THE RETAIL SECTOR is at the beginning of a social revolution. We’re in an era when customer expectations are changing almost by the day. No longer are consumers happy for messages to be pushed at them, they want to be involved in communities, building content and connections. Leading retailers recognise this and are planning accordingly. That’s the message of Fabrice Etienne , marketing director at Lithium Technologies , which specialises in social software that enables companies to respond more effectively on social networks and, more importantly, to build a community the company owns.
“It’s all about how you bring loyalty and create a true dialogue with your customer,” says Etienne. “That’s where the solutions we offer come into play, not only from a listening perspective in terms of understanding what’s out there on social media, but then from a community standpoint. It’s how do you reach out to customers and how do you create a dialogue? Not only between that brand and you, but also among customers themselves.” When working with retailers, Lithium initially guides companies through four steps in order to achieve a social transformation:
• Developing an understanding of how customers have changed: we live in an age when customer expectations are higher than ever. While this is having a huge impact on the retail sector, it’s by no means being driven solely by developments here. Think of the way Netflix makes it easy to access TV shows and films on multiple devices. The wider point is that customers want to reach out in different ways.
• Creating an understanding of what a social community might achieve: different retailers have different priorities. Is the aim to encourage consumers to write product reviews? Or to create a buzz around a new product line or store? Or to get customers talking with each other on a peer-to-peer basis?
• Identifying what a social community will do for the business: a social community shouldn’t be a nice-to-have add-on, it should pay its way. This might be by increasing loyalty or the average size of shopping carts. Virgin Atlantic, for instance, has found that customers active on its www.vtravelled.com site, developed in conjunction with Lithium, spend more money than people who are not engaged with the brand on the community.
• Helping convince internal stakeholders that a social revolution really is happening: in many retailers, where executives have been buffeted by the arrival of the digital era, social is regarded with some suspicion, another example of the emperor’s new clothes. Lithium can and help the ‘C-suite’ of senior executives to understand there will be a quantifiable ROI.
Once these initial steps have been undertaken, it’s time to get to work. While Lithium’s approach offers flexibility according to an individual retailer’s needs, the next step usually revolves around identifying those who are already discussing the company in a positive way, those Lithium calls the ‘Super Users’.
“These are the people who are highly loyal to your brand, who are going to create content and speak highly about you,” says Etienne. “And these people would really enjoy being part of a social community and to be one of the leaders in that community, creating content for it. Once you have that, you open the community and it’s a self-sustaining environment.” Which certainly isn’t to say key community members won’t appreciate being supported.
Lithium recommends using ‘gamification’ techniques to recognise a brand’s most loyal and active consumers, offering rewards. These might be as simple a badge or membership of a club, or it might involve offering money-off vouchers. “Just by doing that, it motivates people to go back and sustain the fact that they’re producing content,” says Etienne. This idea becomes even more powerful when combined with big data. “It’s about trying to understand your customer much more deeply,” adds Etienne. “A lot of time, retailers are sitting on so much data, they actually don’t have a clue about how to deal with it to better serve their customers.”
This is perhaps one reason why those of us who shop for groceries via the internet continue to receive invitations to try home delivery for the first time. Now contrast this scenario with a world where information gleaned from social is combined with a loyalty programme and information gleaned from previous purchases. This is where the industry is headed. That doesn’t mean it will all be positive. There will be moments when even the most loyal customers will post negative comments, as Etienne acknowledges: “A lot of retailers are concerned that, ‘If we have a social community, they’re going to say bad things about us, so let’s not do this. I just want to push merchandise to them, I don’t want to hear what they have to say because it’s going to be bad.’ And yes, it’s not going to be all pretty out there, but once you have the dialogue you can really turn that sentiment.”
By and large, customers have realistic expectations of retailers. If a retailer engages with a problem or complaint, there’s actually an opportunity in acknowledging a bad customer experience and hopefully doing something promptly to resolve the issue. In a world where Marks & Spencer has already built its new digital presence around the idea of using social media to promote customer engagement, this kind of interaction will increasingly become the norm. Etienne and Lithium welcome this development. “Customers will want more interaction and to see more content moving forward,” Etienne says. “Retailers need to recognise this and take the initiative here.”
Lithium’s software helps companies reinvent how they connect with their customers. Lithium works with more than 300 of the world’s best brands – including Lidl, Migros, Indosat, Sephora, Skype and Telstra – to respond on social networks and to build trusted content on a community they own.
The 100% SaaS-based Lithium Social Customer Experience™ platform enables brands to build and engage vibrant customer communities to drive sales, reduce service costs, accelerate innovation and grow brand advocacy. For more information, visit lithium.com, or connect with us on Twitter, Facebook and our own community. Lithium is privately held with corporate headquarters in San Francisco, and offices across Europe, Asia and Australia.