June 1, 2012, 12:00 AM

Keep in Touch

No rest for the social media marketer: Constantly engaging fans is the key to success,

Lead Photo

How's this for an impressive data point? More people "Like" Walgreen Co.'s Facebook page than live in Philadelphia and Miami combined. But while a mix of contests, promotions and appealing content may help a retailer like Walgreens acquire nearly 2 million fans, that's actually the easy part of social media marketing, says Adam Kmiec, the retailer's director of social media. Keeping those shoppers interested and engaged with Walgreens on Facebook is the real challenge, he says.

Conquering that challenge is crucial, because otherwise a consumer that doesn't interact with a brand will likely never see any of its Facebook posts after a short time. Facebook only displays in the most commonly viewed section of a consumer's Facebook page the posts from friends—including retailers the consumer has Liked—that Facebook deems important based on the individual's behavior on the social network. As a result, consumers, on average, only see about 16% of their friends' Facebook posts.

Holding consumers' interest is also important on Twitter, where posts fly by at a rapid clip, and on other social networks. That means retailers have to be continually engaging consumers who have hit the Like button or otherwise engaged in the past. "It's not like other marketing channels where you can have a campaign that has a clear end point," says social media consultant Natalie Petouhoff. "On social media you need to keep the conversations flowing."

How to do that is a developing art, but among the early lessons is that retailers don't have to constantly offer discounts to keep consumers' attention.

'Do you recycle?'

The reason marketers need to keep conversations going on Facebook is because the leading online social network last fall modified the algorithm it uses to decide the importance of posts, Likes and other actions. Facebook made the change in an effort to present the content that users will most want to see in the "Top Stories" section of each individual's Facebook page, the part she's most likely to see.

The challenge is even greater on Twitter because there are only two ways to keep showing up in a consumer's timeline, the main page he sees when logging on to the site: post frequently or pay to target consumers with messages called "Promoted Tweets" that appear in a consumer's timeline like any other Twitter message, or tweet.

Quite simply, garnering attention isn't easy. In determining the value of an item, Facebook considers, among other things, how many Facebook users, both friends of a given individual and strangers, have interacted with it. That's one reason why Kmiec and his colleagues at Walgreens regularly engage fans with a mix of content that ranges from questions like, "Yes or no: do you recycle?" which attracted more than 1,600 comments and 1,700 Likes, to blatant attempts at garnering Likes, such as "Like this post if you love taking photos!" That post led more than 5,500 people to click the Like button and 90 to comment.

The retailer also uses limited-time flash sales that unlock once the post receives a preset number of Likes. Because Walgreens has a diverse fan base, each post is aimed at a particular niche or niches of its followers who might find the content interesting, he says.

Of course, discounts are one way to spur action, Kmiec says. But, rather than conditioning consumers to expect discounts, Walgreens sporadically mixes in those types of offers on Facebook. "We don't want to have a specific cadence to our posts," he says. That keeps consumers looking at its posts, rather than waiting until a specific day and time when they know a discount will be posted.

Flash deals

Walgreens runs a flash sale on the social network about once a month. But, because the sales are not regularly scheduled, its fan base considers them events and they spring into action, Kmiec says. For instance, in late February Walgreens posted as a status update on its Facebook wall a note that read, "If this status update gets 8,000 likes, we'll unlock a flash deal this afternoon!" The retailer hit its target within 17 minutes. Five hours later, just before the retailer posted the special offer, the original message had nearly 14,600 Likes and 200 comments.

The deal was half off items in Markwins Beauty Products Inc.'s Wet n Wild line. About an hour after the deal posted, it had nearly 100 Likes and 40 comments. The retailer declines to disclose how many sales resulted, but says it considers the offer successful.

And sales are just one reason why the retailer engages with consumers on Facebook; another is to learn about its customers, Kmiec says. "We want to better understand our customers' behavior," Kmiec says. "Social media enables us to do that through a mix of qualitative and quantitative data points that we look at."

For instance, the retailer uses technology from LocalResponse to monitor what consumers are saying about "Walgreens" or related terms like "pharmacy" so that it can respond when indicated. It also uses quantitative tools like Facebook's Insights analytics technology to examine metrics such as how many impressions a post garners. Beyond immediate sales, the retailer aims to use the social media interaction data it gathers to understand who its customers are and what they want, both in-store and online, he says. That helps Walgreens know what it can do to keep consumers engaged on all selling fronts—from the coupons it offers online and offline to the events it hosts in its physical stores and on social networks.

Creating events

Staples Inc. takes a similar approach in blending discounts with other content to keep its fans interested. That's because surveys the retailer has conducted have found that while consumers say the main thing they're after on social media is special offers, their actions—namely their comments, Likes and retweets of posts—show that they're also eager for information.

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