by Nick Fuller
There are few market sectors than fashion in which social media has had such a dramatic impact on the channels through which marketers communicate. A few well chosen words and images seen in the right places can drive awareness and sales in ways that traditional bought media could never match. We shouldn’t be surprised by this – social media has had a seismic impact in many sectors but none were as ripe for it as fashion where being seen in the right place has always been key. The crossover with celebrity has added to this momentum – ASOS is merely the best known example of a business driven by an implicit endorsement which, in the age of celebrity, is gold dust.
It would be wrong however to interpret the success of social as the death knell of more traditional channels; as an example, M&S has been a very respected early adopter of social TV and mobile but this has to be seen in the context of its’ spend of £31m on TV and £27m on press in 2010. Such ad spends reflect the sector. Fashion is big business. Mintel estimates the value of the European clothing specialist market in 2010 as €193bn.
It’s a tough place however in which the growth of etailers and the expansion of general retailers into its space have vied with the economic downturn. It’s no wonder that marketers are looking for ways to drive lower cost awareness & sales and that much focus has therefore been on the cost effective and measurable channels in which digital holds centre stage.
Within digital too, brands balance their social awareness activity with a range of other techniques all of which deliver important numbers. Of major significance amongst these is the email channel which, for many fashion brands and retailers, remains a major driver of planned revenue. This ability to ‘pull a lever’ is a major benefit of the direct one-to-one channel in which consumers have opted in to receive offers and newsletters as opposed to the more arms-length nature of social in which brands and retailers are reliant on the intermediary blog or users’ own decisions to tweet or post. The investment in creating and managing a dialogue with opted in consumers may look high when compared to traffic driven by key sites such as whowhatwear.com and DisneyRollerGirl.net but the control that it offers is a real advantage.
Of course marketers can take the conventional route into the unconventional by buying ad space but that really isn’t the win; they can also seek to get closer to the opinion formers but need to be careful that any reduction in the gap between fashion brand/retailer and blogger threatens to erode the very credibility that drives traffic in the first place. For all these reasons, the ‘old warhorse’ of digital therefore still has an important place at the table.
The more enlightened fashion brands and retailers have moved far beyond generic broadcast emails to a more segmented and user driven approaches and this is the key to much of their continued success with – and investment in – the channel. Aurora Fashions (owners of Coast, Oasis and Warehouse) runs a successful programme of trigger driven emails ranging from a welcome programme through birthdays to abandoned basket and post purchase reviews. This latter is a good example of brands capturing the same positive impact of social feedback but using it within a personal communication. Net-a-Porter is another brand that uses the highly personalised nature of the channel by targeting its ‘What’s New’ mails at the recipients chosen combination of product and designer.
Email and social are not completely separate worlds of course. Many brands are using email to drive recipients to their social presence – particularly Facebook pages. Campaigns to encourage users to ‘follow’ and ‘like’ are now very much the norm but some retailers are going further by seeking to develop Facebook into a shopfront – giving the visitor a chance to not only view the fashion item but also to buy it. One of the early adopters here is US fashion retailer Express which has embedded an ezine version of its catalogue within its Facebook page (which has no less than 1.7m likes.)
This is revolutionary stuff in an environment in which most people are arguing how the value of social activity can be measured at all – from sentiment scoring to attribution - so any retailer driving direct revenues will have, for at least part of their activity, a major win. In a wider sense, the future for social commerce will remain much debated for some time but, with 800m users, there is certainly an imperative for brands and retailers to find the best way of driving revenue from Facebook activity as a starting point.
Driving revenues via mobile is also a major challenge and area of development for many in the fashion industry. The ubiquity of mobile devices combined with the growth of smartphone functionality and the fact that one of its major uses is in social have all driven – and will drive – major focus here. The breadth of uses is extensive – from using SMS discount codes to drive in store traffic (as successfully operated in the US by retailers such as American Eagle), through transactional apps (widely adopted by brands from Debenhams to New Look) to location based ‘best price’ checking (Amazon’s Price Check and eBay’s Red Laser.) Several of these examples underline the key overlap between the digital and the physical which will continue to be key in a sector in which the ‘touch and feel’ of a real store visit will always be important. Aurora is going a step farther by trialing an iPad payment system in which an assistant can scan an item and then enable the customer to compete the transaction over wi-fi thereby reducing instore queues.
Whilst there may be some discussion about the degree to which these new developments are cannibalising existing store traffic, the fact remains that they are meeting the consumer’s appetite for choice. Of more importance to marketers will be the degree to which budget and resources should be invested in them and how this is balanced against other ‘bread and butter’ channels and campaigns. The winners will be those who get this balance right.
What is indisputable is that the earlier predictions of the demise of established channels such as email were way off the mark. Many brands are finding that amongst the most successful ways of alerting users to the value of social and mobile is via these very ‘endangered and anachronistic’ choices. Consumers will find the downloadable app via an email that has been designed and deployed in the specific format of the user’s known device; they will find the product ezine and checkout via an email sent to them or shared on their friend’s social network because it offered the right message in the right format. As ever, marketers will find the right way for old and new to profitably coexist side by side.
Nick Fuller is director of planning and development at e-Dialog.