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IRUK Top500 Brand engagement: 12 approaches that work

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Leading retailers enhance engagement by encouraging customer interaction and affection for their brand, be that by providing a source of must-have information, loyalty rewards, useful apps or ensuring that the brand’s values and image matches those that of its target customers. Here are 12 examples of what they do.

1. Provide valued information…
Whether it is styling notes, patterns for the knitters, advice for new mums or DIY instructions, the leading retailers in this Dimension engage customers with content that will appeal to their target market. Such content may take the form of a blog, online magazine, free downloads or ‘how to…’ videos, but it needs to be relevant and regularly updated. For some market segments, finding the right material can be challenging: Bensons for Beds, for example, has come up with an amusing video on the history of the bed, while for Homebase and B&Q, there is an endless assortment of videos and text-based guides on anything from ‘How to repair patches in the lawn’ to ‘How to fit a splash back’. B&Q also provides a neat online bathroom design tool allowing shoppers to place and rearrange all the necessary fitments in a 3D model of their own bathrooms. Hobbycraft, too, has an enormous selection of ‘how-to’ ideas and craft tips as well as numerous free downloads, from knitting patterns to cards for children to colour.

2. …and make it easy to find
Both B&Q and Homebase include ‘ideas and advice’ in the pull-down menus on their landing page, as does John Lewis with its ‘inspiration and advice’. Marks & Spencer has ‘Style & Living’ accessed from ‘Inspire me’ in its page headers. It also adds a selection of topics prominently beneath the special offers on its landing page, with click-throughs for daily updates on a range of topics from product news and trend updates to recipes for ‘end of January’ cocktails (posted very timely on the 30th). Also on the landing page is ‘Adventures in Food’ with recipes and topical interviews, such as with clean-eating foodie Jasmine Hemsley. All these are very obvious and accessible. In contrast, while Debenhams puts ‘My Beauty Club’ among its page headers, its link to ‘Our Style Debrief’ is way down at the bottom of the landing page with the small print.

3. Encourage ratings and reviews
For some shoppers, those endless invitations to leave a review can be more of an irritant than a way of delivering brand reinforcement but, fortunately for retailers, such curmudgeons are outnumbered by those who love giving feedback. The number of Top 500 sites providing product ratings was up by 12 percentage points (pp) this year to 62%, while those encouraging reviews increased by 8pp to 61%. For a retailer such as Clarks, with its seasonally changing stock assortment, the number of reviews varies from single digits for the current styles to well over 1,000 for core lines. All are accessible but, fortunately, the product page initially only displays the most recent eight. Shoppers are asked not only to provide a header for their review and a few lines of text but also to answer such questions as the reason for purchase, where they bought their item and whether they’d recommend it or not. Shoppers provide feedback on comfort, quality and style as well as a star rating.

4. Raise your social media profile
Engaging in social media remains a vital daily activity for many and some 98% of the Top500 retailers have a Facebook page, 98% maintain a Twitter account and 92% have a YouTube channel. Instagram (91%) and Pinterest (87%) are both popular but only around one in five (22%) have so far adopted Snapchat. Having gone to the time and trouble to establish and maintain these social channels, it is perhaps surprising how many retailers hide the information away at the bottom of the landing page along with the small print about customer services and delivery information. Surprisingly few then use their social media data to validate products – only 18% of the Top500, according to RetailX researchers. John Lewis, one of the Top 25, neatly displays the number of Facebook Likes for each of its products on the relevant page as well as providing a click-through to save the item on Pinterest. Others scoring well on this type of social validation include Clarks, Superdrug, Homebase, Wickes and Bensons for Beds.

5. Appeal to their better nature
People are often passionate about the environment, concerned about social inequality or generous in their support of good causes. Making your own activities in any of these areas more apparent may not only improve perceptions of your brand, it may also enhance the feel-good factor for shoppers who buy from you. Ocado has a scheme allowing customers to make donations to food banks by simply adding a ‘You give. We give’ token to their trolleys. Ocado then matches the amount to double the donation and converts the total into food bank groceries. Boots provides pages on its corporate social responsibility activities, from charity fund-raising to its approach to reducing plastic packaging. John Lewis has pages devoted to its numerous community and environmental policies as well as allowing shoppers to download a copy of its Human Rights Report 2016/17. Bensons for Beds runs a scheme encouraging customers to donate their old beds, mattresses and bedroom furniture to raise funds for the British Heart Foundation, while Peacocks raises funds for Cancer Research UK through various activities as well as selling the charity’s branded products in its stores.

6. Offer them a wish list
If shoppers care sufficiently about your products to start compiling a wish list then they are certainly committed and well engaged with your brand. John Lewis flags the availability with ‘My wish list’ top right hand corner on every page. Others, including Pandora and House of Fraser, prefer to put a heart icon there to access the wish list page, which is reasonably obvious.

Mothercare takes no chances with both a heart and ‘wish list’ top right and also provides easy access to declared public wish lists to simplify gift buying. To create a wish list it is necessary to have an account. Some sites assume this is already the case and simply provide a log-in once a shopper has clicked on ‘wish list’ but Furniture Village takes the opportunity to list the benefits of an account at this stage, informing customers that they’ll be able to access their basket across devices, view order history and “store your favourite items in your wish list”.

