What Are Brands Focusing on Right Now? "Conversational Marketing"

"My sixteen-year-old daughter doesn't know the difference between digital and physical anymore," said Alex Romanovich, principal, head of strategy and chief marketing officer for digital media solutions integrator Social2B, speaking at the Fashion Group International's social media in fashion and retail event in early March. "She assumes a physical experience will be digital as well."

Indeed, "you are not the [brand's] customer — your children are," Romanovich continued, addressing a multigenerational audience but honing in on the middle-age attendees. "My daughter won't buy anything without texting all her friends."

The young Miss Romanovich isn't old enough to be included among the 20- to 33-year-olds of the Millennial demographic but she's very much a part of Generation C and S — Generation Connected and Generation Social, and Romanovich described the former as cutting across all age groups, as consumers young and old increasingly embrace mobile and social technology.

Given that growing numbers of U.S. teens and adults own smartphones — and their accompanying social tools — and rarely are far from their devices, it's only natural that brands and retailers want to leverage these emerging channels to their advantage. In fact, conversational marketing and engagement are a significant priority for many brands right now, said Romanovich. "If someone is saying something good about you, you need to amplify that and turn them into influencers," he explained.

Social commerce, a market worth $5 billion in 2011, is expected to reach $30 billion in value by 2015, said Romanovich, citing data from Forrester Research. Nearly 60 percent of U.S. adults follow six retailers through social media — primarily to get access to special deals, noted Romanovich. Moreover, 55 percent of Millenials are more likely to buy something if their friends have bought or recommended it on Facebook or elsewhere, which makes the $15.72 value of the average product review shared to Facebook entirely plausible. A full 70 percent of reviews shared to Facebook spur additional interaction through "likes" or comments, according to Romanovich.

As companies move en masse to establish presences on Facebook, Twitter and other social sites, those leading the charges are making efforts to ensure that social media is used to advantage. "Brands who take social media seriously train their people to be transparent, authentic, and offer great customer service," explained Romanovich. "A brand won't get knocked down for doing something inadequate; it's how you respond [to your mistake] that matters." Companies such as Zappos and ASOS excel at using Twitter as a customer service channel and addressing problems quickly. What's more, added, Romanovich, Twitter can be a convenient avenue for swiftly disposing of excess inventory.

Brands and retailers would be wise to establish a company blog, as this tool is good for boosting search engine optimization — it keeps users on your website longer — and is a low-cost add-on to most e-commerce platforms. But, cautioned Romanovich, "relevance is important." That is, corporate blogs are not the place for aggressive self-promotion.

As social and interactive technology bleeds into the in-store experience, bricks-and-mortar locations increasingly become more of a showroom than a simple, utilitarian space to conduct transactions, said Romanovich. Shoppers want a store experience that's interesting and exciting. "There's a level of expectation among consumers now — being digital and social — that a brand will surprise us," he said.

Romanovich cited brands such as Macy's with its magic fitting room, Diesel and its QR code campaign and adidas' 2011 "holiday hookup" marketing push as examples of social marketing excellence. "But if you suck in brick-and-mortar, you'll suck on social media as well," he added.

Jessica Binns is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer specializing in business, technology and social media.

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