Three Key Steps to Local Success With Social Media

Get E-Commerce and Brick-and-Mortar Teams Working From the Same Playbook

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In my last article, I described how big-name brands like Walmart and 24 Hour Fitness are trailblazing on social media by connecting with customers on locally created social-media pages. Every store and gym gets its own page to share locally relevant content with consumers in the area.

It's a strategy that returns us to good old-fashioned business, where customers are real people, not audience segments. How to implement this? Here are three crucial steps:

Get e-commerce and field operations in the same room.
The biggest challenge is organizational. Often, the social-media team falls under e-commerce, which works from a profit-and-loss statement that gives them little or no information about the numbers for the brick-and-mortar stores.

A decade ago, separating e-commerce from field operations made sense because in-store experiences were far removed from digital brand interactions. Customers who enjoyed shopping and ordering online were seen as different from those who still drove to the store to touch or try products before purchasing.

In 2012, however, in-store and digital experiences are merging. Increasingly, customers are using smartphones to map out driving directions to the newest stores, to "check in" on foursquare or Facebook Places, and to search for product reviews or coupons while shopping in-store.

Social-media teams organized under e-business will not view these connections as part of their responsibility. They focus on driving traffic to e-commerce sites only. The brand then risks missing out on the tremendous social-local opportunity that the growing use of mobile makes possible.

Retailers will need to bring social-media, e-commerce and field-store operations teams into the same room. The teams may need to be reorganized and additional social-media staff hired, but the benefits far outweigh any complexities involved.

Claim your social-local pages.
A surprising number of brands are oblivious to this, but chances are good that your customers and store employees are already communicating on local social-media pages.

Anyone can create a Location Page (also known as a Place Page) on Yelp, Foursquare or Facebook Places in a matter of moments, simply by "checking in" on their iPhone or other mobile device. Search for any business with local chains or locations -- it doesn't have to be Walmart or 24 Hour Fitness -- and you will uncover hundreds, sometimes thousands of pages: a major electronics chain in San Francisco, a retail bank in downtown Austin, Texas, a beauty shop in Washington, D.C.

Trying to shut down these local pages "felt like playing a game of 'Wackamole'," according to one leading retail CMO. The more he tried to eliminate them, the faster new pages appeared. Ignoring these local pages was not an option. Not only would the business be neglecting customer issues, it would miss a huge opportunity to connect with customers when and where they have clearly signaled they would like to engage.

After seeing sales ROI from a pilot with a dozen stores, the CMO decided to embrace social-local across every store and is now seeing a spike in store visits, basket size and e-commerce revenue. "The people have spoken, and we will engage with them where, when, and on whichever device they want," he said recently.

Empower employees to represent the company.
Once e-commerce- and field-operations teams are coordinating efforts on mobile and social, and after the business has claimed its social-local pages, it's time to empower employees to represent the brand on social media.

The prospect of handing local employees the social-media megaphone could make a CEO nervous. But think about it this way: if the company operates local businesses around the country, then the brand is already represented every day by thousands of in-store employees. To the customer, those employees are literally the face of the brand.

Training employees to manage social media will soon be as ordinary as employee-onboarding. The most crucial task will be properly conveying the company's character and values. As Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz has said, customers will support only organizations that share their values. Having a good product or low prices isn't good enough anymore; there needs to be an emotional connection.

Ultimately, that 's what good business has always been about. Strong emotional connections between individuals, customers, and salespeople that trust each other will always be 10 times more powerful than the most expensive ad campaign. That's the power social media makes possible.

Clara Shih is CEO of Hearsay Social and author of "The Facebook Era: Tapping Online Social Networks to Market, Sell and Innovate." She sits on the Starbucks Board of Directors and was named one of FORTUNE's Most Powerful Women Entrepreneurs of 2011.
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