June 17, 2011, 1:59 PM

IRCE 2011 Report: Don’t sell on social networks, but make consumers want to buy

Conference panelists urge retailers to focus more on customer engagement than quick sales.

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Here is one of those nuggets of counter-intuitive wisdom that can seem oh so misguided on first glance: When it comes to social media marketing, online retailers might profit most if they stop worrying about making sales. That was the message from panelists today at the Internet Retailer Conference & Exhibition 2011 in a session entitled “Innovative ways to make social marketing work for you.”

 That’s not to say online retailers should forget, of course, the prime reason for retailing. Instead, retailers should use Facebook, Twitter, blogs and other social media channels to engage consumers and gain their long-term loyalty instead of striving for that quick sale that might not be repeated. “Stop selling, but find ways to make people want to buy,” said Alaa Hassan, general manager at iNetVideo.com, an online retailer of movies, video games and music.

Close attention to social marketing can provide a retailer a nearly real-time view of what’s attracting consumers’ attention. For instance, Vision Retailer Inc., which operates several e-commerce footwear sites, has installed a feature on the shopping cart at Supershoes.com that enables customers to hate, love, tag and share footwear styles, said Frank Malsbenden, Vision’s vice president and general manager.

The site also features a live, ticker-like feature that displays what products site visitors are looking at, which can help drum up interest in particular items. And when the retailer offers up, say, a new brand of sandals on its Facebook page,  the retailer can measure and analyze how many consumers view the product, and what, through comments, shoppers think about the new product. “Once you create awareness, you can create demand,” he said.

Such traits can make social media superior to older forms of marketing. “Social is flexible, unlike TV or print,” Malsbenden said during his presentation, which focused heavily on putting social media into historical context. “And it’s also measurable, unlike radio,” he added, noting how retailers, via web analytics, can easily track the impact of social marketing.

Social media also makes it easy for online retailers to bring together widely dispersed consumers, as Organize.com is learning. The e-retailer of storage and organizational products hosts regular Facebook parties with specific themes, said Deborah Shearer, vice president of marketing and merchandising; the next party, scheduled for August, will focus on back-to-school products, for example.

The two-hour parties, typically “attended” by between 500 and 1,500 invited consumers, gives the retailer an opportunity to answer questions about products, address customer service issues and otherwise engage with shoppers. But the no-selling rule applies even at these parties.  “You need to worry less about return on investment and more about what you will learn from customers,” Shearer said.

The prospect of a sale, however, is never too far off.  The retailer has given away products during parties, including $5,000 worth of items for a party held during a Las Vegas hardware trade show. And as a thank-you for taking part in a Facebook party, consumers receive a percentage-off discount offer afterwards; the coupon’s appearance resembles the invitation to the party. Shearer did not address whether the parties lift sales directly, but she said that each party typically results in Organize.com gaining about 500 Facebook fans.

With 72% of retailers planning to spend more on social marketing this year than in 2010, according to recent survey data from Forrester Research Inc. and Shop.org, it is a good bet that the coming months will bring a bevy of experimentation.  While much of that will be on Facebook and Twitter, Hassan underscored the potential value of a retailer’s own blog. He explained that iNetVideo.com decided to center its social marketing efforts on its own blog, created using Wordpress along with a few other applications, instead of, say, making a Facebook page into the retailer’s social media anchor.

Relying on a blog provides multiple advantages, he said, including the chance to put into the blog SEO-friendly phrasing that can boost natural search results for the e-commerce site. He acknowledged that a retailer’s blog might attract fewer comments than a retailer’s Facebook page, but that drawback is offset by the deeper pool of information—e-mail addresses, IP locations—left by consumers, he said. And if a blog is entertaining enough, such as through Top 10 lists, gossip and news that relates to the retailer’s products, and tools that enable blog visitors to share photos, then the audience will hold and eventually build. “Social marketing success is about engagement” Hassan said.

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