Building a brand

Warby Parker uses social media to garner attention and win customers.

Paul Demery

The company: Warby Parker

The project: Develop social media as a customer-acquisition channel

The reason: Warby Parker launched in February 2010 with an unusual approach to selling eyewear. It sells its designer-style eyeglass frames for as little as $95, far less than many consumers are used to paying.

As a new company, with a unique business model, Warby Parker faced two challenges: getting shoppers to know about its brand and, once they do, answering the slew of questions that the brand's radical approach raises in consumers' minds, such as "How can you offer frames so cheap?" "Are they good quality?" "Can I get progressive lenses?" and "How do I figure out what my prescription is?"

Social media, Warby Parker executives decided, could help it market its brand. It could also serve as a platform to address consumer questions and comments about its unusual approach. "The questions run the gamut, from how we handle prescriptions to why we can make glasses so affordable," says Dave Gilboa, co-founder and co-CEO.

By interacting with customers through social media, he adds, the viral impact of publicizing its interactions with customers helps to build confidence in the Warby Parker brand. "Others can see that we're being responsive and responsible, and it gives others confidence that we're providing great service," Gilboa says.

With that approach, Warby Parker addresses what many retailers overlook when they use social media only as a marketing tool, says Jonathan Browne, an analyst with Forrester Research Inc. "Many companies have developed social media marketing without tying it together with their customer experience strategy," he says.

The Method: Warby Parker is growing "several hundred percent per year" since launching online in 2010, even though it doesn't have a full-fledged marketing department, Gilboa says. He would not provide more detail on sales.

With a team of marketing specialists working as an extension of its customer experience team, it uses search engine marketing to expose Warby Parker to potential customers, consumers in the market for eyewear, and it sends e-mails about new product launches to existing customers. In social media, where its communications with customers have steadily grown, the retailer runs a mixture of paid ads on Facebook along with staff posts on Facebook and other social networks to promote content such as its new 1920's eyewear line.

But marketing still takes a back seat to customer service communications through a mix of phone, e-mail, live chat and social media channels, which account for the majority of its customer contact, Gilboa says.

Indeed, Warby Parker figures it builds trust in its brand mostly through a "customer experience" strategy led by a team of 40 representatives trained to address customer concerns about product details, as well as service offerings.

Roughly one-third of the shoppers' comments and questions Warby Parker receives come through social media. "Social media allows us to have a two-way conversation so we can respond to customer inquiries or share interesting content, and encourage consumers to share content, comment and ask questions," Gilboa says.

And as more consumers see other shoppers get their questions answered on social networks, more of them use the channel for customer service issues. That explains why the number of customer service queries the retailer receives on social media has grown at least 30% each month since the retailer launched online in 2010, says Gilboa.

To handle those issues, at least five of Warby Parker's customer service agents use the HootSuite social media management tool from HootSuite Media Inc. to monitor and respond to shoppers' issues. An online dashboard lets them view and respond to streams of comments posted on numerous social networks including Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Google+. To monitor and engage with consumers' posts on image-based networks, like Instagram and Pinterest, they use web applications from social marketing vendors such as Curalate.

HootSuite starts at $9.99 per month and the cost of Curalate averages about $1,000 per month. The tools help Warby Parker associates respond within hours if not minutes to mentions of the retailer and its products in social media, though Gilboa keeps the average response time close to his vest. He adds that Warby Parker encourages customer experience staffers to personalize communications with each customer, and grants them leeway in how to address issues—such as by arranging for new product shipments to try at home if the eyeglasses they received aren't what the customer had expected.

The retailer lets shoppers try on up to five pairs at home over a five-day period before deciding what, if anything, they want to purchase; shipping is free, including returns.

30% to 40% of shoppers post photos of themselves wearing the glasses on Twitter, Facebook and other social media sites, seeking comments from friends. They typically each get feedback from at least five people, Gilboa says. Warby Parker agents continually encourage shoppers to share photos with friends. "We don't offer incentives—we simply let customers know that other customers have found feedback through social media helpful in making their purchasing decision," he says.

When friends view shared photos, they often view other things Warby Parker does, such as the videos its staff routinely create to answer customers' questions. Avoiding the trappings of photo studios, it relies on desktop webcams and staffers' smartphones to quickly take videos and post them to YouTube.

Winning over customers: When customer Emily Kraft tweeted recently for help comparing side-by-side images of models wearing different eyeglass frames, customer service agent Taylor Bennett and a colleague, Phineas Ellis, quickly shot a video in which Bennett explains the features of the various styles, and Ellis tries on each of the frames the customer inquired about.

Within minutes, they uploaded the video to YouTube and tweeted Kraft a link. (See images, page 14.) Although the retailer wouldn't say if Kraft purchased glasses, Gilboa notes that customer surveys have found that 75% of customers who engaged with Warby Parker via social media said those interactions made them more likely to complete a purchase.

With that kind personal attention to customers' needs, Warby Parker should have no trouble continuing to build the number of consumers loyal to its brand.