As social media has evolved as a channel, brands and retailers have come to use it to connect with their customers in a wide variety of ways. As a result, what used to be considered a single category of activities - "social media" - has become much more specialized according to how a brand is putting social to work to drive a particular aspect of the business.
All the various definitions of social media and its implications could be (and often are) debated for pages and pages. But here I'm going to tackle just three of them that I believe represent a specific "evolutionary line" with respect to how brands are using this channel to influence their customers. The evolutionary line is as follows:
Social Media (2007) -> Social Marketing (2009) -> Social Merchandising (2013)
This is an evolution, not a revolution, with each new wave extending (rather than replacing) the opportunities for companies to leverage social in their broader corporate efforts.
When social media first kicked into gear for mainstream brands, in about 2007, it was dominated by the need to develop a presence and audience on Facebook and Twitter. This presence was primarily used for the "brand voice" to have a conversation with fans, which remains the focal point for many companies' social efforts today.
A massive array of tools sprang up to help companies monitor and manage these conversations. Early market winners like Radian6 (now Salesforce) found their way into the enterprise and have become increasingly integrated with CRM systems as the social "conversation" often touches on matters of customer service and data.
As the original social focus of the brand, this has since become a relatively mature discipline, with most large companies now fielding a dedicated, always-on social team to manage their conversation across channels.
However, as companies shifted their focus away from sheer fan acquisition, they started asking, "So what should we do with these fans now that we have them?"
This question gave rise to…
Social (media) marketing started to really take shape early in 2009, largely because it required the advent of social ads and experiences that could engage social users around a marketing campaign. That type of engagement required platforms (most notably Facebook Tabs) that were rich enough to contain an experience in the social channel.
Rather suddenly, many brands' conversations became punctuated by applications, contests, and sweepstakes designed to attract new fans and "activate" existing ones. Companies like Buddy Media, Vitrue, Context Optional, and Wildfire (now Salesforce, Oracle, Adobe, and Google respectively) emerged with tools to support these marketing experiences. And they benefited from an expanding social media budget because they offered a means toward fan activation.
Over the last few years, this domain of social marketing has become more and more focused on social advertising because the Facebook landscape changed to favor (and often require) ads and sponsorship to achieve large-scale reach. As with the social media "conversation," most large brands today have matured their social marketing "campaign" approach, putting marketing ads and experiences to work within social channels in a repeatable and integrated way.
However, another significant shift has taken place in the social marketing landscape. Social channels have become highly visual and interactive. Whereas the Facebook and Twitter feeds of 2009 were largely text and links, a glance at today's Facebook Timeline shows predominately rich images and video. The reason: visual content drives audience participation and amplification. Consider that just one month after the introduction of Facebook Timeline for brands, visual content such as photos and videos saw a 65 percent increase in engagement. (Source: Simply Measured)
These new, visual social feeds have spurred brands to further explore the ways in which social might be used as a way to promote specific products, rather than just the brand as a whole. With viewers 85 percent more likely to purchase a product after watching a product video, according to Internet Retailer, brands soon began an exploration that has led to…
The last several months have seen the beginning of "social merchandising" as a distinct discipline. The dramatic rise in popularity of Pinterest, Fab, Instagram, and others opened brands' and retailers' eyes to the opportunities of social product discovery and many are now devoting much of their social bandwidth to building momentum for product launches and seasonal collections.
Much of this is driven by customers who consistently report that access to new product information, especially exclusive product information, is a primary reason they become a fan in the first place. And as brands increasingly find that compelling content about their products is driving more - and more meaningful - engagement than their former polls and quizzes, the tide is turning swiftly.
As a result, teams and tools to manage and promote products through social channels are largely running to catch up. E-commerce platforms often have the most useful product assets and capabilities, but are typically several steps removed from the social team, tools, and publishing. On the other hand, legacy social media and marketing platforms have access to social teams and streams, but product data and transactions pose a particular set of challenges.
Within the brands themselves, social merchandising responsibility tends to sit somewhere in between the social and e-commerce teams, with ownership and budget shifting from program to program. It's still too early to know quite where social merchandising will fit into the overall marketing plan, but companies that succeed here are increasing the level of coordination between their social, digital, and e-commerce teams around key product programs (launches, collections, seasons, etc.).
Social marketers are excited about this next wave because of its ability to drive product discovery results toward a meaningful impact on sales, making it much easier to calculate social ROI. They also are excited because social merchandising is poised to deliver much more measurable value to retailers and brands than its forefathers.
Early success stories have unlocked social merchandising's potential by integrating solutions that allow these brands to evolve their social marketing teams and tools accordingly. For these reasons and more, readers can expect social merchandising to be the wave to ride for social success in 2013.
Social Branding image on home page via Shutterstock.
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Kevin has been working with brands and retailers to build e-commerce and social media marketing solutions since 1995. As an entrepreneur and business development leader in growth-stage companies, he is most interested in developing new markets at the intersection of consumers, brands, and emerging technologies. Kevin currently leads marketing and product management at ShopIgniter, providers of Enterprise Social Commerce solutions to the F1000.
March 19, 2014