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Why online is a social science

With a frenzy of online marketing activity competing for shoppers’ attention, only those retailers that show they understand their customer will win out

A few clicks online reveal just how tenaciously retailers are tapping into interactive digital marketing right now. The World Cup and summer music festivals are providing ample opportunities for retailers and fashion brands to engage with their audiences’ passions, and begin two-way conversations that deliver and use customer data.

For instance, sportswear retailer JJB Sports has been offering customers the chance to win prizes every time England score in the World Cup in South Africa - a competition open only to shoppers who have bought from the official England range and signed up online for text alerts.

Young fashion chain Urban Outfitters is running a competition to win a summer essentials goodie bag, once online browsers have filled in some personal details about themselves.

And streetwear brand Bench has just launched BenchLive - a content-rich microsite that showcases the brand’s support of music and live events around the world, giving customers news, insights and the chance to win tickets and prizes.

Know your customers

“These interactive campaigns are about getting to know customers better, and reminding them that ‘we are not just about clothes. We’re about you too,’” explains Graham English, search co-ordinator at ecommerce specialist Drivebusiness, which has worked on the BenchLive project.

When customers click through from a main website onto a specialist area or microsite, you can begin to understand their true interests, and segment the marketing messages you send out, says English. “Once a presence has been built up, you can continue that communication and begin measuring return on investment.

“The key is to continually be creative and keep providing events and content that will tempt people back repeatedly over the long term.”

Seasonal events provide a great hook, but fashion retailers and brands are in the enviable position of having themselves and their own customer bases as rich sources of material to generate online content all year round, say marketing experts. Young fashion fans simply like talking about themselves, their clothes and their favourite brands in the blogosphere.

“In fashion there is so much emotional brand loyalty already in existence,” says Matt Connolly, managing director of digital agency Enable Interactive.

“People have a natural affinity with certain brands and are willing to sign up and become part of that club, giving feedback about themselves, which products they love and so on. That provides the perfect foundation on which to build brand awareness, increase sales, and carry out cost-effective customer research. It’s also a great platform for PR activities around product launches and in-store campaigns as you can email, text or tweet these followers direct.”

He cites young fashion brand Lipsy as a good example. “Lipsy, a client of ours, has 30,000 Facebook fans and has built great content around the Lipsy ‘Wall of Fame’ on its Facebook page.” Customers post up pictures of themselves in Lipsy dresses, to be seen side-by-side with celebrity photos, encouraged by the prize of a £50 voucher to spend in Lipsy stores for every picture accepted.

Connolly makes the point that brand owners must constantly measure the effectiveness of social media marketing channels and specific events being hosted to ensure these kinds of online activities are actually delivering the commercial benefits desired.

Securing loyalty has always brought the benefits of longer-term, meaningful relationships with customers, and can help drive incremental sales, but in the online world, building up a following of thousands of customers who are talking among themselves about your brand and products has an additional advantage. Their content fuels search engine optimisation (SEO), as your brand name and key words these online fans are repeatedly using - denim shorts, clogs, white dresses - push the host’s name up search result listings.

“It’s been predicted that by next year, more than half of all content on the web will be user-generated,” says Andy Leaver, vice president of international sales at social commerce expert Bazaarvoice. “Retailers need to work with that in mind when planning content, and should be conscious that Google is now prioritising user-generated content in its search system.”

Keep content interesting

Content for ‘social commerce’ must be based on genuine customer interest, warn the experts, or its power will be limited in terms of building loyalty and generating sales. “We ask, ‘how do you engage them in a way that gets their attention?’” says Leaver.

“When you give consumers an event to talk about and a place to feel like they are being heard, they become more loyal and engaged. Then once a group of followers begin sharing their stories you have authentic content that engages at an emotional level. User-generated stories are more authentic than testimonials gathered behind the scenes, and much easier than capturing content via email and posting it yourself.”

And user-generated content around product reviews, events and community features are “going to be with us for a very long time”, says Google UK director of retail Peter Fitzgerald.

“Customer reviews have been building momentum over the last 15 years, and the reality is that as well as being fun and engaging customers, they drive sales. Once reviews alongside your product reach critical mass you can expect to see sales go up 10% without any doubt. I believe community features within websites are a completely under-exploited area. Brands who do it well can really drive traffic and sales. Retailers are making headway with setting up separate brands, for instance Mothercare with the Gurgle.com community site for first-time parents,” Fitzgerald adds.

Working with swimwear brand Speedo for a campaign to capitalise on the buzz of the Beijing Olympics in 2008, web design and ecommerce company Enable Interactive designed a Speedo site where visitors could see swimwear modelled by the world’s fittest and most muscular athletes.

Visitors to the site could vote for their favourite beach tunes, as picked by the Olympic athletes, and download beach recipes and games to keep them entertained while on holiday. The aim was to promote the LZR Racer product range from Speedo, and thanks to the campaign - which included microsites, social media marketing, and an email communication to ‘opted-in’ Speedo customers - the campaign secured 350,000 visitor sessions on the LZR Racer product site. There were more than 1,000 pre-registrations to buy LZR Racer products, and a 128% increase in global online chatter around Speedo’s brand during the Olympics.

When etailer Asos teamed up with the Cadbury Caramel Bunny for a ‘fashion mood board’ competition through a co-branded microsite this spring, 20,000 people got involved over a six-week period, says Asos creative solutions manager Gill Pegler.

“It was a very cost-effective way of engaging with our followers,” she says. “People posted up their mood boards on Facebook and once it was seen by all their friends many people new to Asos wanted to do the same. Interest spread and the campaign certainly delivered new customers onto our site.”

Similar partnerships with other brands, including Diet Coke and Vaseline, are in the pipeline and Pegler says these too will help drive traffic onto the Asos site, and allow thousands of new customers to discover what’s on offer.

Digital possibilities

This suggests fashion brands could become media owners in their own right in the future, giving third parties access to their large online audiences to create ever more inventive, co-branded events. Multi-channel and ecommerce will also open up the possibilities of digital, experiential marketing, but what seems vital is that the customer’s voice isn’t lost in all the noise.

On its website, Bazaarvoice has a pertinent quote from Scott D Cook, founder of technology firm Intuit, and a board director at Proctor & Gamble and eBay: “A brand is no longer what you tell a customer it is. It is what consumers tell each other it is.” It’s clear who will be in control as these artfully engineered relationships evolve.

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