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Social Commerce - from ‘conversion’ to ‘conversation’

As social media becomes social commerce, new approaches are required for this front-line customer engagement. Ian Jindal considers a changing perspective on social, from sales focus to customer focus.

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Consider a catchup between longstanding friends in a local restaurant. There’s an exchange of news, updates on family and friends in common, mentions that each has lost weight and is looking happy and relaxed and how much that new top suits them. Stories are exchanged of holidays, work activities, scrapes and things they want to do, buy and experience. The only ‘conversion’ that evening is the till ringing in the restaurant as a four-top pays its bill for the first sitting of the evening.

The brands mentioned could not ‘hear’ the conversation and so are not lamenting the loss of a conversion event. The fact that it was not trackable (unless the restaurant’s Alexa was listening in?) means that it didn’t exist. However, we know as consumers that these conversations are a vital part of our commercial relationship with a brand: the mix of physical experience of products, the implied endorsement of the product by our friends and influencers, their stories over the experience of purchase and the emotional and practical reality of ownership, and how that experience changes over time... these are the fundamental truths of the pre- and post-purchase experience.

As more of our lives are exposed via social media and ever-improving tracking capabilities, brands and retailers have more access to these discussions and so can interject themselves into these conversations. In parallel, the social networks are offering sophisticated and seamless tools for commerce. Gone are the days of having to click on a promotional interruption to head to a vendor’s website: commerce, promotion, payment and personalised recommendations are nearly invisible within the leading platforms. Instagram in particular is leading this charge: encompassing social, discovery, affirmation and promotion, it’s an increasingly important channel for brands to interact with their customers - before, during and after the moment of sale.

These new interactions include:

- Multi-narrative: not only does a brand need to convey its own narrative and ‘creation myths’, but it needs to weave this into seasonal and topical activities, the customer’s own narratives, and stories around the product lines. This is more demanding than simple copywriting and marketing blurb - it demands a consistency of tone and vision across many areas and narrative arcs.

- Hosting: much as a generous and considerate host listens to guests and brings the conversation back to topics of shared interest, so the social channel managers need to gently manage the levels of interest in products and purchasing. A standard promotional approach will appear cloth-eared and self-regarding. To run a social channel is to listen.

- Authenticity: while we might claim authenticity, it’s really up to our customers to award us that accolade. It doesn’t matter how well drilled we are in our brands “positions” and “messaging”, this will fall apart over the myriad connections unless the values are genuinely held and expressed. For the social channel managers this authentic approach has to be applied while talking about new projects, dealing with questions, customer support and any other interaction. The front-line staff who work on the channel therefore carry our brand all day, every day.

- Sustained conversation: a social account that simply repeats promotional messages soon becomes tiring, just like a dinner guest that drones incessantly about themselves or the same old hobby-horse. Social channel managers need to converse with customers, fans, critics and partners over a period of years rather than seconds, covering the gamut of states in any relationship.

The social channels represent the fullest insights and relationships into our customers that we can have at scale, and we need to measure, resource and manage them accordingly.

It would be naive not to recognise social media as a performance and sales channel, however in the same way as stores have moved from pile-it-high stock depots to ‘experience hubs’, so too must the approach to social media evolve. While we seek the gratification of ‘conversion metrics’ we need to develop our ‘conversation metrics’ if we are to move from the moment of the sale to the lifetime value of our customers.

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