When planning your social strategy and investments, it’s difficult to know where to start. Here’s a way to think about and organize your decisions, based on my years of sitting in the purchasing and strategist seat.

First, think about how any social technology will impact the prospect or customer’s “purchase momentum.” There are social technologies that create connections and communities, but the ultimate goal is driving purchases. Evaluate how salient any type of UGC or social participation is for researching, shopping, narrowing, comparing, and building confidence for prospects to buy. The closer the interaction is to a prospect’s “task,” the closer it is to helping people make their purchase decisions.

The importance of the second factor (X axis, below) is something I’ve come to realize after years of change leadership at startups, at Dell, and during the last two years seeing how the right investments in customer dialogue accelerates our clients’ social strategies. This is the depth and speed of acceptance of the proposed social initiative. I call this factor the “cultural momentum” of your initiative, and it relates to how quickly you can build excitement internally, bringing “customer oxygen” into your corporate culture! Let me explain…

Social commerce and user-generated content initiatives are new, unproven, and scary for most companies. However, I’ve seen our clients go from anxiety level “9” to hundreds of employees embracing UGC alerts, review, question, and answer reports, and actively engaging with our community managers every week. The right social initiative can create a halo effect around the whole idea of “social” for your company. If you choose the wrong initiative, though, the “social” activity becomes a fringe activity, destined to be cut.

Executives who start with ratings reviews usually start with high anxiety level, but, when they see that  85% reviews are positive, interest peaks. They start looking at the data and content. They see for the first time — perhaps because it’s now right there on their site — how customers talk about their products. It’s enlightening and relevant because it’s about the products they sell (their day-to-day jobs). The voice of the customer spreads throughout the organization and changes business decisions. It just takes one brand, category, or product manager to share a success story of how UGC changed his strategy, buying, negotiation, or merchandising. That story spreads throughout the organization, senior management applauds, and everyone jumps on board.

To evolve, you have to have this kind of momentum to get buy-in for future social initiatives and experiments. Other people in the company have to get excited about this new strategy, because as your social commerce strategy evolves it will start to tap more functions (and it should). So the first social program you enact should be one that drives this cultural momentum.

When evaluating social technologies and programs, you can plot and debate them on this simple 2×2 matrix:

What drives purchase momentum?

Write down what your customers need before they make a purchase. How do they research, shop, and evaluate? Where do they go, who do they consult, and what information do they need?

Then evaluate the social initiative on its ability to meet those shopping needs where the customer is looking. For online retailers, your customers go to shopping portals, they ask friends questions, they search Google, or they go down the purchase path of your site. Would a social network ”walled garden” on your shopping site help the majority of these customers? Would a blog? You might do those for other reasons, but they’re not in the bulls-eye of helping drive purchase momentum for the majority of customers.

Today, Ratings and Reviews are table stakes for retailers because multiple research studies have found that 70-90% of customers seek or want reviews before purchase. Customer search Google for reviews, and you want to be found. Customers use reviews to sort and filter to determine which product to buy. They need to read some level of negative reviews to feel they’ve ”vetted” the product and done their research. They need an “excuse to buy” with their spouse, and a sound bite from some reviews is as good a justification as any! Customer reviews are very aligned with purchase momentum.

What drives cultural momentum?

Three things drive cultural momentum – that internal “buzz” around social initiatives.

1) Results

The language of a business is the P&L. If your social technology can show results as close to the P&L as possible (i.e., revenue, margin, cost reduction), even the CEO will be interested. Bring your results into a senior executive meeting and they will applaud you in front of their managers and peers.

2) Data

Can you make  customer dialogue data and content useful and accessible to multiple functions in your organization? I get about four emails a week with product ideas from our clients, and the majority of them revolve around our workbench, reports, and alerts. We knew from the beginning that wide use of the customer voice and data is what would drive adoption. It’s what I’ve called the “customer oxygen” that corporations need. It drives wide interest in customer dialogue and UGC.

3) Cross-functional relevance

If you do a program that is just interesting to the online, marketing, or eCommerce teams, you’re missing a huge opportunity to engage merchants, product development, catalog, stores, customer service, training, research, and other departments. Your goal is deep and wide adoption of social marketing, so the program that has utility for other departments will accelerate cultural momentum. We see clients using answers from our Ask & Answer application for training, research, and copywriting. Reviews can be used by store managers and merchandising in email, catalogs, and advertising. The cultural momentum from these three factors increases the interest in the next investment in customer dialogue.

Where there’s ROI and high internal interest, then investment and resources follow. Simply put, that’s why you prioritize social programs that have purchase momentum and cultural momentum!

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