The buzz builders

Retailers use a secret weapon to give voice to their campaigns: social media-savvy consumers.

Zak Stambor

A few months before the start of the last holiday season executives from Doris Hosiery Mills, which manufactures Duane Reade's hosiery line, approached the New York-based drugstore chain about increasing consumer awareness of the line.

Calvin Peters, public relations and digital communications manager at Duane Reade, agreed that the retailer should try to help shoppers discover what he calls the "best kept" fashion secret available at the pharmacy's stores. The resulting campaign, called "Show Us Some Leg," included in-store displays and robust online ad and social media efforts, complete with a Twitter party in which more 100 women talked about holiday fashion trends (including when and where to wear Duane Reade leg wear).

But Duane Reade also took the campaign a step further by working with marketing firm Collective Bias to find and reach out to about two dozen fashion bloggers with large followings in the New York area where the Walgreen Co.-owned chain operates 253 stores. Collective Bias paid the bloggers an undisclosed amount (typical rates range from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, say experts) to go to a Duane Reade store, buy Duane Reade-branded hosiery, wear it and write about when and where they wore the leg wear.

The campaign helped sales of Duane Reade hosiery rise 28% during the six weeks the Show Us Some Leg campaign ran. While it is impossible to single out the bloggers' influence compared with the other initiatives, Peters believes that the bloggers played a large role in sparking conversations about the brand.

Using a listening platform, which combs social media and the web for mentions of brands and products, the retailer compared how many times Duane Reade was mentioned when consumers discussed hosiery or leg wear online in the six weeks prior to the blogger campaign to the period during the campaign. It found the number of hosiery-related Duane Reade mentions increased 89% compared to the previous period. Even more importantly, by the end of the campaign Duane Reade was the most-mentioned brand when consumers discussed hosiery or leg wear.

Like Duane Reade, a growing number of retailers are looking outside of their own marketing departments to find messengers to share word of their products. Social influencers help marketers break through the online messaging morass because consumers trust their peers, colleagues and even influential bloggers to give them good information, says Zach Reiss-Davis, a Forrester Research Inc. analyst. Moreover, that type of campaign is cheap—especially in the context of a typical retailer's advertising budget, he says. It can be as cheap as the cost of a retailer or manufacturer sending samples to consumers. Or even if they—or an agency like Collective Bias, that works with bloggers—pay the bloggers a fee, those fees are minimal, typically a few thousand dollars a month per blogger, he says.

That explains why a number of vendors aimed at connecting influencers with brands have sprung up in the past few years. Marketers are focused on influencers because word of mouth is the most-cited way consumers discover products, according to a recent Forrester Research survey. 80% of survey respondents say they discover products via word of mouth, outpacing search engines (79%), TV ads (71%), physical displays or ads (51%), mail ads (51%) and other web browsing (41%).

By working with bloggers, brands are looking to have their message stand out. "It's different than us buying ads or running our own promotions on social media," says Peters, who oversaw the Duane Reade project. "It's more likely to be trusted." That's even though the bloggers are required by federal law to disclose that they are being paid to write about products.

Retailers are missing out if they're not connecting with influential consumers with large, devoted followings on their blogs, Twitter, Facebook or elsewhere in the social universe, says Reiss-Davis. "The people brands want to target as influential are already talking," he says. For instance, a mommy blogger already writes in her blog about the strollers, car seats and other baby accouterments she uses. But she may not be talking about a particular brand. "If you send her a stroller and ask her to write about it, you're bending a conversation in your direction," he says.

In the United Kingdom, plenty of those types of online conversations of late have focused on baking. U.K.-based retailer Tesco Plc took note of these conversations last year and imported the idea for a line of ready-to-bake cookies, cakes and bread products from the United States, where ready-to-bake lines have been successful. Tesco sought to target the products to consumers who are unable to find the time to mix together and bake their own goods, says Paul Duszynski, the retailer's dairy customer manager.

There was just one problem. "While it's a familiar concept in the United States, there wasn't anything else like [these products] in the U.K.," Duszynski says. That meant the retailer's marketing campaign would have to explain the concept of buying a pack of refrigerated dough that the consumer just has to cut and bake.

