Social media has promised too much, but under-delivered for retailers. Here is the fix.

In just over a decade, social media has become the number one way for businesses to connect with consumers, according to a new study conducted by Harris Poll for Sprout Social, a social media listening and analytics company.

Over 70% of businesses surveyed rely on social media for customer engagement, compared to 61% for email, 27% for TV / radio advertising, and 24% for print ads.

In a two-part survey of more than 1,000 consumers and 250 business leaders, the study found that 91% of business leaders plan to increase their social media budget over the years. next three years, as consumers increasingly rely on social media to find out more about brands or companies (55%), especially young GenZ and Millennial consumers.

And for 35% of consumers surveyed, they cite social media as the main way to learn about new products, services and brands.

Belief in social media is unwavering among business executives surveyed, with over 80% of them involved in direct-to-consumer businesses, including retail.

Coming from a sample of companies of all sizes, with less than 200 employees (42%), 200 to 999 (20%) and more than 1,000 (38%), nearly 90% of business leaders agree to say that companies that don’t invest in social media marketing will be left behind and 62% agree that brands and businesses that don’t have a strong social media presence will not be able to be successful in the long run .

But their belief in social media doesn’t match their experience of using it. Less than half of businesses rate their social media strategies as “very effective” in measuring their power to build branding, build awareness, increase sales, or expand customer base. Additionally, they are not overly confident in their company’s current social media strategies.

The gap between retailers’ expectations for social media and their reality is something that I have observed in many surveys my company has conducted with large and small retailers.

For example, in Unity Marketing’s latest “State of Luxury” study, which included the results of some 200 executives of luxury goods companies, only 34% rated Instagram as “very effective” and it was the platform for top rated social media. Less than 20% rated Facebook as “very effective” and more (23%) said it was “limited”.

These findings were reflected in a survey just conducted by the small business networking platform Alignable, which regularly researches its network.

With nearly 4,000 small businesses responding, 60% of which were independent retailers, the majority felt that Facebook (53%) and Instagram (50%) ads were only “effective enough” to promote their business.

Instagram was relatively more effective than Facebook, with 32% of people rating Instagram as “very” or “extremely effective,” compared to 26% of Facebook users.

Overall, the independent retailers who need effective social media strategies the most are the least able to make social media work. However, even the largest companies with the most sophisticated technical resources often find that social media does not live up to its hype either.

Social expectations of brands differ from those of customers

By digesting the results of Sprout Social from a business perspective and pairing them with the consumer survey, the company’s chief marketing officer, Jamie Gilpin, sees the performance gap caused by the difference between what businesses want from social media and what consumers want.

Businesses approach social media primarily as an advertising and marketing medium – posting images to drive sales and store visits. As a result, they measure it like any outbound advertising campaign.

But consumers don’t want to be advertised on social media. They want to be socially engaged, just as they are with their friends and family. For them, it is above all a communication and information platform.

“As marketers, we always want to have that immediate impact,” says Gilpin. “But consumers are turning to social media to learn more about and engage with brands. Many companies are not completely comfortable with this change. “

Social media users want control, not ads

Unlike traditional push advertising which interrupts people while doing other things, social media users expect to be in control when interacting with a brand. They want to interact on their own terms, not to be force-fed by brands. It disrupts traditional marketing and advertising strategies.

“When it comes to social, we react and interact with our friends and family in a personal way. We have the same expectation for a brand, ”shares Gilpin.

Retailers and brands run the risk of extinction, rather than turning on consumers when social engagement becomes too commercial.

Gilpin points to Burberry and Lululemon as brands that have mastered the social engagement side of social media marketing, recognizing that they are trying to build a long-term relationship with customers – a friendship, if you will – that will ultimately lead to success. action. down the road.

“These brands operate the platforms and adapt to the way consumers consume content on those platforms. Video has become an important way to create meaningful content and meaningful connections that aren’t limited to selling products, ”says Gilpin.

And these videos also don’t need to be featured with the highest production values, but are more engaging if they show real people doing real things, not models strutting the runway or pitching a pitch. severe sale.

“In the video, people want an immediate, personal response, like seeing a real sales rep in the store share some of the latest items they’re interested in. It’s not just about the products we’re trying to sell, ”she advises.

Social media users expect engagement

The most successful companies on social media are turning the tables and using it not only to deliver marketing messages, but also to listen to what consumers are saying and tailor the messages accordingly.

“Consumers expect brands to see their story and know who they are and what they’re posting on social media. This is evolving towards a desire for a more personalized experience on social platforms, ”she continues.

When people reach out to a brand on social media for help or more information, they expect a response within 24 hours, Gilpin notes.

This means that the social media department cannot simply have a small team or, in the case of an independent retailer, a single social media manager who is simply responsible for posting.

This requires retailers to adequately staff the customer service and support function within the social media department. Some large retailers have hundreds or even thousands of users overseeing the social media function and responding to customer service inquiries.

“People want that feeling of being in touch with a real person behind the business,” she continues.

And that human connection pays off, with nearly 80% of consumers surveyed saying that if they have a positive experience with a brand on social media, they are likely to buy from the brand eventually.

Social media platforms replace the store

Unlike traditional one-way advertising communications, social media is a two-way communication platform. Retailers and brands fail to understand the personal engagement side of social media.

In this way, social media can be seen as functioning more like the store where customers can interact with company representatives in person in a personal way. And now, social media is turning into a store, with Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, and WhatsApp supporting e-commerce on their platforms.

“Some 35% of consumers overall – and almost half of GenZs and Millennials – actually prefer to buy from a brand on social media rather than the website,” says Gilpin. But only 73% of businesses offer products for sale on social media platforms and that’s much lower (57%) for small businesses, according to the Sprout Social survey.

In addition, consumers’ comfort in interacting with retailers on social media is so high that more than half of consumers surveyed (58%) say they actually prefer to interact with a brand on social media rather than going to their stores. stores, especially young consumers.

The fact that so many consumers find the social media experience more engaging than visiting the store is a surprising find on the typical in-store customer experience. Nonetheless, consumers feel more in control of their social experiences than in the highly variable in-store environment.

“Certainly, part of this may be because customers had no choice but to go into the store,” Gilpin observes. “But what’s going to happen over the next three years and beyond is more e-commerce is going to become social commerce. This is how people want to interact with brands today. “

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