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Face It

It’s no secret that Facebook is changing the way people socialize. But can it change how consumers shop?

Call Facebook the new coffee shop, says Melissa Lacitignola, web marketing manager for Zappos.com. “People spend a huge amount of time during their day on the site,” she explains. As a matter of fact, we’re spending 700 billion minutes per month Facebooking, according to a recent report by the social network. “It’s become one of the fastest channels a retailer can [use to] expand its reach because the audience is there and waiting for new information,” reports David Sutula, vice president of technology for 9Threads, a strategic marketing and custom content agency and parent company of Footwear Plus. With more than 500 million active users and at least 30 billion pieces of content (web links, news stories, notes and photo albums) created and shared each month, the six-year-old Facebook has evolved from a tech-y way to stay in touch with friends into a global, multimedia billboard for businesses—all at an attractive price: free.

But is it worth the manpower (an expense of time and/or money) to continually update one’s page? Is it worth trying to respond to comments or requests that may mushroom into the thousands? Is the feedback meaningful enough to even warrant a response? The jury is still out on whether a retailer’s presence on Facebook translates to a guarantee of increased sales. In the meantime, Gary Peltz, vice president and CEO of Peltz Shoe Store in St. Petersburg, FL, claims the site does an excellent job in helping his store stay fresh in the minds of potential customers. Amos Hunter, web administrator for Imelda Shoes and Louie’s Shoes for Men in Portland, OR, shares Peltz’s sentiment: “Facebook is great because it allows us to connect to our core customers. The people who track us are likely to be the people interested in buying from us.”

Here, retailers and social media experts offer simple ways businesses can capitalize on the Facebook phenomenon.

Own It

One of the biggest stumbling blocks, Sutula claims, is treating a company page like a personal page. “A store’s Facebook page should not be full of personal whims and observations,” he explains, “but instead be loaded with actual content about sales, new products, events and other business-related information.” Hunter admits he’s often tempted to post his personal musings or random tidbits—a recent in-store celebrity sighting made the news feed, for example. But more often than not, Hunter plies the page with information and photos of fresh products—usually when that merchandise is still in the backroom. “We like to give our Facebook friends a first look,” he says.

With the right audience, those snapshots can provoke visits to the store. Erin Miller, buyer for Salem, OR-based Footwear Express, notices a lot of customers referencing products she highlights on the store’s Facebook page. “Dansko, in particular, generates a lot of buzz because the brand has a strong following,” she reports. Hunter says customers come in asking for shoes they’ve seen on the site. “It’s a great way to see which styles are going to be a big success even before they hit the selling floor,” he adds.

Unique, store-specific news—like Hunter’s “This just in” posts—can up a Facebook page’s ante and drive repeat visitors to the site. David Wilson, owner of search engine marketing company Braveheart Designs, advises retailers to not rely on recycled news. “Make your Facebook page the only source for some information,” he says. Alex Mendoza, managing partner for Stylophane, an online marketing and design firm, recommends retailers design their Facebook page to reflect the company’s other marketing efforts. Sutula lauds Diesel, Levi’s and Victoria’s Secret for their content-filled Facebook pages that mimic the branding consumers recognize from stores, TV commercials, print ads and official websites.

The glue that binds it together, Sutula says, is keeping the company’s voice intact through all channels. “Whether that means having one employee be the point person or involves getting a group of employees all on the same page, a single distinctive voice should be heard,” he says. Hiring someone who is enthusiastic about Facebook is a step in the right direction. Peltz has an employee “privy to social media” working on the store’s page. Additionally, he says many of the other staff members have helped start conversations on the store’s Facebook message wall. “Identify these workers and enable them,” Sutula asserts. “Let go and empower a younger person who is social media savvy, even if they don’t have years of industry knowledge.”

Update It

When retailers tell Wilson they want to create a Facebook page, he first asks what their intended goal is. “The answer, ‘Everyone is doing it’ isn’t enough,” he says. Whether it be a plan to gain 50 new fans a month or steer traffic to the store’s official website, retailers should set a way to monitor success. Wilson likens the Facebook boom to the surge of websites that cropped up 10 years ago. “So many people created a website because they thought it was the popular thing to do, but then they left it. The website was never updated,” he says. An out-of-date website—or Facebook presence—can do more damage then good. As Wilson points out, “If someone comes along and sees that it hasn’t been tended to for two months, it doesn’t say much for the company.”