Rather than embark on that mission by itself the retailer turned to bloggers and other consumers who are active on social media to spread word about the products and brands online and offline.

Tesco worked with BzzAgent Inc., the social media marketing arm of marketing firm Dunnhumby Ltd. BzzAgent helps companies drive word-of-mouth buzz via its pool of BzzAgents—consumers who sign up to try new products, often for free in exchange for talking about those products with their friends in person and via Facebook, Twitter and other social media.

When a consumer signs up to be a BzzAgent, she fills out a questionnaire that gathers information such as her age, household income, the types of products she typically buys, activities she enjoys and who does the shopping in her household. BzzAgent then uses that information to help marketers find BzzAgents who fit their criteria. For instance, Tesco focused its Easy Home Bake line campaign on Tesco shoppers who enjoy baking, but who also often purchase convenience items. It then sent the roughly 3,000 BzzAgents who fit those criteria coupons for free items from the line. The Tesco BzzAgent campaign costs roughly 60,000 pounds ($91,780).

BzzAgent gives the shoppers it selects for each program talking points about the product. In the Tesco campaign, BzzAgents received recipes that called for them to adapt the new line's products—for instance, using the Easy Home Bake pizza dough to make a calzone. BzzAgents are asked to enter details about face-to-face conversations, such as who they talked to and what they discussed, on a campaign web site operated by BzzAgent. That site also serves as a portal where agents can post to social networks like Facebook and Twitter, along with blogs. BzzAgent then tracks those BzzAgents' actions so that it can give Tesco regularly updated metrics on what consumers are saying across the web, as well as how many consumers see its agents' posts.

In the course of the eight-week campaign, which ran from April to June, more than 399,000 U.K. consumers saw at least one BzzAgent message on a social network or blog, or talked with a BzzAgent about the products. While Tesco can't isolate the BzzAgent's influence, sales for the line during the campaign rose 7%.

The results a retailer sees
depends largely on who the retailer can coax to talk about its brand. Just as it is important to have the right people with the right skill sets in a retailer's marketing department, merchants have to find the right people to talk about its brand and products.

Working with content marketing firm Stunt & Gimmick's, home furnishings and bedding manufacturer and e-retailer Jennifer Adams Home used two social influence scoring services, Klout Inc. and PeerIndex, to identify potential brand ambassadors. Both Klout and PeerIndex assign consumers who register a numerical score based on variables such as how many friends and followers they have and how many people interact with the content they post on various social networks.

Jennifer Adams and Stunt & Gimmick's searched Klout and PeerIndex using keywords like "home decor" and "interior design" to find consumers who were considered influential in the home decor space. They reached out to about 50 bloggers, some of whom didn't know the brand but were interested in developing a close relationship with the retailer, and after initial conversations trimmed the list down to about two dozen.

While the retailer doesn't pay the bloggers, it does work with them on promotional giveaways, which helps boost the bloggers' traffic and exposure, says Jennifer Adams, the brand's president. The bloggers receive the merchandise for free. The bloggers, in turn, agree to occasionally retweet the brand's posts and reference the brand.

On Twitter, Jennifer Adams Home often retweets its bloggers' original posts, and the bloggers do the same for Jennifer Adams Home. Those retweets help build a following.

Jennifer Adams Homes also uses Twitter lists, a tool on the microblogging service that enables the retailer to organize the handles it follows into categories like "home design reporters," "mommy bloggers" and "influencers" to see what people are tweeting about on the social network. By spending time listening to what people are talking about and what gets them excited, the brand can figure out when and where it can add to the conversation. "That makes for a more genuine conversation," Adams says.

Finding ways to spur real shoppers to spark real conversations—even if they're prompted—enables retailers to get word out about the brand in a less promotional, more genuine way, says Duane Reade's Peters. "It adds a different voice to the conversation."




blogs, brand ambassadors, BzzAgent Inc., Collective Bias, Duane Reade, Facebook, Forrester Research Inc., Klout, marketing, online conversations, social media, social network, Tesco, Twitter, Walgreen Co.