Can Social Media Save the High Street?

In the age of online shopping, the internet may actually be the high-street's saviour

Can Social Media Save the High Street?

All the indications are that, without urgent action, the UK High Street could turn into a boarded-up ghost-town.

In 2011, an estimated twenty shops closed every day, leaving one in seven UK stores empty. Retail guru

Retail guru Mary Portas recently found that the proportion of High Street retail spend had dropped to 42%. And the latest Government report, Understanding High Street Performanceexternal link (2.1Mb PDF), paints a similar picture of town centres in terminal decline, with a third of High Streets either “degenerating or failing”.

An array of solutions are being touted, from a £10 million High Street Innovation Fund, to a moratorium on out-of-town shopping centres, and a “National Market Day”.

Yet many retailers fear the rise of the internet could finish off the UK High Street; online retail spending has doubled over the last ten years, in contrast to the demise of traditional town centres. And, in 2011 online sales leapt by 16%, turning Britain intoEurope’s top e-retail economy.

A New Dawn?

Yet many traditional retailers fail to see that the internet, far from being the nemesis of the High Street, could offer its best hope of recovery.

Businesses are beginning to realise that social media platforms are not just a goldmine of customer data, but an opportunity to harness the power of peer approval to build brands, sell products and “spread the word” further and faster than ever before.

With mobile apps taking popular social media platforms out of the home and onto the streets, and millions using Location Based Services (LSB’s) such as Foursquare, the High Street has a great opportunity to connect with its local community on the move, and entice them back into the shops.

Below I will explore some of the ways in which retailers can turn the internet revolution to their advantage, and use social-media to engage local consumers and reinvigorate the High Street.

Internal social-retail audit

Aspiring social-retailers must start with an internal “social-retail audit” to pinpoint their local USP, identify local and national target customers, analyse social-media competitors, find out what others are saying about them online, and identify key local target groups to “follow” and build relationships with, on social-media networks.

An HR audit can then determine which in-store staff are best-equipped to engage with local consumers and share product knowledge, through online channels.

In-store staff can be an invaluable social media resource, but only if the right staff are in the right place, and only if they are singing from the same marketing hymn-sheet as the rest of the company.

Develop a multi-channel “conversation plan”

As offline and online realities begin to converge, we are increasingly seeing the rise of the multi-channel shopper. A recent Experian UK study found one-third of UK shoppers now fall into this category.

Social media is most effective when integrated with other brand media touch-points, from face-to-face and TV ads, to editorials and billboards; research into big chains like KFC and Wendy’s, found that customers were between 2 and 7 times more likely to increase in-store spending when exposed to social media in combination with other marketing channels.

It is vital that retailers develop an integrated “conversation plan” to synchronise their on and offline communications, integrate social media with face-to-face sales, ads, community and store events, and ensure that all social-media activity is organised around key conversational topics that reflect brand values.

Use social media to reach local communities

Many businesses do not realise that social media is local as well as national, and the future of mobile marketing is location-based. High Street stores can use social media to engage with community events and groups, using their unique knowledge of the local area.

Retail is a social experience and Location Based Services like FourSquare allow customers to recommend products and events to nearby friends, turning customers into real-time ambassadors for each store, in its local area.

Businesses can form popular Facebook groups or hashtags around in-store events and local competitions, keep “followers” informed of new products or services, which build sustainable relationships with their neighbours, and bring them back to the High Street. Stores can then offer incentives for customers to “check in” on FourSquare or recommend an in-store offer on Facebook Connect, extending the network and triggering more footfall.

Use in-house talent

Many stores do not realise they have a ready-made marketing resource in the form of their shop-floor team. Before social media, companies could not monitor what their staff were saying to customers or friends about the store. Now they can both monitor these conversations and turn them to their advantage. Critically, this both cuts marketing costs, and boosts staff morale, empowering them to hit sales targets through social media.

Audits can identify store staff with detailed product knowledge, who should then be trained to use Twitter, respond to consumers, and upload or “tag” mobile digital content, in-store.

Critically, they must be coached on how to manage their time on social media vis-a-vis other store duties, and coached on the company’s “conversation plan”, so their customer communications are consistent. Staff can then “crowd-source” their product knowledge through social media channels, and help match products or services to customer requirements through online conversations.

The award-winning Hillier Garden Centre chain, which is now supplying trees for the Olympic Stadium, recently carried out an innovative social-retail pilot. They identified the store staff with the best horticultural knowledge, and enabled them to share their plant knowledge with local people through a “Plant Of The Week” hashtag, which built a massive following, and helped drive customers to the store.

Replace information with conversation

Local stores can beat e-retailers by providing an interactive space for their communities, responding to their queries, using their ideas, engaging them in competitions and events, and building relationships with them.

As we move away from the information age towards a “conversation age”, customers are increasingly tiring of “push advertising” from giant, impersonal conglomerates. Social retailing can build the kind of sustainable, local and loyal relationships that “banner ads”, billboards and discounts can never achieve.

Pete Doyle is the founder and MD of SocialRetail.co.uk.

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