Putting Social Commerce to Work

I spent three days last week at the Bazaarvoice Social Commerce Summit in Austin. The Bazaarvoice platform provides ratings, reviews, and recommendations for leading retailers. And I do mean leading: in fact, 50 of the top 100 online retailers — Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Petco, and Dell among them — are Bazaarvoice customers.

The conference was dedicated to “social commerce,” the specific application of social media to commerce. While you may be immediately thinking “online” commerce, Bazaarvoice — the name taken from the Cluetrain Manifesto — extends online ratings to print, in-store, and more. The conference was all about the holistic application of consumer conversations and word of mouth as it arises through purchase and ownership experiences, manifesting initially in the form of ratings and reviews before spilling out onto the social Web in the form of social media.

For e-marketers, what’s really important is the role of word of mouth — covered at the summit by Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA) co-founder Andy Sernovitz, and consultant Ed Keller — in social commerce.

Ed referenced a recent Zenith Optimedia study that again validated word of mouth as the most trusted source of information in the context of a purchase, trumping all other touchpoints. Some new “conversation” metrics really got my attention: of the estimated 3.5 billion word-of-mouth conversations that occur daily, an estimated 2.3 billion (about two-thirds) reference a brand. Fact is, if you make, sell, rent, or otherwise provide a product or service, people are most definitely talking about it right now.

Take heart though: about 63 percent of the brand references in word-of-mouth conversations are positive, while only about 9 percent are negative. With the news being what it is these days, I can’t think of a better reason to invest in a social media-based listening program; I don’t know about you, but I could use some good news, and I’ll take the 7-to-1 odds of that happening in word-of-mouth conversations.

Kelly Mooney, president and chief experience officer at Resource Interactive, talked about the changing social framework that governs the purchase process, again focusing on the role of the consumer conversation through a variety of channels and the resultant impact on the purchase process.

Bryan Eisenberg, fellow ClickZ columnist and co-founder/chief persuasion officer of FutureNow, worked through the central e-marketing issues of alignment as applied to commerce and the triggers that drive it. Bryan focused on the use of ratings and reviews and their importance as a listening tool.

Keep in mind: ratings and reviews are written in the customers’ own words, the words that actually resonate with your customers versus those favored by your creative or product marketing teams. The customers’ words are right there for the picking if you’re using reviews as a part of your commerce implementation.

Bryan showed cases in which simply selecting words used by customers in ratings and substituting them for words originally contained in product descriptions directly and measurably increased sales. By a lot. How simple is that? Don’t go firing your creative agency, but at least pay equal attention to what your actual customers have to say.

Moreover, though, Bryan and Kelly got right to the heart of social media: The customer’s natural voice has an authenticity that’s unmatched in professional media. And, consumers recognize and respond to this genuineness.

Ed made this same point, noting that word of mouth counted for more when it’s associated with a direct brand experience, as in the case of a product review. At the same time, he said about half of all word-of-mouth conversations reference brand marketing or media, so again from your perspective as a marketer it’s all about integration.

Fundamental to successfully implementing social media in business — and of course central to what I’m passionate about as a consultant — is the importance of setting the business objectives first, and then only after a considered review in choosing a specific technology or form of social media, a point made by Josh Bernoff, “ Groundswell” co-author and Forrester principal analyst.

Great insights came as well from Bazaarvoice CMO Sam Decker and Ze Frank. Ze asked, “How do you get people into the fold?” How you answer this question, as a brand, is central to the way in which your use of social media will be perceived. It’s also central to the relationship that forms between your company and your customers on the social Web.

Sam put this in practical terms: When articulating your strategy to serve your customers in ways that build an audience, “harnessing viral folksonomies” may seem compelling. But instead, “We’re gonna put the fish food directly in front of the fish” is much more likely to convey to your boss why it’s important to place genuinely useful content — like ratings and reviews — in the direct path leading to checkout so that more customers wind up more satisfied.

Taken together, there’s a lot going on as social media moves from a consumer activity to a practice that — if done correctly — can be effective in business and genuinely welcomed by consumers. As all of the speakers at the Bazaarvoice pointed out, however, the rules of engagement on the social Web are set by the participants. Serve them in ways that make sense, from their perspective as well as yours, and you’ll find that your investment in social commerce pays off.

Dave Evans and Bazaarvoice CMO Sam Decker will be speaking this month at the Interactive Austin conference, a regional forum to discover how to integrate social media, Web 2.0 tools, and digital media into the corporate marketing plan to improve profitability.

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