June 1, 2012, 12:00 AM

Keep in Touch

(Page 2 of 2)

The retailer makes an effort to figure out what content its customers find helpful, going so far as to feature a large bar on its Twitter page asking consumers, "What topics should we cover next? Tell us what you want to hear about. Include @Staples and #WhatsNext in your tweet." "We want to create a feedback loop to understand who we're talking to and what they want to hear about," says Kevin Biondi, the retailer's director of digital and technology marketing. That enables Staples to know what to post on the social network.

To ensure shoppers see its messages, the retailer uses Promoted Tweets, which it says make its posts more prominent. Staples has found that interactive sessions, in which an expert responds to consumers' questions on Twitter at a set day and time, particularly resonate immediately before, during and after the actual event. The retailer tracks the impact via its Klout Score, a series of metrics developed by Klout Inc. that aim to gauge how many people the retailer influences, the degree to which it influences them, and the overall influence of the retailer's network in the broader social landscape.

Given the office supplies retailer's niche, sessions that have worked particularly well include one labeled #5kTaxGiveaway, in which an expert answered consumers' tax questions six weeks before this year's April 17 deadline to file federal income taxes. Also popular are its Tech Socials, which occur every Tuesday, when a Staples staffer answers questions about a category of products, such as e-readers or shredders.

Staples thinks about the link between revenue and social media in two ways, Biondi says. It monitors inbound traffic from social media links to see how many of those shoppers make a purchase. The retailer also looks to longer-term value by keeping consumers thinking about Staples. "The end goal of anything we do is building relationships with our customers," he says. "Ultimately those types of relationships do lead to sales because they keep them looking at what we're doing."

Consumers' content

While Walgreens and Staples rely on their employees to keep shoppers engaged, Sneakpeeq takes a very different approach. The flash-sale retailer counts on consumers being interested in what products their friends are browsing and buying.

That's because to shop at Sneakpeeq, which shoppers can do either on Sneakpeeq.com or on its Facebook storefront, consumers have to sign in using their Facebook credentials. That may cost the retailer some potential customers who are unwilling or unable to sign in because they aren't on the social network. However, the tradeoff is worth it because every action a consumer takes while shopping at Sneakpeeq is then broadcast to her Facebook connections, which the retailer relies on to draw consumers' attention, says Neil Gandhi, senior software engineer at Sneakpeeq. That means that a shopper named Susan making a purchase on the site would show up in her friends' Tickers, which features updates on what a Facebook user's friends are doing at that moment; in some of her friends' news feeds and on Susan's Timeline; a compilation of all of her actions on the social network.

The approach works because Sneakpeeq is a flash-sale retailer whose inventory regularly changes and which aims to help shoppers discover products they might otherwise not know about, Gandhi says. The assumption is that consumers often have similar interests to their Facebook connections: If Susan loves to cook, she's likely to have friends on Facebook who are also into cooking. Thus, when Susan buys a new piece of cookware that might interest her friends, they will be able to learn about the product she bought when they see the post noting the purchase in their news feeds.

Sneakpeeq.com also features an unusual element designed to keep those actions regularly appearing on the news feeds of its customers' connections: Instead of listing prices, consumers have to open up the item and click a Peeq button to see the price. Each peeq, which is broadcast to her Facebook friends, lowers an item's price; consumers can buy the item at the reduced price until the inventory runs out. Shoppers get 10 peeqs a day, although frequent buyers are often rewarded with more peeqs.

Broadcasting a steady stream of consumers' actions can work to keep other shoppers interested—but only if they are likely to be interested in those actions, Petouhoff says. "The secret to engagement is creating content that shoppers want to interact with," she says. That could simply be a good deal or an interesting product, she says. That approach is driving some interest in Sneakpeeq: Nearly 3,000 people posted about and discussed the retailer and its products during one week in early May, about a year after its launch.

The key is for a retailer to understand its customers so it can keep their interest, Petouhoff says. Walgreens' Kmiec agrees. "If you don't understand what your shoppers want to discuss, they aren't going to pay attention to you," he says. And if retailers' messages fall on deaf ears, it doesn't matter if they have a fan base the size of Philadelphia, Pa., or Philadelphia, Miss.

zak@verticalwebmedia.com

@ZakStamborIR

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