Give Me MySpace

If you think online social networking is all about fun and games, you’re missing the boat. Social computing strategies represent a new frontier of marketing, and new opportunities for savvy merchants.

New technologies such as social networking sites, blogs, podcasts, and RSS feeds are dramatically changing the speed and availability of information that is reaching consumers.

How important is social computing? Industry researcher Forrester reports that use of social networking sites such as MySpace grew a whopping 90% from 2006 to 2007; in the same time period, blog consumption grew by 83% and the number of consumers relying on RSS feeds to distill content jumped fully 300%.

As social computing becomes an increasingly essential part of online selling, merchants are finding ways to embrace new technologies and interact more directly with their customers. The result is improved customer acquisition and loyalty and, ultimately, better business performance.

Shoppers trust the opinions of like-minded shoppers and are influenced less by messages from merchants — and they’re sharing their views online. Embracing this customer interaction and leveraging the fluid information flow of blogs, podcasts and customer reviews, retailers are able to keep their fingers on the pulse of customer trends and opinions.

Keep these four themes in mind as you integrate social networking strategies into your online retail business:

  • Share

    Build a relationship with your customer to exchange information. This will ensure that you are optimizing the customer experience.

  • Connect

    Customers are finding ways to connect with one another and share information. Find a way in which you can learn from this connection.

  • Influence. While customers are providing you with new information every day, take action and make changes by what they are telling you.

  • Learn

    Understand your customers’ behaviors and needs and build your site around them accordingly.

Here’s what else you need to be thinking about in the next six to 12 months.

Catering to consumer preference Social computing is all about putting the customers in control of their own shopping experiences — and that begins with the functionality and features of your own e-commerce site. With intuitive product discovery features and customer-driven content, you’ll be well on your way to serving shoppers what they need.

First, reassess your navigation and on-site search. As the number of products increases, the number of paths customers can take to research, compare, and eventually purchase the items also increases.

Each path represents another opportunity for merchants to learn about customer needs and preferences, and another chance to help customers find information that will lead them to the right products. To give shoppers more options, consider the following:

  • Expanding left-hand navigation increases exposure to more specific product categories and themed navigation. (See Old Navy site example, left.)

  • Extended DHTML menus that expand when shoppers mouse over them also provide merchandising capabilities.

  • Front-end guided navigation showcases the full spectrum of products. Shoppers are exposed to products they might not have originally considered and receive context-driven suggestions for paths through the site.

  • Merchants extend the breadth of cross-sells and category level browsing at the product detail level.

    Another new way shoppers are finding products is through rich shopping environments that engage and entertain. Rich Internet Applications (RIAs), such as product configurators and deep imaging that includes 360-degree views, expose all the options available to shoppers. They can:

  • Find and manipulate content. RIAs help users locate, manipulate, and display relevant content without waiting for constant page refreshes.

  • Elevate information up the path to purchase. RIAs allow merchants to provide more relevant product information earlier in the purchase process.

  • Absorb shoppers, allowing merchants to promote products through a non-linear, entertaining shopping experience.

Microsites that offer deep content regarding a product or product family give shoppers an immersive environment.

For example, the American Eagle Spring Break ’07 Microsite used user-contributed video, rollover product displays and a blog to showcase springtime apparel, creating a connection with fun-loving students in the merchant’s target demographic.

Dressing rooms and collection selling allows browsers the chance to mix and match products to suit their needs.

Finally, with more and more consumers looking to their peers for product guidance, merchants should showcase customer reviews on their sites. Jupiter Research reports that 77% of online shoppers seek reviews before purchasing; they’re fast becoming a must-have feature.

And customer reviews give product experts — your customers — the power to explain just how your products and your site are unique. It’s an easy, practical way to help differentiate your products and your site from the competition.

Incorporating customer reviews serves as a catalyst for interactivity among members of the online community. Ways in which merchants can increase credibility and reference include:

  • Richer customer profiles

    By requiring reviewers to share information about themselves as well as the product they’re rating, shoppers can identify which reviews are most relevant to them.

  • Product attribute rating

    By rating individual aspects of products in addition to assigning an overall score, reviewers provide a deeper level of detail.

