June 21, 2010, 10:42 AM

Here comes social media—ready or not

One of the most frequently mentioned topics the 2010 Internet Retailer Conference & Exhibition in Chicago was social media.

One of the most frequently mentioned topics the 2010 Internet Retailer Conference & Exhibition in Chicago was social media. Those words were on the tongues of almost every speaker, from the pre-conference workshops on Tuesday (Ravelry.com, a social site for knitters, drives 6% of traffic to Yarn.com, Steve Elkins, president of Yarn.com’s parent WEBS, told Tuesday’s Beginning Search Marketing Workshop) to Friday, when the conference concluded with a whole day devoted to understanding social initiatives (“Mingle around online social media to find out where your market is,” Michael Jansma, president of online retailer GEMaffair.com, advised attendees).

Anyone attending any of the many sessions that dealt with social media went home with lots of ideas—and with the idea that there is no silver bullet. Each retailer has to harness social media to its own particular circumstances.

A couple of great examples came out of the Facebook session during the post-conference Social Media and E-Retailing workshop. David Pohl, head of e-commerce for Equator Estate Coffees & Teas, focused on small-bore initiatives. He reported that when the company gets small lots of coffee in stock, it sells them on Facebook. Why?  It’s too much trouble to put small quantities on the web site. And those offerings have the advantage of tying fans closer to the brand. “Treat your fans special,” Pohl advised.

Pohl’s co-presenter David Saville of Hallmark Cards reported that Hallmark is planning to spread its presence across Facebook. Rather than offering only a few things on Facebook, Hallmark is getting ready to build Facebook stores for the many different brands, such as Disney, that Hallmark licenses for cards. That could result in Hallmark’s operating dozens of Facebook presences.

Whatever the approach, social media is early enough in its life and fluid enough to allow online retailers latitude in experimentation. The real challenge is to find the return on such investments. Notwithstanding ForeSee Results’ new service (announced at IRCE) to track how consumers use social media and whether it prompts them to buy, many speakers urged e-retailers not to be concerned about return, arguing that social media is still a relatively small investment. “Don’t try to calculate ROI on social media programs, just do them,” Ken Cassar, vice president of industry insights at Nielsen Online, told Friday’s Social Media workshop.

Said GEMaffair’s Janmsa: “It’s a challenge for us right now to monetize Facebook.”

Profitable or not, the consensus among speakers is that successful retailers will be where consumers are—and that’s on social sites these days. In fact, Jansma cited research showing that social sites are now the No. 1 use of the Internet—displacing porn for the first time since the rise of the Internet. Having a social presence, said Nielsen’s Cassar, “is a minimum customer expectation.”

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