Five Ways Social Marketing can Improve Customer Loyalty

Social marketing programs are not about hard sells to your customers. Rather, social marketing programs should be about connecting with your customers for the long-term – on their terms – and sharing information and experiences together.

If done right, social programs can be a valuable part of a merchant’s marketing strategy. Like all marketing efforts, social programs must be measured to ensure that business objectives are being met.

Here are five guidelines that retailers need to consider when evaluating the performance of their social marketing programs.

Provide valuable product consideration resources.
For a retail consumer, the consideration phase is by far the longest and most difficult phase in the purchase process. That’s because this is when product information is collected, digested and used to make a purchase decision.

Social tools such as ratings and reviews and social learning facilities can make this consideration process much easier on the consumer. Merchants such as Wal-Mart, Borders and Samsung have implemented ratings and reviews that let consumers provide overall and attribute-based product ratings for products they’ve purchased that can be leveraged by prospects when deciding which product to buy.

Brands such as Sony and HP have used the concept of “social learning” in which free online courses and discussion forums are offered for the purpose of educating the end-user on different product categories so that product purchase decisions can be made more confidently.

Crowdsource product innovation.
Giving your customers the ability to directly contribute to the evolution of your products is a great way to get the customer committed to the brand.

Several large brands such as Dell, Starbucks, Sears and Best Buy have set up idea generator sites that allow consumers to submit ideas for making the brand’s products better. The customers that know they were the impetus for Starbucks introducing new products like the Artisan Breakfast Sandwich or free in-store Wi-Fi for iPhone users are more likely to continue patronizing the coffee shops.

Differentiate with social customer support.
This is a very trying economic time for retail brands as consumers have become more selective than ever when choosing which products to buy. In this scenario, it’s the little things like customer support that become brand differentiators.

Dell and Apple have both been wildly successful at fully leveraging social support facilities like forums where customers can usually find answers to questions from fellow participants instead of having to go through the gymnastics of contacting a customer service representative. And is famous for its social support via Twitter, which in turn, has led to more loyalty, buzz and sales.

Provide social rewards.
People love to be recognized for achievements in front of their peers, so much so that studies have shown this form of recognition can be a stronger force in generating loyalty than monetary forms. For example, Amazon uses a reputation system whereby users can gain an enhanced public reputation as a book reviewer as their book reviews are proven to be helpful to fellow users.

Other brands have offered trivia contests and social games and then publicly post the winners on-site or through Twitter. Providing simple esteem boosts like this can be powerful incentives for brand loyalty.

Create brand transparency.
A great way to connect with your customers and engender a sense of loyalty is to have open and honest bi-directional conversations with them. Brands like Southwest Airlines, Lenovo, and Sun have leveraged their corporate blogs for the purpose of making transparent connections and conversations with customers.

This type of sincerity makes the customer feel like they’re part of the brand and that their opinions count, and is a great way to get customers coming back for more.

Aaron Strout is CMO of Powered, a social marketing firm based in Austin, TX.