  • Helpfulness rating

    Hold reviewers accountable by allowing other shoppers to rate which reviews give them the most information.

  • Video reviews

    Increasingly popular, these sound-and-motion-enabled reviews show off products in action.

While providing more ways for consumers to view and purchase products, RIAs and customer reviews are good points to begin thinking about how to reach your customers. In the next two years, merchants should prepare to take social computing to the next level, engaging meaningfully with customers beyond their e-commerce sites.


Looking further ahead to the next 12 to 24 months, smart merchants will employ blogs, social networking sites, podcasts and newsfeeds to join the dialogue with their customers. According to Forrester Research, 19% of consumers who shopped on the Internet visited a social networking site in 2007, vs. 10% in 2006.

In addition, blog usage increased 10% year over year, while podcasting usage increased 2% from last year. It’s easy to get started.

As consumers engage via social computing, the first step for the merchant is to understand and monitor how they are engaging. Using a brand monitoring agency can help identify where your key audience is spending time online. There are also free tools that can help to identify how and where your core customers are spending time, including:

  • Searches blogs and MySpace

  • Searches blogs

  • Qoogle: Enhanced YouTube video search

  • Google alerts: Set up alerts of new articles, blog posts and Web contents that contain the keywords you have identified

It is important to focus your efforts on the social communities that will have the most impact on your target demographic.

Especially for members of “Generation Y,” social networks such as MySpace and Facebook have become some of the most frequently visited Websites on the Internet. These sites also offer the ultimate opportunity to interact with customers.

To take advantage of this willingness to share information, consider the following factors when integrating social networking into your online business strategy:

  • Focus on MySpace (82% market share) or FaceBook (7% market share).

  • Ensure that you capture opt-in email addresses.

  • Provide obvious links back to your e-commerce site.

  • Provide syndication code for incorporating your content onto others’ social networking pages. For example, make a banner ad with a link to your Website and supply the HTML code for ease of posting on friends’ pages.

  • Consider banner advertising on the social networking sites your customers visit most.

  • Stay away from corporate-speak on your page. Talk like you’re speaking with a friend, not like a business.

  • Post bulletins consistently; a clearly outdated page will quickly lose viewers’ interest. Aim to post at least one bulletin a day.

Blogs are a second option for connecting with your customer. A running log of events and personal insights contributed by an individual or group, blogs showcase your expertise and open the dialogue between you and the consumer.

Depending on the audience, blogs can look and feel very different — from the inclusion or exclusion of text, graphics, photos, and videos. Regardless of the format of the blog, follow these best practices to ensure effectiveness:

  • Look like a blog, not a company site. Diluting blog content with empty PR speak is a surefire way to alienate potential readers; it’s imperative that you create content that has true relevance and a genuine voice.

  • Hotlinks are your friends. While maintaining that genuine voice, don’t neglect to include links to current deals and specific products that are mentioned in the blog.

  • Tag every posting with search-friendly terms. Blogs are a great way to boost SEO relevance for your brand.

  • Let other bloggers and the press know you’re out there too; they’ll give you viral boost by linking into the relevant content you post.

  • Podcasting, an extension of blogging, can be in either audio or video format and gives shoppers a continually-updated feed of information straight from the source — you, the merchant. Podcasts add a personal connection to your products and content, but keep these tips in mind:

  • Keep it short — podcasts should be no more than seven to 10 minutes in length.

  • Craft summaries that are concise yet descriptive. iTunes gives you 255 characters to use in the summary that announces your podcast — make those characters count.

  • Be enthusiastic. Podcasts are only as good as the personalities behind them.

  • Be consistent. To earn a loyal following, you have to commit to a consistent production schedule: “Same Bat-time, Same Bat-Channel.”

As social computing continues to evolve, consumers will be the first to adapt to the new technologies. To best serve customers, merchants need to follow them. After all, in the end it’s the merchant’s responsibility to share, connect, influence and learn from the customer’s point of view. Social networking strategies are a good place to focus as you grow your business in the coming months.

Ken Burke is the founder/chairman of MarketLive, a Petaluma, CA-based provider of e-commerce technology and services.