Has social media run its course?

          Laura Heller

Two days of conference sessions, booth visits and scheduled meetings at Shop.org's annual Summit yielded lots of ideas, conversations and connections. But one thing was very much missing from the conference: social.

I'm not talking about the entertainment or networking component of the show, but rather social media. There was nary a mention of this online component, long considered critical to Internet retailers.

There has been a lot of conflicting research of late. Some, like this report from Capgemini says that social media, specifically Facebook, is over. Shoppers simply aren't invested in the platform, not the way they used to be and certainly not how retailers have been told to expect.

On the flip side is this report, stating how Facebook fans of a certain grocery chain spend up to 50 percent more than non-fans.

There are a lot of ways to pick apart each study. Both have valuable insights, but Shop.org added one more element as the topic of social media was conspicuously absent or downplayed.

Exhibitors in the expo were largely focused on data gathering and analysis. Understanding shopper behavior, allocating spending and charting results have seemingly supplanted social media as pressing issues within retail organizations.

There were many companies with solutions to analyzing and displaying data about shopper behavior. Some have unique ways of using consumer input by leveraging reviews and brand advocates, but the number of solutions aimed at leveraging social media was decidedly down.

Speakers during keynote and breakout sessions celebrated the successes of online retailers including Zulily, BirchBox and newcomer Houzz. Each of these companies took very different paths, established a vision and identity for their brand early on, and never wavered from their path.

Each built their brand with a different customer mindset. While many retailers talk about putting their customer first in everything, Houzz's co-founder and president Alon Cohen flipped that equation, noting that his home-focused design and decor site was built not for customers, but for his family. The Cohens had a need, an old house in need of remodeling, and created a community for like-minded consumers to share resources.

On Oct. 1, the day of his presentation at Shop.org, Cohen announced that Houzz was now an e-commerce site, adding the ability to purchase products in addition to its existing content.

REI executives outlined the many problems that traditional retailers face in translating established brands to an online presence. The 76-year old retailer is in the midst of a complete digital makeover as it looks to create a 21st century flagship.

But what does all of this have to do with social media? Exactly.

It's difficult to imagine that retailers have completely forsaken social media, and that Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest and even Snapchat aren't part of their go-to-market strategy.

Leveraging social media is important but its role seems to be changing quite a bit. At the very least, it's taken a back seat as retailers try to measure the effect on sales and brand loyalty.

Or has it? Is a social media strategy still high on retailers' priority lists and does it fall under marketing, advertising or something else entirely? One thing is for sure, a lot has changed in the past few years, as the conversation has shifted from developing a strategy for Facebook to a need to justify the investment. -Laura

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