7. Use some imagination
Loyalty cards may be increasingly replaced by loyalty apps but a great many still operate on the ‘points for prizes’ principle. Understanding what really interests or matters to your customers and capitalising on that, as well as delivering appropriate rewards, is key to successful engagement. Pets at Home, with six million members of its VIP Club, understands this very well. One key benefit of membership is to pay £10 a year to join the ‘VIP Find a Pet’ service. Club members can send a lost pet alert to Pets at Home and they then alert all local Club members with details of the lost animal – with numerous messages on the website from happy owners reunited with their pets in this way.

Paperchase, too, understands its customers. Its invitation to join ‘Treat Me’ describes it as “Perfect therapy for anyone with a slight Paperchase addiction”. There are no points but benefits include a £5 voucher on birthdays, free click and collect, a free regular premium coffee each week and regular surprise “treats”. Pandora offers its loyalty club members exclusive jewellery, H&M gives them unlimited free standard delivery as well as click and collect, while M&Co adds a “birthday surprise” and the opportunity to join club “spa trips, holidays and more”.

8. Newsletter or blog?
Unsolicited emailed newsletters are a bane for some customers, while others welcome a regular update about new styles or seasonal activities. Today, some retailers provide an opportunity to sign up for their newsletter at the checkout, while others – including Clarks and Peacocks – may also provide a low-profile plug at the end-of-page small print. Dune displays a neat banner at the bottom of its landing page with an invitation to “Be the first!” and “Sign up to our newsletter for the latest collections, promotions and news”. Others prefer blogs, sometimes accessed from the header page as with Paperchase’s The Journal Blog or from that list of small print and social media logos at the bottom of the landing page – as with Hobbycraft’s Craft Blog. Such blogs vary enormously in content and are often largely promotional.

Most are generally very different from the original discussion or information blogs that emerged in the 1990s. They are also not always very topical – in February 2018, M&Co’s most recent blog post was on 21 October 2017, while ‘The Journal Blog’ still featured ideas for making Christmas cards. If you’re going to call it a blog, it really does need to be regularly updated.

9. Watch your apps
Customers will readily download apps but how many ever use them to their full extent? Top500 retailers appear to have cut back on a number of app functions this year, while there has been little change in adoption of new attributes. Very few retailers (only 2% of the Top500) allow customers to sign up for a loyalty account via a mobile app, while still only around a quarter (26%) allow mobile users to post product reviews or ratings that way. However, daily deals via an app have become more popular – now offered by 37% of the Top500. As a brand engagement tool, some of the leading retailers are more interested in content and customer services. Marks & Spencer has a recipe app and another for accessing Sparks accounts and locating stores, while Boots’ allows shoppers to book appointments for pharmacy services or beauty consultations in store, manage prescriptions and arrange photo printing as well as accessing loyalty card information and health-related content. John Lewis helpfully lists its app functions by device – Android, iPhone or iPad – with a raft of functions that include storing electronic receipts, checking stock availability or building up wish lists. It also allows users to “Access your myJohn Lewis card in the app by shaking your phone”.

10. Match promotions to product
Excessive discounting, as every retailer knows, rapidly erodes margin and, given the added cost to serve of home delivery and handling online returns, the likely result can easily end in a profits warning. Rewarding loyal customers with occasional discounts can encourage brand engagement, but should they be offered to all and sundry even before they’ve made a purchase? It clearly works for some – especially if there is a relevant product mix. Land on Furniture Village’s site for the first time and you’re greeted with a large pop-up window offering £25 off the first order in exchange for an email address.

At Dunelm, a similar pop-up holds out the carrot of a chance to win a “£250 shopping spree” for signing up to its newsletter – even before you’ve entered the site. Furniture and home furnishings are unlikely to be regular purchases for most people, so there are good arguments for offering a reward and grabbing as much information about potential buyers as soon as possible. However, for retailers in product groups with regular repeat purchases, it may be far better to wait until the checkout and an initial purchase before offering such carrots for any repeat visit.

11. Involve your customers
Persuading your customers to become brand champions requires not only appropriate products and good service but other reasons for them to trust and recommend your brand or want to interact regularly with your site and stores. For some of the Top 100, providing a source in-depth expert advice is the obvious solution – as with Boots, Mothercare or Pets at Home. Others encourage lively discussion forums where customers can share concerns. Screwfix’s Community Forum provides a popular space for both amateurs to ask for help with a building project as well as specialist tradesmen – plumbers, carpenters etc – to share their problems, New posts regularly trigger hundreds of replies within hours. House of Fraser actively encourages customer interaction with ‘Your Say’, an online customer panel, where shoppers “can share your views about House of Fraser through regular surveys and polls”. As a reward, participants are entered in regular prize draws for £250 HoF gift cards.

12. Think outside the box
Don’t confine your brand engagement efforts to website, store or your Facebook page. Gordon’s Gin, possibly aiming to raise its profile as artisan gin-makers continue to attract media attention, is offering vouchers for free Gordon’s Gin and tonic to commuters suffering from train delays. Using technology from Eagle Eye, ‘Yaydelay’ uses geo-data to monitor real-time social media spikes that surge when train delays occur. On Fridays between 5pm and 6pm, commuters can check at to see if the level of delays has triggered the offer and then download an online voucher and claim a free G&T (pictured) at the station’s pub. Starting at London Waterloo in February, Gordon’s plans to extend the scheme countrywide and commuters are being encouraged to tweet #YayDelay to lobby for their station to be added to the scheme. It is certainly a novel way to raise the profile of your brand, drive traffic to your website, collect contact details of likely customers and deliver a much-needed feel-good factor.

<em>This feature first appeared in the IRUK Top500 Brand Engagement Performance Dimension Report 2018. </em>

Image courtesy of Gordon’s Gin

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