For nearly 10 years, social media has been in the spotlight and, at the same time, a thorn in the side of many companies. Retailers in particular are constantly reminded of social media’s influence.
But instead of steeping themselves in expert tips and hacks, companies would be wise step back and remember what's at the core of the social interaction.
Building a retail brand that promotes a true sense of community requires an investment in the customer experience beyond optimizing a handful of social media accounts. It's about building connections through a variety of means, including interactions on the company's website, blogs and in phone conversations or email exchanges. It happens in authentic personal interactions both before and after a purchase has made.
Social platforms are merely tools for achieving a higher goal, which is creating an engaged customer base of brand evangelists.
“To create a true social-shopping experience, you need to trust your customers and engage them in improving your business,” ModCloth's chief marketing officer Nancy Ramamurthi tells me in an interview. The company has credited its growth to its community engagement.
On one section of ModCloth’s website called Be the Buyer, visitors can vote on product samples that they would like the retailer to produce and sell. After selecting an item, users can then promote their choices to social-media networks with the click of a button.
By handing over some merchandising control, ModCloth makes consumers feel as if they have a vested interest in the products and by extension the brand. Plus, some will return to purchase the items that they helped choose. ModCloth smartly offers a “notify me” button that can alert a user when a sample has been picked.
The first tenet of creating a brand that people want to share with their friends is making them feel truly connected to the company. For the same reason that people support charities that they have a personal connection to, they support the companies they want to see succeed.
Founded in 2011, StitchFix is a younger startup that provides a personal styling service for women. People visit the website, sign up for the service and fill out a style profile based on their size, budget and lifestyle.
A professional StitchFix stylist then mails out five apparel items, according to each customer’s personal preferences. The customer keeps the items she likes, pays for them and mails back the rest.
Each item comes with professional styling tips, and theoretically the service improves as the stylist receives feedback about a customer's preferences.
In an age when it seems every retailer is trying to automate personalization, StitchFix takes a more back-to-basics, truly customized approach. The company’s business model relies on stylists getting to know customers over time and selecting clothes that will surprise and delight them based on their personal style.
The relationship that's built between the stylist and customer creates a customized shopping experience that's memorable and worth sharing with others.
“Our clients share personal information with our stylists,” Meredith Dunn, StitchFix’s vice president of client experience, tells me. “And in return our stylists are able to send [each client] pieces that fit her, flatter her body, and help her look and feel great.”
Customer relationships are such that a woman might even share the news of her pregnancy with a StitchFix stylist before telling friends and family, Dunn says. A personal connection like this can’t be replaced by a clever tweeting schedule or even amazing content. A social-media platform is sometimes the best conduit for building a relationship. But a retail relationship can -- and should -- live outside of social media as well.
StitchFix stylists ask customers to pin styles they like to their personal Pinterest pages. The content can come from other pinners, competitive retailers or the StitchFix site itself.
As a result, the customer can illustrate her preferences to her stylist with ease. This simplifies and improves communication between the customer and stylist. And in this way some StitchFix products gain traction on Pinterest, as a result of a consumer's sharing (as opposed to the retailer's).
Another major retailer, Nordstrom, has encouraged social engagement among its followers. On Nordstrom’s Pinterest pages, the company has created boards that are laser focused on specific topics, such as for shoes only or fall fashion. When customers follow a specific board, they know exactly what they’re will receive.
Building trust with customers means understanding and respecting their preferences and values. Only then might they be willing to endorse a company to their family and friends.
Related: When Marketing Personalization Fails
The abundance of customer complaints posted online represents another opportunity for retailers: how they respond can inform future relationships and affect the community they've tried so hard to build.
Marketers and customer service representatives should consider each complaint a breach in trust. Not only is the original customer paying attention, many would-be shoppers are watching to see how the company responds. Customers must know that even if something goes wrong, the company is still on their side.
“When negative feedback is posted publicly, we respond publicly to help resolve the issue," ModCloth's Ramamurthi says. "This demonstrates to the customer that [his or her] voice is heard and we will do everything in our power to make the situation right.