Five Easy Steps to Retail Social Media Engagement

The rise of social media outside of marketing and inside customer service is one of the most significant trends in customer engagement over the last three years. Social media is moving beyond contacts and interactions to a culture of community and collaboration for the most engaged and customer-centric companies.

More than 23 percent of consumers ages 18 to 32 cite social media as their preferred channel for learning about different retail brands or new apparel trends. Consumers no longer rely solely on traditional phone and email communication. They're interacting online with fellow brand lovers via sponsored communities and over the public cloud via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest. By embracing these social channels, consumers can follow the newest trends from their favorite brands while first seeing their peers' reactions through tweets, photos and hashtags.

Consumers and consumer groups are setting up social media and other online advice services themselves. Approximately 83 percent of consumers tell their friends if they get a good deal, demonstrating that the demand for advice from fellow customers is present and strong enough for consumers to act to enable this type of advice.

In the apparel industry, for instance, more than 12 percent of consumers turn to blogs and almost 7 percent use other forms of social media as a trusted resource for fashion advice.

Social is more than an interaction, or transaction — it's a culture. Social is an approach to doing business in a more interconnected way. Social media is becoming the answer to crossing functional and departmental barriers and for collaborating as a single unified enterprise. Social media is the answer to getting that one shopper who only visits your retail outlet once a year connected to the one person in the company who has the experience and insight to provide the right assistance at the right time. Such employees can use the power of social media to turn that occasional brand skeptic to a brand-loyal advocate through that shopper's social interactions. Social media communications is a philosophical belief that more people working together is better than one person working alone.

Consider these five steps to establish a customer engagement strategy:

Keep an ear to the cloud: Companies that fail to monitor the conversations unfolding on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Google+, Instagram and other social networks are missing critical opportunities to address concerns and turn criticism into advocacy. For example, by monitoring social media to develop a better understanding of your consumers' concerns, you are ultimately allowing your brand to continuously self-improve. Put the technologies and teams in place to listen to your customers and identify opportunities to create buzz, build loyalty, and resolve retail issues proactively.

Develop a strategy and implement it quickly: Social media strategies require sufficient planning, but time-to-market is equally important. Accept that there will be several unknowns, as the social media landscape is still developing. If you try to mitigate every conceivable risk factor, you will likely miss out on significant customer opportunities. Brands should not view social media as a potential setback to the organization, but as a new opportunity to resolve the problems that their customers are having. By reacting more efficiently and effectively to these concerns, retailers can improve their brand's image and retaining more of their brand advocates.

Achieve and maintain executive buy-in: Reach out to C-level executives early in the planning process. Ask for their involvement and support; communicate the need to put together a cross-functional team of social media “champions” from relevant departments — sales, marketing, customer service, corporate communications, IT — that will closely collaborate on social media initiatives. By using all available corporate resources to develop a more effective social media strategy, retail brands will only put themselves in a position to improve their customers satisfaction and advance the brand's image.

Collaborate with other departments: Find out about other teams' current and planned social media customer initiatives to better understand how they can impact the organization as a whole. Feedback is a two-way street. Share your implementation plan roadmaps to understand key dependencies. When possible, take a joint, collaborative effort to project planning, implementation, support and continuous improvement methodology.

Manage the entire social lifecycle: Once your social media strategy is implemented and underway, expand your capabilities to cover all aspects of the engagement lifecycle, including:

Building online retail customer communities/forums

Handling inbound social media contacts

Handling outbound/proactive social media customer contact

Campaign management, knowledge management, reporting and analytics

Continuous improvement methodology

If your social media engagement increases beyond your internal capabilities, consider leveraging your contact center partner to scale your operations and expertise.

Social networks and community forums are very visible channels for retail customers to share and discuss experiences they've had with a retail brand or shopping outlet. Companies that understand this and establish a social media strategy are better prepared to quickly address customer issues and are more likely to retain those customers in the future. A proactive and speedy response helps improve the customer experience, increase brand loyalty and potentially diffuse the negative impact of any less-than-satisfactory customer experiences. By actively taking part in a customer engagement strategy through the use of social media, retail brands are positioning themselves to be more proactive with their consumers concerns and ultimately creating a more brand loyal following.

Andrew Kokes is the vice president of global product management & marketing for Sitel, a global business process outsourcing provider of customer care.

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