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Shopping Goes Social

Facebook is poised to become a booming online marketplace. Follow these top tips from social-marketing pros to set up shop and start cashing in.

Facebook isn’t just for finding old high school flames and playing Farmville anymore—for a growing number of users, the ubiquitous social network is the lat- est place to find shoes and apparel. Even behemoth brands like Coca-Cola, Star- bucks, Disney and Amazon have recently started selling their wares on Facebook. For footwear retailers, the growing popu- larity of the new social commerce mar- ketplace can be a golden opportunity to boost sales and find new customers.

But setting up a successful Facebook storefront can be as complicated as build- ing a brick-and-mortar outlet. So what’s the appeal? For many merchants, it’s the chance to go viral when one person shares a favorite product with friends and the recommendation is passed along within a social network. Since the average Face- book user has 130 friends, the opportu- nity to recruit new customers is expo- nential. Interested in setting up shop on Facebook? Here are some tips on how to get up and running:

Pick Your Platform

Just as social shopping has increased, so have the number of platforms that support Facebook commerce. Currently, retailers must use an ap- plication to upload a storefront on Facebook, but the options are be- coming surprisingly sophisticated. For example, platforms like Payv- ment and 8thBridge allow shoppers to complete a purchase without leaving Facebook, as opposed to storefronts that direct shoppers to another e-commerce platform to complete the transaction (usually on a company website). “It’s just easier because people don’t want to be di- rected off Facebook,” says Joelle Musante, senior vice president at Payv- ment. “They’re there for 2.5 hours a day, so if you try to direct them off Facebook, they’re going to go right back,” Musante says, comparing the notion to selling a car. “If you have them on the lot and they’re ready to buy, are you going to send them down the street to close the deal, or are you going to close the deal while they have their wallet open?”

But for some footwear brands, like new company Wassookeag Moc- casins, it’s more convenient to use a site like Big Commerce that allows merchants to fuse their Facebook store with their e-commerce site. “It was super easy,” says owner and designer Mark Wintle. “I had a Face- book page that I had built prior to integrating it with BigCommerce. It was just a few clicks of the mouse, and, boom, I had my entire web store sitting there on Facebook.”

Stay Socially Savvy

While social commerce may be catching on with buyers, the vast ma- jority of Facebook users log on to the site to keep up with friends—and experts say blatant product pitches are often the fastest way to turn off potential shoppers. “My first recommendation is to build a relation- ship [with the customer],” suggests Lora Cecere, an analyst at Altim- eter Group, a technology consulting firm. “The social has to precede the transaction. There has to be a reason for them to come and visit your page.” Using your Facebook wall to post information and foster discus- sion is key to building trust and maintaining a good rapport with your existing customers and finding new ones, says Musante at Payvment. “You have to own your category and be the go-to for information,” she says. “Then, when they’re ready to make a purchase, they’re going to go to you because they trust you.”

“Stay involved with your fans,” advises Darin Hager, owner and de- signer of sneaker brand Heyday Footwear. “Update your wall daily and put up photos or videos,” he recommends, noting that he’s helped build his brand—and a loyal client base—by keeping in touch with his cus- tomers. “We communicate directly with the fans. We respond to every comment, and we ask a lot of questions with the new question feature,” he notes.

Another way to drive traffic to your Facebook store is to offer deals, promotions and special offers, but marketing pros agree they should be used sparingly. “I don’t really do offers and promotions on Facebook,” Hager says. “There are enough promotions floating around on the web.” Justin Kistner, senior manager of social media marketing at web analytics firm Webtrends, suggests the following rule of thumb: “One out of 10 wall posts can be an offer, but the other nine should be com- munity discussion related.” Self-promotional updates and links to blog posts and Twitter will simply drive visitors away and alienate your fans, Kistner explains. “That’s not the type of interaction people go to Face- book for,” he adds. “People want to talk more about their personal lives, opinions and feelings, and they want interactive discussions—not one- way information.” Even product posts should spark conversation, says Mitchell Harper, co-founder and chief technology officer at BigCom- merce. “Popular items should be posted on Facebook, but don’t just link to your product pages. Create useful videos and blog posts—content that your fans will find interesting,” he suggests.

