October 3, 2013, 2:43 PM

Strategically social

E-retailers are learning that they don’t have to scream about social media on their e-commerce sites to use it effectively.

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Consumers see directives to spread the word on social media about what they are seeing online just about everywhere, from serious news stories to funny cat videos and everything in between.

The majority of e-retailers are in on the social media party too. Last year, very nearly all, 496, of the 500 largest online retailers in North America had a presence on Facebook, and 66% of the Top 500 included Facebook Like buttons on product pages so consumers could click to share products to the social network, according to data on Internet Retailer's Top500Guide.com. Retailers' use of Twitter trends similarly, with 486 last year broadcasting messages on the microblogging network and 65% encouraging consumers to tweet from product pages on their e-commerce sites. 62% include the Pinterest "P" button on product pages to share to the image-based social network.

With all the web page real estate e-retailers devote to encouraging shoppers to talk about them on the major social networks, retailers are starting to analyze what they're getting for their investment and to fine-tune how they incorporate social elements on their e-commerce sites. Some are scaling back the overt placements of the Facebook "thumbs-up" Like and the Twitter bird icons, while others are elevating features tied to data generated on social media and tools like Facebook Connect, which allows consumers to log in to an e-commerce site using their Facebook credentials rather than create a user name and password just for that e-commerce site. Rather than scream at consumers from home pages to Like them, retailers today are using social more subtly and more strategically in a way that generates meaningful results.

E-retailer Zazzle Inc. prides itself on its inherent "socialness," co-founder and chief product officer Jeff Beaver says. But when the e-retailer of creative and customizable products embarked on a redesign of Zazzle.com a little more than a year ago, it was determined to think beyond Likes, Tweets and Pins to how it could maximize the impact of social interactions. Looking long-term, Beaver says Zazzle will use individual consumers' browsing, sharing and buying data to fully personalize what those consumers see when they log in at Zazzle.com, and today's Likes, Tweets and Pins will help them do that. It is building out its technology to move toward this goal.

"Already we see amazing social interaction around products and designers," Beaver says. Approximately 2.6% of total traffic to Zazzle.com comes from Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest, according to the 2013 edition of Internet Retailer's Social Media 300, where Zazzle ranks No. 197.

"The question is: How can we enhance that even further? Facebook and other networks can help you do that on one side of it, and on our end we know what they do on the Zazzle site. Merging the two will help us make sense of what we can make for them in the future."

For example, a consumer who has purchased or shared on social media the designs of a particular seller might see, upon logging in, that designer's new products and his social media posts about the products. The consumer might then converse with the designer on Twitter, saying she'd love to buy the new product if only it came in red. "A huge part of our value proposition is that we can make anything, and the more we know the more we can tailor it for you," Beaver says. "Strategically, it is an imperative that we are really good at this."

Design-wise, and in the shorter-term, Zazzle wanted to showcase its products and the products of its citizen-designers within a minimalist design for the Zazzle brand itself. "The product and the content is the star of the show, so social had to be integrated as aesthetically as possible," Beaver says. That means nary a single Facebook "thumbs-up" or Twitter bird icon appear on the site. Instead, the words Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, etc., appear in the home page footer in the same font family as the rest of the page. On product pages, a similarly styled Share button enables social sharing, while pressing a Like button tells Zazzle about the consumer's product preferences so it can personalize what the consumer sees. "It can be a bit jarring to see a lot of [social] buttons haphazardly thrown on a site, so we had to think about how to treat those," Beaver says.

Zazzle is testing how consumers respond to further social-sharing tools on the site. For example, it is testing how it can enhance the social utility of the Add to Cart button. The test shows one button sectioned off on one side with Add to Cart for consumers who are ready to purchase, while the other side features a heart icon. Clicking the heart opens a drop-down window with options to save the product for later, Like it to Facebook, Pin to Pinterest and other sharing options. "The treatment is as integrated into our own style as possible," Beaver says. Zazzle, at the time of publication, continues to run the A/B test on the enhanced cart button.

At AbesMarket.com social sharing prompts are also being used more strategically, as the basis of a rewards points program that encourages repeat purchases. Consumers visiting the natural and eco-friendly products retailer's site will on certain pages, like category landing pages, see a prompt to "Earn Abe's Rewards" and icons for e-mail, Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest customized to match the the e-commerce site's style. Clicking a Learn More button pops a window that explains to consumers how they can earn points by sharing and for traffic that comes to AbesMarket.com from those shares. If a visit results in a sale, the consumer gets extra points. Consumers can redeem points for gift certificates to put toward future site purchases.

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