How to Use Social Networks to Engage Consumers

SeeWhy Founder, Charles Nicholls, explains how e-commerce businesses can use social media sites as more than just cheap broadcast channels.

E-tailers have long known the benefits of acquiring their best customer's best friends, and they also know that nothing makes virtual cash registers ring better than word-of-mouth marketing. For these reasons, social media and online social networks can drive online shopping and spending. 

Charles Nicholls, founder of SeeWhy, a re-marketing services company, believes that one issue hindering the e-commerce industry is marketers’ inability to use social networks in an engaging way.

While many e-tailers take advantage of Facebook Connect and tweet their latest deals, Nicholls says the danger this season is that social networks will be used as little more than cheap broadcast channels, and not as communication channels to truly engage customers.

"Once a customer has shared their passion about an e-commerce brand with their social network, it’s important to identify and recognize the customer’s value specifically," he said.

Find the Sneezer This Christmas

According to recent SeeWhy research, 50 percent of e-commerce marketers plan to use social networks this holiday season to distribute promotions and discounts. In a report authored by Nicholls, he suggests that to be successful this holiday season, you need to focus on finding the “sneezer” — that is, the customer that spreads your offers and promotions through social networks.

Social networking sites make it incredibly easy for your “sneezer” customer to share promotions and positive word-of-mouth marketing about your business in a single click with his or her network of friends. The problem, however, is that when your customer spreads that message — if you take no other steps —then you are simply using these valuable tools as a broadcast channel.

Nicholls believes that in order to correct this problem, you have to identify and recognize the value in your socially connected customers.  "You’ve just found an advocate that can potentially be very valuable,” he said. “In 2010, retaining and rewarding sneezers will be increasingly important, but many companies fail to capture their identity or do anything with it."

Why You Should Integrate Social Media into Your Site

Unless a customer specifically provides you with personally identifiable information, then you won’t get those detailed social analytics, but according to Nicholls, if you allow customers to log in to social networks via your own Web site, then you can track your biggest word-of-mouth customers — the sneezers.

For example, if an e-commerce site owner uses Facebook Connect, it will let members log in to their Facebook accounts without leaving the e-commerce site. This is important because when they log in, the site has access to profile information about the member that can be used for personalization.  E-commerce Web sites can make it easy for their customers who use Facebook to post the things they find and like on their Facebook Wall — where their network of friends will see it.

Nicholls says that e-tailers can capture the customers’ 15-digit Facebook ID number — not their e-mail address. "While this may not be directly actionable, it’s worth capturing and storing this data for future use.  Analyzing the data can help you identify your most prolific sneezers.”

MySpace and Twitter have similar functionality, so it’s important for e-commerce marketers to become familiar with the different social media sites and integrate access to them from your own site. Also, you should learn how to take advantage of the best marketing options on each.  Simply using Facebook Connect is not enough.

Tips for Better Social Media Contact

For e-tailers just getting started with social media integration, Nicholls suggests they simply stop being nervous about spreading awareness through social channels, and start by using sites like Twitter and Facebook to offer discounts and discuss promotions. This will help you build your network — and of course you should integrate one-click access to these networks from your own site.

Other ways you can start using social media is to take the customer service approach. Use these networks to make immediate and meaningful interactions with your customer. An e-commerce business can connect with customers much faster when using social media networks than it can with more traditional contact methods, like phone or e-mail.

On a cautionary note, e-commerce businesses may need to review their site policy to ensure customers have the opportunity to agree to receive communications from you on these networks.  The last thing you want to do is disconnect a customer and have your social media tactics seen as a spam.

Also, Nicholls believes that you should reward customers who spread positive word about your e-commerce business. He recommends that when customers share your promotion or message in their activity feed, you should reward them (through the social networking site) with a special offer or discount.

Vangie Beal is a veteran online seller and frequent contributor to ECommerce-Guide.com. She is also managing editor of Webopedia.com. You can tweet with her online @AuroraGG.

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