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How to build a sense of connection

Chloe Rigby considers how shoppers want to connect with UK retailers and brands in 2017 – and how retailers and brands are responding

THE WAY UK shoppers buy is changing at speed, and the way that retailers and brands engage with shoppers is also changing to keep up with them.

By 2020, two-thirds of online transactions will take place via mobile devices, according to research from OC&C, Google and PayPal. Their recent report, The Mobile Mandate, envisages that just three years from now, 80% of transactions – worth an estimated £57bn – will involve mobiles at some point in the shopping process. Smartphone-wielding shoppers have easy access to social media feeds, ratings, reviews and price comparisons, making it easy for them to research their purchase and engage with the retailer right up to the last minute, even while they’re standing in the queue to pay, or pausing before they click to finalise an online transaction.

Shoppers equipped with such powerful smartphones in their pockets now expect fast results to their questions, as well as responsiveness from the retailers they’re considering buying from. These days, shoppers are always on – so why wouldn’t the retailer be?

Shopper preferences

Overall, people in the UK are now more likely than any other country to use different digital and social channels to connect with people and information. Asked in Shoppercentric’s Generation Z shopper report about their use of 17 different digital channels to connect with people and information, just 2% of UK shoppers questioned – and 1% of those that, aged between 15 and 24 belong to Generation Z – said they had no interest in connecting via any of them.

Facebook, text message and email were the preferred channels to connect with people and information, for both the UK population as a whole and for members of Generation Z. Preferences change when it comes to retail, found the research, which questioned 1,040 UK shoppers, of whom 512 were from Generation Z, and went into more depth in fieldwork with 20 Generation Z shoppers.

Overall, email is shoppers’ preferred channel to hear from retailers and brands. Half (50%) of the UK population as a whole ranked this as a key channel for connection, as did 58% of Generation Z members. Shoppercentric also detected a growing openness to connecting with retailers via social media – especially among Generation Z shoppers – that contrasts with previous resistance. After email, Facebook was the next most important channel for UK shoppers (19%) as a whole to connect with retailers and brands, while Instagram was second-favourite for 21% of Generation Z shoppers. Twitter came in third place for both Generation Zers (20%) and the UK population (14%) as a whole – although YouTube (14%) was equally popular among the wider UK population. Down at the bottom of the list was WhatsApp, a key channel for 3% of the UK population and 1% of Generation Z shoppers, and Snapchat, favoured by just 1% of each group.

The retail response

Leading retailers appear to be responding accordingly. As the Shoppercentric research shows, half of all shoppers prefer to connect with retailers via email. Many traders send newsletters to those customers who sign up to their mailing list when they have made a purchase. Some also offer significant discounts on first purchases to website visitors who sign up to receive their newsletter. It’s a sensible strategy since this regular contact can help to develop and build long-term relationships. That’s especially true when messages are particularly interesting or useful. Email platform provider Bronto says retailers see strong conversion rates when they send regular emails to their customers. They suggest themes such as the ‘welcome’ email, abandoned basket emails, and messages around key dates such as birthdays.

IRUK Top500 research shows that 90% of IRUK Top500 retailers have a Facebook page, which is Liked by an average of 1.15m shoppers, or a median of 800,000; while 80% have a Twitter account, with an average following, at the time of the research, of 132,056 followers, or a median following of 19,766. These figures speak of a willingness among retailers to engage with customers on key social media channels.

Individual retailers are going beyond to capitalise on channels that, while smaller or more niche, may be important to their shoppers. Upmarket Burberry and Mulberry both engaged with followers on Instagram around London Fashion Week, sharing images and videos from the catwalk, while Burberry has also been active on WeChat (see the 12 things feature on page 24 for more). Topshop, with its millennial focus, is active on Snapchat, where content has included snap stories and videos that tell the story of a photoshoot. Victoria’s Secret also uses Snapchat, running competitions and sharing images and videos via the channel. All help to give followers a deeper sense of connection with the brand. Indeed, fostering that sense of connection through engaging content is key to retailers’ rationale for using these channels.

For Asos , with its stated ambition of becoming “the world’s number one online fashion destinations for twenty-somethings,” social media is very much part of the strategy. That makes sense for a retailer that focuses on mobile, from which 66% of its visitor traffic and 51% of orders come, according to the strategy statement on its corporate website.

