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Playing to the Crowd

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If a retailer posts on Facebook and no one responds, was it worth the effort?

With an apology to the old saw about trees falling in the forest, that question is more than mere philosophical debate. Instead, it’s a matter of resources and effort — and of whether retailers are leveraging brand ambassadors to drive business.

“The No. 1 thing that all brands have always known is that word of mouth drives their business,” says Michael Heffring, vice president of marketing for social media software firm Expion. “Social media is all about managing word of mouth, something brands weren’t able to do very well in the past.”

Expion assessed the Facebook pages of STORES’ Top 100 Retailers during the third quarter of this year to determine which brands were doing well with fan engagement, measured by tallying fan actions: comments, likes and shares.

“Two years ago, people were saying, ‘How do I get a fan?’” Heffring says. “Marketers are pretty far along — of the top 100 retail brands, 41 have fan bases of over a million. The next phase is focused on how to get people engaged.”

That may lead to what many businesses have been clamoring for since the infancy of social media: a direct link to ROI. But, “You have to understand how to link engagement to specific goals,” he says. “The idea is to improve basic engagement and link it to all the important things you can measure. That’s where we are today, increasing engagement of a brand’s social content and starting to track its impact on specific marketing goals.”

Rules of engagement
So which of the Top 100 Retailers are inspiring the most fan actions?

Walmart has locked down the top spot on both the Top 100 Retailers list and the Top 100 Retail Fan Action Index, with 43 of the top 100 posts published in the third quarter. The company’s 423 posts generated 8.23 million fan actions or responses, many from questions posed by the company: “Scorched or lightly browned marshmallows over a campfire?” “Favorite flavor of cheesecake?” “How do you like your steak cooked?” Don’t mock; a question about favorite flavors of ice cream drew 134,000 responses. In a handful of posts, questions were tied into a product promotion or new price rollback.

“Walmart is the tsunami of frequency,” Heffring says. “They say, ‘I want to be out there as often as I can and in any way that I can.’ The top posts don’t have a lot to do with products and services.”

At the other end of the philosophical spectrum is Starbucks, No. 3 on the list of brands ranked by total fan actions. The coffee company also had the top post, a notice that their popular pumpkin spice latte was back. That announcement drew 368,000 responses, 331,000 of those in the form of Facebook “likes.” Starbucks also had the highest average of fan actions per post — about 14 times the rate for other retailers. The coffee purveyor may have posted only 49 times in the quarter, but when the company speaks, fans take notice.

“Starbucks is very brand-focused,” Heffring says. “They only have one-tenth of the frequency of Walmart, but are focused on products and services.”

Sitting comfortably between Walmart and Starbucks on the list of total fan actions is Victoria’s Secret. The posts from that specialty retailer are what Heffring terms “aspirational.”

“They show the angels, the fashion. The whole approach is to be pure to the brand.”

Walmart, Victoria’s Secret and Starbucks combined for 70 of the top 100 posts and more than 14 million fan actions.

Heavy promotional posts also made the top lists, with McDonald’s using this approach to promote its Monopoly game and Amazon promoting its $25,000 giveaway.

“Social is about going to where your customers are, and what they’re feeling,” Heffring says. “What does the Walmart customer want and what are they interested in? If I’m not a highly involved brand like Starbucks, how do I get people engaged? Be clear with who your target audience is, and how they’re connected with you today. If it’s not an involved product, ask, ‘How can my product engage with you and add more value to your everyday life?’”

Fan engagement as crisis management
Chick-fil-A dominated much of the news over the summer after controversial remarks about same-sex marriage from the company president led to protests and counter-protests, boycotts and anti-boycotts.

As the company used its Facebook page as a channel of communication, three of its posts earned spots in the top 10 in terms of the most fan actions.

The company’s remarks about treating all guests with respect, honor and dignity earned 311,000 fan actions. Debunking a myth about the use of Muppets characters in kids’ meals brought more than 114,000 fan actions. Another rumor, which said the company had a fake Facebook page impersonating a teenager, drew 134,000 actions. These were the top three posts among all Top 100 Retailers during the third quarter.

Of course, with a controversial issue, the “fan” actions may not all be positive. Heffring points to Chick-fil-A’s Facebook use as an example of transparency. “Chick-fil-A used social media for crisis management,” he says. “It was a way to use a major channel to deal with things and it got a lot of traction. This was about them announcing — instead of responding — and being proactive and letting fans know about things. Once the story’s out, it’s out. The key is to respond quickly.”

Another lesson from Chick-fil-A’s use of Facebook is that “you have to feel comfortable with responding to what’s good and what’s bad,” Heffring says. “You have to be out there and you’re going to get beat up a bit. You may be battle-tested, but you’re seen as part of the conversation.”

Offering something special
Some retailers are using their Facebook pages to help their fans connect with each other and offer behind-the-scenes looks at events. Those, too, can generate high fan response.

Macy’s, for instance, offered posts with photo albums from the annual Macy’s Fourth of July fireworks that drew nearly 50,000 fan actions.

“That’s a great way to take a fairly traditional offline event and digitally make it more exciting, getting people to share it and be more involved,” Heffring says.

GameStop also earned kudos for creating a community among its fans. “They had posts that essentially say, ‘I’m a gamer. You know you’re a gamer.’ Instead of focusing on the product, their fans connect socially because they are gamers and want to be recognized as gamers.”

Of course, new products and store openings also can be important posts to build brand awareness. Heffring cites Expion client Applebee’s: The restaurant chain asked those who liked the company’s new lemon shrimp dish to “share” it. Enough did that it came in at No. 25 on the list with 55,000 actions.

“This is about reaching the friends of your fans by getting them to share it and like it,” he says. “This gets people more excited about new products.”

Missed Opportunities
The list has clear winners and losers — but some aren’t even playing the game. Of STORES’ Top 100 Retailers, only 15 had posts in the top 100. Those same Top 100 Retailers have a total of 290 million fans and averaged about 150 posts per company during the third quarter. Those posts drew an average of 2,673 responses. While that may seem like a large number, only 25 retailers are above the industry average for fan actions.

“When I looked at the list, there were several brands that I questioned why they aren’t more engaging,” Heffring says. “It goes back to, ‘Are you being really specific about what role and goal social can play and then leveraging what you know about your brand?’”

Many retailers and brands have now built strong fan bases. At press time, Starbucks had more than 32 million devotees, followed by McDonald’s with more than 25 million and Target with 24.6 million. The next step is to determine how to maximize the value of those fans.

“If you’ve built a respectable fan base — and we’ve seen that most retailers have by now — you must determine a specific goal, what social will and will not be used for,” Heffring says. “Start with things you’re good at. Make sure social really works on new product development.”

He also recommends that retailers track the Facebook posts of their competitors and of companies that retailers aspire to be like, whether they’re in the industry or not. “Listen, watch, learn and frankly, replicate, but [be] true to your own brand,” Heffring says. “Social doesn’t have to be hard.”