Black Friday inch upward by 2.4% on a visit increase of 22.4%, suggesting that shoppers are intensively researching and winnowing down the list of potential finds during this peak phase of the season. The week’s gains put season-to-date revenue growth at 8.3% on an increase in visits of 19.4%. Happily, total order amounts remained high, with AOV for the week up 4.1%, bringing the season-to-date growth to 7.4%.

holiday data from the MarketLive Performance Index

As merchants move into the season’s final week before delivery cutoff dates begin to take effect, they should continue to put the focus on value and variety with relevant offers that reflect shoppers’ past interactions with the brand. Among the top options:

Up the abandoned cart ante. We’ve discussed before how abandoned carts are now a normal detour on the path to purchase, not a dead end — and that’s truer than ever during the holiday season, when shoppers are avidly comparing their options, considering and re-considering their gift lists, and consolidating orders to qualify for free shipping. Merchants should revisit and fine-tune their triggered email messaging to cart abandoners to ensure holiday relevance. Free shipping offers, cutoff dates for on-time delivery, and services such as gift-wrapping should be in the mix along with a SKU-specific list of items left in the cart.

Make the most of social messaging. Social media continues to play a relatively small role as a last-click source of visits and revenue. But in the week starting on Cyber Monday, social sites began engaging shoppers at a higher rate than in 2014, with social revenue up 114.5% and revenue as a share of the online total up by more than two thirds. Similarly, social visits for the week rose by nearly 50%, bringing the share of total traffic up by 66%.

Holiday data from the MarketLive Performance Index

The data suggests that as shoppers intensify their research, they are engaging with brands via social media and exploring the content and offers merchants showcase. Merchants should take advantage of this pattern by showcasing the breadth and uniqueness of of their offering and proactively addressing customer service questions in the social environment.

MarketLive merchant Helzberg Diamonds is engaging shoppers on Facebook with frequent posts that showcase the breadth of the brand’s selection in innovative ways. A recent trio of posts included a “regram” of a user-submitted photo with a link to the featured product, notice of exclusive “friends and family” discounts for the weekend, and a timely post connected to the announcement of Pantone’s “colors of the year” with relevant products on display.  The content is varied and engaging while maintaining the focus on selling.

Holiday social example from Helzberg Diamonds

Watch for more holiday results next week, and meantime visit MarketLive’s holiday resource center for a collection of best practices and research data.

Thanksgiving, Black Friday results show strong gains – holiday flash report

Initial results from MarketLive Performance Index merchants for the first part of the holiday season’s big opening weekend show across-the-board double-digit increases in traffic, conversion and revenues.

Millions of consumer purchases were tracked via MarketLive’s e-commerce transaction platform during Thanksgiving Day, Black Friday, and the following Saturday and Sunday. Among the data highlights:

OVERALL RESULTS:

  • Total revenue YOY increase (4 days from Thanksgiving through Sunday): + 20%

THANKSGIVING & BLACK FRIDAY RESULTS:

  • Thanksgiving Day revenue increase: +36%
  • Average Order Value (AOV) for Thanksgiving Day rose +27.8% to $202.47
  • Black Friday revenue increase: +24%

MarketLive Performance Index data from 2015 holidays

 

SOCIAL COMMERCE:

  • Social referral traffic: +58%
  • Social conversion rate: +62%
  • Social revenue increase: +240%

MOBILE COMMERCE:

  • Smartphone traffic: +11%
  • Smartphone Conversion Rate: +21%
  • Smartphone revenue: +56%

Watch the blog for Cyber Monday results and further analysis coming later this week, and stay tuned for updates throughout the season. Meantime, check out MarketLive’s holiday resource center for best practices and data.

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.

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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?