Providing an engaging experience and content are other key strategic focuses. For the fast-fashion brand, the number of social media followers on channels including Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Pinterest, Instagram, YouTube and Tumblr is a KPI, but, it says, it is “great content” that “makes us much more than just a place to shop”. It adds: “By becoming a fashion destination offering a unique customer experience, we turn a sale into a loyal customer who returns to us frequently.” Indeed, those who download its app go on to use it to shop an average of eight times a month. The content it offers includes themed images that Asos ‘hearts’ on Pinterest, feeds dedicated to menswear style, fashion and beauty on Google+, plus topical style advice, images, competitions and offers on Twitter and Facebook.

But it’s not just at fashion retailers where engagement is a key part of the strategy. Supermarket Waitrose is highly active on Facebook and Twitter, where it promises to be available “whenever our shops are open”. It chooses to engage with its customers through cooking, with feeds that include recipe suggestions and videos, live Q&As and competitions. In a recent interactive pancake day feature, with John Whaite from The Great British Bake Off, the retailer canvassed votes for different pancake fillings, with a chef demonstrating how to make the winner. Its Pinterest and Instagram pages feature inspirational food for occasions from Wimbledon to barbecues, picnics and Halloween, while its YouTube channel has food videos alongside others showcasing its supply chain, as well as in categories that include cricket. All are ways to communicate its brand values through useful, engaging information.

For baby equipment, clothing and toy retailer Mothercare  , social media and an online blog provide it with relevant ways to communicate to parents with young children. It does so through no fewer than eight channels. Its YouTube channel showcases the latest ranges as well as featuring advice-led information videos on baby care and pregnancy advice that sits alongside buying advice. A range of demonstration videos feature different pushchairs and car seat installation.

Its Twitter feed cross-promotes Facebook events and encourages discussions, while its Facebook page hosts events and videos, and deals with customer queries. Its blog features guest contributors alongside advice answering new parent buying questions, from what to buy for a new baby to what to pack in the hospital bag.

While these leading retailers have different approaches to engaging with customers via social media and other channels, what they have in common is the ability to offer useful advice and information that goes beyond making a sale. Instead, it’s about developing relationships that last in the long term. This encourages shopper loyalty but can also deliver data that enables retailers to map customer behaviour and preferences. In turn, this can help them deliver ever more relevant services and develop more relevant products. Customer engagement, in short, can help keep retail brands relevant.

Developing the brand

That may be what is now attracting brands to engage with shoppers in new ways. Brands of all kinds are finding new ways to develop relationships with customers who may buy their products either via retailers or directly from their own websites or flagship stores.

In his Forrester report, Navigate your Brand to Resonance, Dipanjan Chatterjee talks of “resonant brands”, with strategies that target the most relevant people, deliver on promises and develop emotional connections to create the kinda of brands that become an important part of everyday life. “The best brands create experiences, communities and engagement opportunities that make them an irreplaceable part of their users’ lives,” he says.

Such brands include Nespresso, which has a relatively small number of stores in cities such as London and Berlin, where it can showcase its brand story. It tells its stories and makes offers via its website and three social media channels – Facebook, Twitter and YouTube – the latter used to showcase its George Clooney ad as well as being home to a range of city guides and other content that chimes with its brand values.

The values at Lego UK may be very different but this is another brand that uses many different channels to connect with customers of all ages, from its digitally connected stores, to videos on its website, to a range of different social media channels. On Facebook, for example, it organises brick-building competitions, showcases unboxing videos, and has Q&A sessions. Lego also has a range of mobile apps featuring games and blog content, including a Lego Life section of the website, where builders can take on challenges and share pictures of their creations in a carefully anonymised forum. This all fosters relationships with those who use their products, regardless of how they buy.

Leif Bode Nielsen, senior omnichannel manager at Lego , explained the strategic thinking when he appeared at the InternetRetailing Conference in 2016. “Between us and our retailers, we want to make sure [shoppers] have great sustainable value in the relationship they have with us, however they touch the brand and no matter where they are on the journey. We want to deliver a consistently awesome Lego experience on every shopping mission. We want to make sure it’s a little bit special, more quirky, and more fun.” But while leading brands and retailers are finding new ways to engage audiences, there’s always room for improvement. Those retailers with several million Facebook followers are still very much the exceptions to the rule. InternetRetailing research shows that the median Facebook following comes in at a more modest 800,000 followers, while the median Twitter following comes in at less than 20,000.

This is despite the fact that social media is close behind email as a preferred way for retailers to keep in touch, according to Shoppercentric research. It could be that as more shoppers develop fruitful relationships with retailers over social media, they become more likely to follow others and to demand engaging experiences in return. At the same time, as retailers watch what leaders in this space do well, they may choose to improve the quality of their content over social media, email, and the new and emerging channels of the future.

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