Want To Push Social Media? Have You Considered Using Your Stores?

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Todd Michaud spent years leading retail technology teams for Dunkin' Donuts and Baskin-Robbins and today serves as the VP of IT for a billion-dollar franchise restaurant company. He also runs Power Thinking Media, which helps restaurants and retailers with social and mobile challenges.

How's this for ironic? Retailers complain about how difficult it is to get shoppers to explore their social media efforts. And yet these same retailers have the almost undivided attention of these shoppers, often for hours every month, in an environment where the retailer has complete control of the surroundings, the store layout and the staff.

Almost all retail marketing efforts are based on the not-so-simple premise of getting people to purchase from them, either online or in person. The problem is likely a mesh of old-mentality thinking with a heavy dose of channel conflict. What if those marketing resources were directed at building a deeper relationship with consumers, one with more engagement? Although that may work for a digital marketing team (it is actually the foundation of most successful digital marketing strategies), what about using in-store technology and even the sales associates to start or enhance those digital conversations?

In my mind I can see the CEO's face as the marketing chief explains that he wants to grab some of the consumers attention while they are in the store to "build a deeper relationship with them online." I have to imagine that is about as close to heresy as it gets in traditional retailing. "Wasting" precious time and attention of a shopper and "distracting" them with things that do not involve a sale in that very moment, at the point of purchase!

Then there is the small fact that the retail operator doesn't feed his family based upon how well his customers are engaged online. He's paid to sell products. I can also see his face as he's told that he has to staff additional labor and purchase additional technology "just so the E-Commerce guys can get a sale."But if you think about it from the customers' perspective, they don't understand or care about the different channels a retailer has. They want to interact with the brand across all of the channels in a convenient and consistent way.

With smartphones, consumers are becoming better educated and can easily research products while they browse the aisles. I have personally, as I am sure most people have, researched a product while looking at it in-store, only to go home and purchase that product online.

That is where relationship and engagement come in to play. The reason the Internet and mobile phones have "commoditized" a lot of retail segments isn't simply because the consumer has easy access to cheaper alternatives online. It's because many retailers haven't figured out how to nurture/grow/enhance (capitalize) on their relationship with the consumers.

In the professional services world of today, most of the smaller firms (and even some of the larger firms) grow their revenue through a model I'll call "paying it forward." They engage with their potential customers both online and in real life with the goal being simply to help them.

It could be as simple as solving a nagging problem, providing a technical resource to assist with project work or helping them craft a strategy. There are no expectations coupled with this work, no "I'll only do this if you buy from me" mentality. These providers are building relationships. When those people do have a need for that provider, they reach out on their own. No sales call necessary. Many times, the project does not even go out to bid, because people want to do business with someone they have a relationship with. You probably have some relationships like that yourself.

But when it comes to retailing, the relationship often stays within the four walls of the store. The digital marketing folks struggle to even start a conversation with their consumers online, lost in the noise that is the social Web. But the folks on the ground have a relationship, or at least consumers' attention, but they fail to capitalize on that after the transaction. How crazy is it that both organizations work for the same company, each one able to help the other with a significant problem, and yet most retailers haven't done it?

Here are a few ideas for you to test to bridge this gap:

  • Place LCD TVs in the store that are tied to the company Facebook page, with clear directions printed on the screen that show customers how to engage online (example: "Go to mystore.com/now to join the conversation"). Get them to "Like" you, so they will get your future Facebook updates. Don't "buy" the Likes with a bribe, just ask them to engage.
  • Have the sales clerk's E-mail address printed on the receipt, with a note that says "E-mail me with any questions." Don't have E-mail addresses for everyone? Set up an E-mail address for the store and give customers instructions to ask for "Lucy" in the subject line. And yes, as a CIO, I know how much work that will be. I also know how much value it would create. (Admit it, you would do it in a heartbeat if you had just one location).
  • Place screens around the store that show Twitter activity about your brand. When someone tweets to or about you, follow that person. Engage with them on Twitter.
  • Sit down with your associates once a month and ask them what are the most common questions they get. Start a blog, and answer all of those questions (if customers had them in-store, they have them online). Choose different associates to provide each answer used on the blog.
  • Here's a really crazy thought: Go to your existing Facebook Fans and Twitter followers and ask them how they would like to be engaged socially within your stores. Make sure it is free-form (not a multiple choice poll). Take the time to read and respond to all suggestions. Try some. Give credit to the person/people who made the suggestions. Say thank you to them.

I think what is important is to figure out how to shed the "old-way" thinking and how to break down the multi-channel barriers. It's time to start a relationship with your customers, across all forms of connection, because the benefits are worth it.

What do you think? If you disagree (or even, heaven forbid, agree), please comment below or send me a private message. Or check out the Twitter discussion on @todd_michaud.