There is no golden rule on how many times a company should update its Facebook page, but Sutula stresses consistency. “Find your own pace and schedule. People will learn to start expecting a post from you once a day or once a week,” he affirms. Hunter says he intentionally does not put a lot of time resources into the store’s Facebook page because it’s a free medium. “I usually spend a few minutes a day on the site. That’s all it takes and I think that’s what it deserves at the moment,” he explains. However, Hunter makes a habit of updating the page at least once a day. Lacitignola posts to Zappos’ page at least once a day, but no more than twice. “We don’t want to spam walls,” she explains. An onslaught of information could make fans hide your news feed or “defriend” (block) your business altogether. For example, John Clark, buyer and social media guru for Skinny Rave Sports in Anchorage, AK, is cautious of pushing “buy, buy, buy” to its Facebook friends. “We use the site to promote sales and merchandise, but we don’t want to scare them away,” he says.

Like It

Experts agree: Don’t underestimate the power of Facebook’s “like” button, which allows users to give a thumbs-up recommendation for a particular page. The average Facebook user has 130 friends—a substantial pool of likeminded potential customers who are notified in their news feeds each time a friend “likes” a page. Ideally, Mendoza says, the company or product will also appeal to these Facebook users and the cycle of “liking” will continue. “The more people who like a brand, the better, because it goes viral,” Wilson explains. Sutula says a good Facebook campaign directs the viewer to a “like” button first instead of the main news feed. Compared to other sites that ask for e-mail addresses or other personal information, “No harm is done by liking a page,” he adds.

Comments left by fans on retailers’ walls appear in the news feeds as well. Lacitignola regularly poses questions to Zappos followers about their favorite trends or styles. These posts help engage users, but Lacitignola says people usually start conversations on their own. “Our fans leave a lot of shout-outs on our wall,” she notes. The company is regularly complimented for its quick delivery and customer service, which Lacitignola believes is the best kind of recommendation. “Their friends see how passionate that person is about the brand. You can’t ask for anything more,” she adds.

Sutula says many retailers are wary of having an open wall and think, “Why provide a forum for negative comments?” He recommends retailers leave negative comments visible on their wall, but only if there is a reason for the remark. “Your store sucks,” is an unqualified negative and should be removed, he says, but “Your store sucks because…” is legit. “Not having complete control is a hard pill for business owners to swallow, but they should look at it as a chance to quiet the crowd,” he explains. And sometimes a negative can become a positive, which Sutula says is the hallmark of a successful Facebook plan. Case in point: Zappos has received posts from unsatisfied customers and, according to Lacitignola, what typically happens is that the retailer’s fans come to its defense. Lacitignola will address the complaint as well. “Good or bad, make sure you respond to every question and comment,” Wilson notes. “Not responding to a comment is like a company that doesn’t answer or return phone calls. No business would ever do that.”

Sell It

It’s one thing to “like” a product on Facebook, but experts say translating that into a “buy” is a whole different animal. Wilson says the majority of people who like something on Facebook are people who are already familiar and loyal to the product or service. “It becomes an extension of their profile and is more about showing their interests than an intent to buy,” he says. “It’s not entirely rare for a Facebook user to discover a store and ‘like’ it, but it is for them to buy from it immediately.”

According to Lacitignola, the next step is to re-train Facebook users to make purchases straight off of the social network’s site. “Shopping via Facebook is still very new, but eventually consumers will grow accustomed to it,” she predicts. Zappos has already had some success selling group gift cards via on Facebook. (Instead of buying individual Zappos gift cards, friends can contribute funds to send one friend a gift card.) “The people who have used this service love it,” she notes.

In the meantime, Mendoza says Facebook advertisements (the small windows on the righthand side of the page) can direct viewers to a retailer’s e-commerce site. And unlike Google advertising, which only pulls up specific brand names after a search is entered, Mendoza says Facebook advertising allows companies to target users who “like” or follow similar brands. For example, on Facebook, a new boot company can reach out to users who like Frye or Dr. Martens. “Ads are geared toward the viewer’s interests, which can be money well spent for new and emerging companies who need to get their names out in the open,” he explains. “Retailers shouldn’t underestimate Facebook as a business tool to market to a particular demographic.” —Angela Velasquez

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