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    Social Media: Are you there yet?

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    Through its evolution over recent years, social media has emerged as one of the most powerful tools for retailers and brands to connect with customers, says Sweta Sharma, Co-Founder, InRev Systems. They are increasingly using social media to execute marketing campaigns, gather feedback and provide customer service. Its growing popularity has caused retailers and brands to shift their focus from mass marketing to individual marketing.

    A lot has already been written about what social media is and how big it has become in today’s world. So as not to sound mundane, let us skip the usual introduction that one might have read almost every time while googling about social media. Instead, let us talk about the real-life applications of social media and its relevance for today’s retailers. Social media is unique in the world. Unlike other media, it can be used by almost all departments of any company, from marketing, PR and sales to HR, customer relationship management and even inventory management.

    The biggest mistake marketers and businesses make is to treat social media as any other form of media like print or TV. Agreed, it has the word media in it, but that is where the similarity stops. The traditional media has long been a one-way marketing channel. It has been a medium for businesses to talk to consumers without caring about their feedback or knowing what they thought about the product or service advertised. Social media, on the other hand, is a channel of communication. It is a platform for businesses and consumers to connect.

    Social media has bridged the communication gap between marketers and customers. It has allowed consumers to voice their opinion. It has made everyone an advertiser – anyone who has an opinion can now voice it. The communication which earlier was ‘one to many’ has become ‘many to many more.’ Social media has not replaced TV or print advertising. Instead, it has created a platform where communication has become easier. In case of any problem – or even a positive experience – customers now have multiple options to broadcast themselves.

    Word of mouth remains the best form of marketing and social media is nothing if not word of mouth.

    Businesses think of social media from the perspective of creatingcontent. However, the day they start thinking of consuming its content rather than creating it, and makingsense of all the data available, they would begin making products based on what real consumers are asking for.

    How can retailers use social media? It is still evolving and almost every day we learn something new about using it effectively. Yet, there are many ways in which retailers can start leveraging it for their business.

    Product Promotion/Advertisement

    This is probably the most abused application of social media today. The thing to do here is create your social profile, build a community and then use that community to promote your products and services.

    Keeping Ta bs on Competitors

    Knowing what your competitors are doing is now quiet easy because in all likelihood they are also promoting their products on social media. Retailers can know what product range their competitors have, new products they have launched, discounts they are offering and how people are reacting to their products.

    Earning Loyalty

    Retailers have to find a way to reward brand loyalists and treat them in a more privileged way than their regular customers. This could include a potential customer who has not been to the physical store many times but has always written positive about the brand on social media and thus influenced his network of friends online to try the product. Such people can be spotted over social media and rewarded by the retailers.

    Understanding Industry Trends

    Now, this aspect of social media is purely from the perspective of consuming the data. Before beginning to sell a product, the most important thing for a retailer is to know if there is really a demand for it. Many get a research done to understand the market, but not every business owner has that kind of money or time to invest. With social media, however, retailers and brands can have their market research done faster and cheaper, and it is as realtime as it gets.

    Online Reputation Management

    We all know how difficult it is to earn a good reputation and how easy it is to losem it. Thanks to the viral nature of social media, a bad remark or complaint from a customer can really influence many others. It thus becomes important to monitor your brand on social media and keep a check on what people are saying about your products. Nothing delights a customer more than the brand reaching out to them and showing that it cares.

    Customer Relationship Management (CRM)

    Using social media for CRM – or ‘social CRM’ – is yet to get its due share in India. Though large organisations have become receptive to social CRM and are integrating it with their customer supportdepartments, the practice is still at an early stage. The HDFC Bank has one of the best-run social CRM programmes in India.

    Social Media Leaders in India

    Cafe Coffee Day, Big Bazaar, and Pantaloons are some of the big Indian retail companies which have been making good use of social media.

    We even have a beautiful example of how Hippo (‘baked munchies’ from Parle) used Twitter for inventory management. This was a highly successful and innovative social media application. The brand made its entry in the Indian snacks market in 1990 and found it extremely challenging to manage its distribution network across 400,000 stores nationwide.

    About 92 percent of the snacks market in India is unorganised and inventory tracking is usually a logistical nightmare. To solve this, Hippo turned to its followers on Twitter and asked them to tweet whenever they could not find the snack at any store. This experiment got the desired results.

    With the rise in the penetration of hand-held mobile devices and tablet computers, it is important for brands and retailers to go social. They should get their social media strategy in place to not only engage with their customers directly but also to take on the competition head-on.

    *This article was originally published in April-May 2012 issue of Shopping Centre News.