And while frequent updates will keep fans and visitors coming to your page for more, Hager recommends restraint: “You don’t want to spam people. If they’re fans of your Facebook site, then they know about you already. You don’t need to oversell somebody who is already there.”

Set Up Shop

“Definitely try and create a unique shopping experience within Face- book,” says John Underwood, chief operating officer of Adgregate, a web technology company that offers Facebook commerce services to re- tailers. “Don’t just replicate your website. List Facebook-only merchan- dise, or first looks or special offers. Make it unique so the sales channel can stand on its own and complement the existing website.” Wintle at Wassookeag only lists his featured and new items, saving his customers time spent flipping through pages and pages of products and making them more likely to buy. “Facebook is only going to post so many of your products, so keep the products you’re most interested in selling in your featured items [page or tab],” he advises. “That way the stuff you really want to get there out in front of folks is on Facebook.”

Kistner at Webtrends suggests beginning with top sellers and items that have “high sociability”—products that people are excited to share with friends. “Facebook is like The Jersey Shore of the social media world,” he explains. “The things that we’re interested in are less about heady, in-depth topics and more about light, fun things. A lot of the things we buy are statements about our identity and that’s the things we like to talk about. They translate really well into the social commerce space.” Brands like Nine West seem to be following this advice—in lieu of listing its entire collection, Nine West sells jewelry and espadrilles on Facebook. These affordable, fun impulse purchases might actually be a perfect fit, since high price point items are often harder to sell on the site, Underwood notes.

In addition to making your store unique, don’t forget to keep it spruced up, with clear photos and accurate product descriptions. Ser- vices like BigCommerce will automatically resize photos from your ex- isting e-commerce site to fit Facebook, and Harper suggests that, “if you don’t have the time or budget to take photos, then ask your suppliers for their photos. Most times they will have high resolution photos you can use.”

Try Advertising

Heyday had been on Facebook for two years when Hager decided to jumpstart the brand’s growth on the site by purchasing targeted Face- book ads. “I had one ad that took followers to our fan page,” he explains. “The week I did that we grew by about 2,000 followers. We had 2,200 followers a month ago, and now we have 5,200.” And although the ads take customers to the brand’s fan page instead of the store, Hager says he’s “seen a lot of conversion” to sales.

“I would recommend implementing the ‘like’ button on your exist- ing e-commerce platform, and using the resulting fans to start crank- ing out targeted ads to those folks and their friends,” Kistner suggests. Hager employs a similar strategy for Heyday: “We have a lot of brand ambassadors that are celebrities, musicians and athletes, so we target them and their fans.” Heyday wearer and rapper Jay Sean is one of the artists Hager’s used to find fans and potential shoppers. “Not only do we target Jay Sean fans, we target his fans’ groups on Facebook, too,” he explains. “You just have to see what works.” Hager also recommends frequently shuffling the look of your ads. “Facebook ads really only have a shelf life of a couple days to a couple weeks, so you have to constantly change them and freshen them up.”

Get a Head Start

While the buzz for social shopping may be building, the marketplace definitely won’t be unseating traditional e-commerce or brick-and- mortar locations anytime soon. According to a two-year study by For- rester Research and Shop.org, “social networks fail to drive meaning- ful revenue for eBusiness professionals in retail, have a questionable return on investment and are generally ineffective as customer acqui- sition tools,” says Sucharita Mulpuru, the study’s author. Yet Cecere notes that Facebook commerce may be reaching its tipping point: in a recent Altimeter Group survey 86 percent of 123 top retailers and manufacturers plan to have a social commerce strategy in place by the end of 2011.

Mulpuru found in her study that Facebook commerce is ideal for small brands looking to establish an online presence as well as local businesses—a fitting description of many footwear retailers. Not to mention, sales may not be brisk on Facebook at the moment, but set- ting up a Facebook shop now is one way to edge out the competition in a relatively untapped area. “Selling online is cheaper, faster and easier than setting up a brick-and-mortar store, and billions of dollars are spent online every week, so the longer you wait the smaller your piece of the pie will be,” Harper notes. —Audrey Goodson

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