Reaching out to customers
It may have a staid and reliable public image, but Marks & Spencer is at the cutting edge of using a potent combination of social media, search and its app to promote its brand and engage with customers.
“THIS IS AN example of where a big company that has a clear strategy and invests heavily in the right technology really reaps the benefits,” says InternetRetailing researcher Martin Shaw . “Back in January, M&S promised to take a more ‘savvy’ approach to social media marketing and it’s delivering on this promise.”
The Elite group of companies is completed by Topshop , ASOS and Debenhams . While each of these companies has also invested heavily in promoting its brand and in social media, each has its own distinct strengths. ASOS, for instance, uses Google particularly effectively, while Topshop has an active presence on seven social networks.
The Leading group of retailers, again heavy with familiar high street names such as Miss Selfridge , Mothercare and Coast , also performed strongly, but here there are more examples of companies that aren’t uniformly strong in the categories we measured. Urban Outfitters , for example, uses eight social networks yet its Urban On app isn’t available in the UK. Bathstore prioritises using Twitter as a way to communicate with customers, yet it uses only five social networks and it doesn’t have an app.
Among the Model group of retailers, Oasis Fashion is worth singling out as the one company from outside the largest 150 to feature. This is noteworthy because the methodology we used slightly favoured larger companies. Oasis achieved its high ranking because of its effective use of Twitter, because its app enables social sharing and because it uses six social networks.
Twitter is the most popular social media network, used by 490 of the Top500 retailers.
More generally, fashion companies are disproportionately represented in the top three groups here, reflecting the way shopping for clothes is inherently social. There’s a real advantage in retailers helping customers to ask their friends a question that can make or break a sale: “What do you think of this?”
Further down the list though, many companies have work to do. One leading fashion retailer, aiming at a youthful demographic, makes no use of Twitter whatsoever. Likewise, a leading seller of books, magazines and newspapers doesn’t ever respond to customers via Twitter. These may seem glaring oversights, but plenty of companies engage with customers via only two social media networks, Facebook and Twitter, and perform poorly in Google searches.
The Elite group: what set them apart?
Marks and Spencer, Index Value: 85%
The M&S investment in social media, part of a wider strategic commitment by the company to turn itself into a customer-facing omnichannel retailer (the country’s first…?) appears to be paying off. It performed strongly in all the categories we measured here.
Link: M&S emphasises multichannel as it launches customer internet recruitment campaign
Topshop, Index Value: 82%
Another impressive performer across social media, although the company could improve its responsiveness via Twitter. Topshop uses an
impressive seven out of the nine social networks we looked for.
Link: How Topshop delivers seamless social integration through its app
ASOS, Index Value: 80%
The fashion retailer’s international growth has been in great part promoted by its use of social media, allied to its exemplary merchandising and presentation of goods.
Link: Who’s telling your customers what to buy?
Debenhams, Index Value: 79%
The department store’s use of Twitter was particularly impressive and it’s strong in other areas, for example, its share of Google search.
WHAT WE LEARNED
A retailer’s brand is becoming increasingly important in the digital era. One reason for this is because retailers no longer compete just with each other, but also with wholesalers selling direct. Think of the way Nike has invested in its online presence, offering customers the chance to order personalised trainers via the web.
To compete, retailers also need a strong brand presence, which has to be built at least in part through social media and effective use of Google search.
Five Top500 retailers lack a presence on both Twitter and Facebook.
In this context, one small but telling statistic from our research is that 10 companies from the Top500 have no Twitter presence at all, while 12 are not on Facebook, with a crossover of five companies using neither social network. This may be at least in part because companies hoping for a boost from so-called social commerce were disappointed in the numbers. Whatever the reasons, other companies are doing better here.
The corollary to a dozen retailers not being on Facebook is that 488 do use the now near-ubiquitous social media channel. That’s what we would expect to find, but the number of retailers using Pinterest, the media sharing and storage site surprised us. Already, 269 companies have a presence here. It’s a reflection of the way Pinterest can drive sales. Last year, marketing company Piqora found that a ‘pin’ attached to a user’s interest boards is worth 78 cents in additional sales to the featured brand. The company reported that the sales-per-pin had risen 25 per cent in less than a year. But again, it’s surprising how many companies still seem to be struggling with social media.
Turning to Twitter, we’ve already noted how even companies in the largest 150 don’t reply to tweets. Aside from those companies not active at all on the network, a dozen companies don’t respond at all to customers on Twitter. Similarly, of those retailers that do have apps, 93 don’t offer social sharing to customers using the app, which may suggest retailers are still struggling to find ways to tie together mobile and social.
Turning to Google, we were surprised by how page reach was affected by switching to a new site. Considering the importance of appearing high up on search results, it’s clear there’s at least a temporary effect here when companies re-launch on a new domain. While page ratings do recover, companies need to be aware of the temporary blip.
M&S and customer-centred retail
In February 2014, Marks & Spencer unveiled its new-look website, shaped around its customers over two years of testing. The site was built, for the first time, on its own platform. M&S put a merging of content and commerce at the heart of what it was doing.
How does this work? M&S research revealed that 40 per cent of its customers shopped on the website for outfits rather than a single item. Accordingly, the company aims to show half its womenswear range as outfits through recommendations on the product page or through galleries that can be browsed by trend, occasion or as personalised recommendations.
The site also features catwalk footage, maxi zoom and 360° video. Then there’s the company’s Style & Living editorial hub, which features fashion content and lifestyle guidance from leading journalists and celebrity editors.
This kind of approach is interactive, it emphasises engaging customers in conversation. This is where the use of social media comes in. Every day, for example, updates about features on the editorial hub are sent out to the company’s two million social media followers. But a conversation clearly isn’t just about sending out messages. M&S has taken on extra customer service staff and it monitors social media 24/7.
The site also extends into the store, extending digital conversations onto the high street and blurring the lines between channels. More than 40,000 employees, including 1,500 sales assistants armed with iPads, are using the platform, while there are also 120 browse and order hubs in store.
We long ago went past the era when social media was widely seen as a potential sales channel to usurp existing channels. However, that doesn’t mean companies can ignore social media. Instead, because brand building is so important, companies need to work out ways to use social media more effectively.
But as we’ve already noted, some companies seem uncertain how to go forward here. One of the figures from the research that most surprised us was that 169 of the Top500 retailers don’t have a Google+ account. “This seems like a real oversight,” says Martin Shaw. “It really only takes an hour or so to get started. It makes it much easier to communicate with consumers who also use the network, and it helps with Google searches. Of course it takes much longer to make sophisticated use of the network, but it does seem like some retailers are ignoring low-hanging fruit.”
Against this, the rise in the number of companies using Pinterest is echoed elsewhere. Precisely the same number of retailers, 269, use YouTube as use Pinterest, while 183 retailers use the photo-sharing network Instagram. We suspect these figures will grow strongly over the next year. In part, that’s because these are visually led forms of social media that lend themselves to marketing and merchandising efforts.
In the case of YouTube, there’s also an opportunity, for example, to help customers get to grips with complex products, or to show how different products work together. But something more subtle may be going on here. For all the provisos we’ve made about some retailers not ‘getting’ social media, it’s clear many do understand why it’s important to use this channel to engage in conversations with customers.
The promise of what was dubbed social commerce may not have been backed up by the sales figures, but companies who don’t have a strong presence on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest and the rest will still miss sales because it’s a case of out of sight, out of mind. Over the year we’ll repeat our quantitative research, creating a Social Retailing Index, mapping the developments in retailers’ use of social media channels and tools. Qualitative research will extend our coverage to include the role of digital brand building within multichannel retail performance.