Pairing the basics with social media marketing to turn browsers into buyers

      Vicki Cantrell

By Vicki Cantrell, senior VP of communities and executive director of, National Retail Federation

As social media sites begin to roll out their buy buttons and enhance advertising options, retailers are hopeful that the effort will help turn browsers into buyers, especially those consumers who live on their smartphones. In fact, retailers have reported seeing better results from social marketing in the past year—so much so that 58 percent of retailers plan to increase spending on paid social marketing this year, according to's State of Retailing Online report.

But along with enticing new opportunities in social, marketers are still putting the bulk of their dollars in tried-and-true methods: 68 percent of retailers plan to spend more on search engine marketing this year than they did last year. Why? Because it works. More than half of retailers reported that paid search and search engine optimization were their top performers for attracting new customers.

"It's a story that's very much about Google, because SEO and SEM are at the top of the list for customer acquisition," said Forrester Research's Sucharita Mulpuru, summarizing the study's results.

When retail marketers are looking to manage tight budgets and get the biggest bang for their buck, search and email get the lead roles. Together, email and paid search take up more than half of digital marketing budgets.

Email is the cheapest way to attract new customers. While it may not be the most exciting course of study compared with the pizzazz of something like Snapchat, retailers are getting savvier about using it and finding more success with targeted messaging. And since we're now living in a world where more than half of all email is opened on a mobile device—some retailers are reporting that as much as half of their website traffic comes from mobile devices—mobile-friendly email is an absolute must.

Even as email and paid search continue to pay off, retailers are watching customer behavior closely and adjusting their strategies. Speaking at a event in June, Bebe Stores EVP and Chief Digital Officer Erik Lautier noted the impact of consumers' "passive browsing experience," suggesting that consumers' interest in searching for information about brands is declining as they discover brands from social media, blogs and other areas of the web without actively searching.

For retailers noticing a trend away from search, it becomes even more important to expand and diversify marketing tactics.

Paid social media marketing, including paid advertising and promoted posts, is just one of the ways retailers are branching out. But not all social media sites are created equal and none has proven more effective for retailers than Facebook. With 1.4 billion active monthly users, the social media giant has become a powerful marketing ally—25 percent of retailers responding to our study cited Facebook as one of their top five platforms for attracting new customers.

So while the field is changing, the basics like email and search are still serving retailers well, even as those tactics become more complex to execute due to the multi-device, multichannel nature of today's customers. They might be our old standbys, but today more than ever, it's critical for retailers to be nailing the basics.

Vicki Cantrell is senior vice president of communities and executive director of at the National Retail Federation.'s Digital Summit will be held in Philadelphia from October 5-7, 2015, and will feature dozens of educational sessions, including marketing, mobile, innovation and technology.