May 1, 2012, 11:32 AM

Retailers must ‘wow’ on social networks

Wal-Mart is a prime example of a retailer trying new ideas for social.

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Social media has transformed the way consumers behave online, says Ravi Raj, vice president of product at @WalMartLabs, the Wal-Mart Stores Inc. research group whose sole mission is to figure out new ways to marry Wal-Mart’s stores with its social, web and mobile channels.

“Social media is where consumers are spending their time,” Raj says. “It’s where they’re creating and consuming content in the form of tweets, posts, pins and anything else. Mobile is having an effect too, as consumers are walking into stores with mobile devices that enable them to check prices and tell their friends where they are. Those changes are changing the game in retail.”

With half of U.S. adults carrying web-connected smartphones into their stores, it’s easy for retailers to see the importance of mobile marketing. And there’s ample data to back up Raj’s assertion that online social networks represent a significant shift in consumer behavior. Nine out of 10 U.S. Internet users visited a social network at least once a month last year, according to web measurement firm comScore Inc. And social networking accounts for one of six minutes spent online, with Facebook alone accounting for 15% of all time spent online and roughly 16% of page views.

But just routinely posting new arrivals to a Facebook page or “pinning” images to a Pinterest board won’t cut it. Consumers spend time on social networks to interact with friends, not brands. Consider that Facebook’s more than 845 million worldwide members post 2.7 billion comments or Likes each day to the social network but that the retailer that generated the most comment on its Facebook page during a recent 30-day period—Wal-Mart—accumulated 7,656 comments, or 255 per day, according to a recent study by social media and digital analytics provider Socialbakers. That means 1,000 Wal-Marts would represent less than .01% of Facebook activity.

To avoid being a wisp of seaweed in the social ocean, retailers are realizing they have to offer something dazzling and different on social networks, and there is plenty of experimenting going on.

For instance, @WalMartLabs’ first effort debuted last holiday season. Called Shopycat, it is a Facebook application that mines a consumer’s posts and Likes to help a shopper find the ideal gifts for her friends and family.

If a consumer posts a status update, “On our way to cheer on the Sox at Fenway,” Shopycat infers that the user is a fan of the Boston Red Sox and presents Red Sox-specific gift ideas from Walmart.com, as well as from about 50 other online retail sites, including BarnesandNoble.com, such as a Red Sox-themed Monopoly board game. The application is also designed to ensure that a Yankees fan whose Facebook page oozes hatred of the BoSox won’t receive Red Sox-themed gift suggestions, says Raj.

Because @WalMartLabs is initially focused on figuring out what resonates with consumers, the retailer is primarily measuring how often consumers use Shopycat, not the sales it generates. Launched Dec. 1, Shopycat was installed roughly 125,000 times during its first three weeks. The average session time was about 15 minutes, says Raj. Those results exceeded expectations, he says, convincing Wal-Mart to continue investing in the application to improve the quality and relevance of the recommendations.

To read much more about how retailers go for the ‘wow’ factor in the May issue of Internet Retailer, click here. For a free subscription to Internet Retailer magazine, in print or digital form, click here.

Joel Anderson, president and CEO of Walmart.com, U.S., is a featured speaker at the Internet Retailer Conference and Exhibition 2012.  He will speak in a session entitled “Creating innovation through the next generation of retail” on June 6 from 9:15 a.m. to 9:45 a.m.

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