We’re living in an age of unprecedented change. We experience with Oculus Rift, invest with Acorns, consume video through Hyper, tune into Pandora and navigate with Waze.
Social media provides a window into consumer sentiment, and is proving to be a highly effective advertising tool. But can it actually drive sales conversion?
For Brisbane-based women’s fashion company Black Milk Clothing, the answer is very clearly ‘yes’.
”We’re a business born out of selfies,” says Black Milk’s head of sales and marketing Cameron Parker. “We realised with Instagram and Facebook that girls were taking selfies and were excited about getting a garment and sharing it with their friends and on their social media. And this content was awesome.”
So the company decided to make use of that content – effectively recruiting its already passionate followers to become an army of fashion models.
Black Milk designs, manufactures and sells a range of contemporary and unusual apparel, from superhero-styled swimsuits to through to Harry Potter-inspired casual daywear. And its customers love it – to the extent that they have snapped and hashtagged more than 300,000 selfies while wearing Black Milk garments.
Critical to the company’s success has been its ability to capture those images and surface them on both its website and Facebook page, right at the point when the consumer is about to complete their purchase.
Every garment is given its own specific hashtag, even down to the garment size, which customers are encouraged to use when they post selfies to social media. Black Milk’s development team has created a system that scrapes and collates the associated images, which are then posted to its website and Facebook page.
“So when you are a new customer and land on our page and see our crazy gear that you can’t touch and feel and try on, you can see girls of similar shapes and sizes and hair, and see how they style things,” Parker says.
The company often finds more than 1000 new images each day, which are moderated before they are posted to the company’s site, to weed out fake products or inappropriate material.
“That’s the only moderation we do – we don’t moderate on style, we embrace individuality,” Parker says.
But most important for Black Milk has been the social content’s ability to drive conversions at point-of-sale online.
“For a web company that doesn’t have any bricks and mortar, I think we would have really struggled,” Parker says. “If you’re a brand that has visual content on social media I don’t understand why they wouldn’t bring that in – it adds authenticity.”
Despite the success of Black Milk Clothing, few Australian brands are making use of social content on their websites today. This is despite companies such as Yelp and TripAdvisor having demonstrated the power of user-generated content - even from strangers - in swaying the opinions of would be customers.
The power of social content was further highlighted by Nielsen’s 2012 Global Trust in Advertising report, which found online consumer reviews were the second most trusted source of brand information and messaging, behind recommendations from friends and family.
Freelance social media and digital strategist Tiphereth Gloria describes the phenomenon as ‘social proof’.
“It’s like a third party endorsement that is driven by the consumers themselves,” Gloria says. “(The content is from) people that they don’t know, but because they are opinions that aren’t brand-driven or paid-for advertising, they count for a lot.
“It will definitely continue to blossom and evolve, as consumers find new ways of expressing themselves through their association with brands and products, and also with brands slowly waking up to the power of the consumer voice in their own brand story. So it is a great combination – it is only just going to get bigger and more important.”
But Gloria estimates that as many as 90 per cent of brands are still reticent to harness user-generated content to its full capacity, primarily due to fear of reporting inappropriate content.
This has created an opportunity for the Sydney-based company Stackla, which has developed a process to find and moderate social content for reposting on its clients’ sites. The company now has worked with brands including McDonalds, Myer, Telstra, and Michael Hill jewellers.
According to Stackla’s co-founder Damien Mahoney the difference between what Stackla offers and what a platform like Instagram or Pinterest offers is the ability to integrate social content easily into the site’s own pages.
“Rather than that content sitting out on social networks, we enable our clients to bring that into their websites, into their ecommerce area, and use that as an additional method to convert sales,” Mahoney says.
He believes the effectiveness of social content in driving sales conversion comes from the viewer’s belief in its authenticity.
“Rather than it simply being a message that is constructed and pushed out by that particular retailer, it is coming from a real person,” Mahoney says. “So it is a real endorsement from somebody who has had some sort of engagement with that particular product.”
Stackla uses a combination of technology and human oversight to ensure that images that are reposted do not endanger the brand, with overall curation managed by the client.
“Because it is a catalogue and they are really only seeking out the best bits of content to showcase, it is generally handpicked and curated by somebody within their business,” Mahoney says.
Michael Hill’s group digital manager James Johnson says his company used Stackla to promote the recent launch of its Emma & Roe charm collection, and in support of its overall marketing. This includes displaying social content on screen in stores.
“In the vast majority of instances having people take a photo of a diamond ring on their hand is going to look better than it sitting there on its own,” Johnson says. “We don’t do that for every single item we have, but using these tools our customers can do that on our behalf.”
Another company to sign up with Stackla is the online footwear retailer Wanted Shoes.
Brand/marketing manager Jennifer Christodoulou says her company has paid attention to the influence that social media can have on customers, and is now seeking to bring that influence to Wanted Shoes’ customers.
“Social influence is really working for us - this is almost like the new word of mouth, and with images,” Christodoulou says. “We have seen a correlation between a post and sales, especially when you have somebody posting who is an influencer - then the correlation increases even further.”
Christodoulou says the added benefit for Wanted Shoes is that its customers are now generating more content than the company could ever have hoped to create itself, which serves to make its website stickier.
“On a commerce site you don’t ever want them to leave, you want to them to be shopping or clicking around,” Christodoulou says. “And because there is so much content coming in so regularly there is always a reason to always check back.”
While uptake of tools that use social media to drive sales conversion might still be in its early days, the number of ways in which it can be used seems endless.
Sydney-based start-up Local Measure for instance is using geographic data to find social media posts that are of interest to its clients and use these for a variety of purposes.
Founder Jonathan Barouch says this might include everything from alerting a pub owner that underage drinkers have boasted about getting past the bouncers through to alerting staff at the Qantas Club lounge when someone posts that a printer is out of toner.
“We pick up and surface feedback in the moment,” Barouch says. “We use location as the core, so when people check in or share their location or geotag it to a location, that’s the core of our system.”
Barouch says this content can also be used to find and influence consumers who are on the marketers’ property through distribution of targeted offers.
“We are showing business folks who are either in the process of spending money or who have spent money, “That’s the beauty of Instagram and Twitter - they are so public.
“And people knowingly, willingly put that out there in the public domain. Businesses that don’t listen do so at their own peril.”
Numerous social platform-based solutions are now making their way to market, including more sophisticated uses of platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.
One recent campaign developed by Facebook for Channel 10’s The Bachelor used a combination of audience segmentation and time-of-day awareness to remind women aged between 25 and 54 when the program was coming on, and generated to a noticeable increase in audience from that segment.
Twitter has also gotten deep into the notion of social commerce through the introduction of a buy button in posts.
But manager director for Twitter Australia, Karen Stocks, says the new functionality is currently only available for a test group of users in the United States using Twitter for iPhone or and Twitter for Android apps.
“Consumers actively follow brands that they care about because they want to see content from those brands,” Stocks says. “This means that Twitter has the ability to target and serve relevant commerce-related tweets to the right users based on their interests and who they choose to follow.
“Additionally, consumers are mobile-first and increasingly use mobile for commerce. And while this is just the beginning of our tests, we’re excited about giving users the ability to discover and buy products within the Twitter experience.”
Stocks says at this stage there is no firm date for Australian availability of the feature.
“But if our tests are successful we hope to roll-out it out here within 12 months,” she says.
Follow CMO on Twitter: @CMOAustralia, take part in the CMO Australia conversation on LinkedIn: CMO Australia, or join us on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/CMOAustralia, or check us out on Google+: google.com/+CmoAu