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January 18 2012

Curated Commerce: How Retail Brands Can Cash in on the Latest Craze

John Doyle is VP of digital strategy for Cramer-Krasselt / Chicago. Keep up with him at johndoyle.posterous.com.

As we kick off 2012, one of the most prominent online trends is an increasingly diverse array of content curation platforms. While sites like Digg and reddit have been around for years, a new crop of sites like Polyvore, Svpply and, most notably, Pinterest are allowing people to organize their favorite discoveries from around the web into themed collections that friends and contacts can follow.

Marketers are excited about the trend’s subsequent opportunities, as it appears to be an evolution in online influence. (Consider that Pinterest, with only 5.3 million active users, drives more traffic to Real Simple than Facebook.)

Shoppers are turning to these curated experiences to help filter the Internet’s overwhelming amount of content down to manageable collections of products centered around shared taste. Unless you know specifically what you want to buy (in which case, search is the weapon of choice), browsing curated collections can be the most interesting way to discover new products and retailers. As an example of the power of human curation, just compare the results of a Google search for gloves with the same search on Pinterest. Now ask yourself which search makes you want to buy something?

With a little practice, shopping curated collections can be a lot like shopping in a real-life boutique — a boutique where the goods are selected and stocked to meet the needs of its best customer: you. And because these collections are created by real people (in many cases, friends from within the shopper’s own personal social network), the resulting shopping experience is authentic, powerful and hugely influential on purchase behavior.

The trouble for retail brands? Consumers often prefer curated collections, which tend to be absent of overt branding and promotion. They don’t turn to curated communities to learn about the Gap’s winter line or the latest sale on Macys.com. No, what drives both curators and the consumers who enjoy these experiences is discovering and sharing “products on the verge.”

But that doesn’t mean established brands and retailers can’t leverage this trend and capitalize on the powerful influence curated collections can generate. Try these three ways that brands and retailers can leverage curated commerce.

1. Look for Your Brand ‘In the Wild.’

Just because curated collections don’t often feature bigger brands doesn’t mean these retailers don’t show up at all. And when they do, it presents a huge learning opportunity for brand and store managers to see products in a new context — the way influential tastemakers see you. By understanding which other brands or products surround yours, you may discover a new dimension to your merchandising strategy.

A simple Pinterest search for “Brooks Brothers” yielded this visually rich and focused collection called “Preppy Cool.” Perhaps the Brook’s Brothers site could benefit by creating similar visual appeal, leading customers to purchase items that naturally fit a targeted style preference.

2. Bring the Outside In.

If you find that your brand has been included in a curated collection, take pains to identify the curator, explore past collections and try to gauge her influence and audience. If you can’t find yourself in curated collections, you can still look to identify tastemakers that share your aesthetic or ethos.

Once you’ve identified the right individuals, encourage them to consider adding you to their collections. Better still, invite these curators to create a collection on your owned site and in stores, thus giving them a new platform for expression and self-promotion, and you a fresh take on your merchandising. For an example of a brand that understands the power of bringing the outside in, check out J.crew’s partner-curated collections and brand partnerships.

3. Go Off Property.

Sure, you can curate a collection on your own website or other digital properties, but you’ll tap entirely new tastemakers and audiences by integrating your products within an existing community site. Just be sure not to focus too much on your own brand, or else you risk being labeled a shill and, thus, lose customer-valued authenticity. Your brand should be the garnish on a plate of freshly discovered “products on the verge” — never the main dish.

For example, check out how a few Sephora products benefit from a widened context on this color-themed Svpply.com set.

Leveraging the effects of curated commerce will require extra time, effort and imagination. However, it can have an extremely powerful impact on both shoppers and your brand. When it comes to influencing consumers, the human touch is everything.

Image courtesy of iStockphoto, MarsBars

More About: content curation, contributor, customer engagement, ecommerce, features, Marketing, pinterest

January 17 2012

5 Ways Businesses Can Use Social Media as a Tool for Progress

Riley Gibson is the CEO and co-founder of Napkin Labs, a startup that helps companies discover insights from their fans, followers and customers. Follow Riley on Twitter or check out the company blog.

It seems like everyone talks about the value of social media, but very few businesses take full advantage of it. Think about how you use social media in your personal life — to ask for recommendations or advice from friends, to share photos and moments from your life, and to stay in touch. Very few people act as if they’re automated social media bots. So why do companies?

There’s huge potential for companies to get real on social media, but that means asking customers potentially tough questions: What should the company do next? How should the company improve its products or services? It’s scary, uncharted territory for many, but it’s much more efficient to tap social media than to agonize over expensive surveys and focus groups. Most don’t realize that the most valuable “focus group” is the community that chooses to opt in over social media. These friends, fans and followers want to see you succeed (and have a hand in helping you accomplish success).

Here are the biggest missteps when it comes to using social media as a tool for progress, plus some advice on how to overcome them.

1. Companies Don’t Ask for New Ideas Over Social Media.

Customers love having the opportunity to influence the direction of companies, but they’re unlikely to provide valuable ideas without being prompted first. Companies need to start by proactively posting or tweeting questions that ask for customers’ thoughts on specific product ideas, marketing strategies, or anything else relevant. And when people answer you, dig deeper! Turn any initial feedback you get into a conversation, and try to create something real from the dialogue.

2. Companies Use Social Media for Self-Serving Information.

Since it’s usually the marketing department that controls a company’s social media activity, it’s not surprising that the majority of information companies share over social media is about their own products or services. The problem is that promotional tweets and Facebook posts don’t generate useful conversations with fans. It’s not all about you! Instead, companies should post fun contests, polls, and questions to let their customers know they value their opinion, and that they have a personality.

3. Companies Are Strapped for Time and Labor.

Most companies believe they’d be better at social media conversations with customers if they had more people or time to work on it. While this is probably true, the misstep in this situation is neglecting to realize that effective social media engagement doesn’t have to take a lot of time to be effective. In most cases, those managing social channels just need a bit of direction and focus. Often, just getting together with the marketing, product development or customer service departments can help you set a course that’s both manageable and worth the time and effort.

4. Companies Receive Overwhelmingly Positive Feedback on Social Media.

When I speak with companies about the feedback they get from customers over social media, most are overjoyed by the amount of positive comments they receive. Sure, knowing what you’re doing right can be helpful, but companies need more than positive feedback to help drive progress. For more useful feedback, companies should post and tweet questions that are relevant to specific areas the business explores. Feedback in response to the question “What new watch designs should we offer?” will be more valuable than compliments on how sweet your watch bands and face designs already are.

5. Companies Receive Feedback, Then Nothing Happens.

Usually the people who monitor social media channels within a company aren’t the same people who make decisions about the direction of the company. This means that many valuable ideas that come in through social channels are never even considered. To fully take advantage of social media as a tool for progress, a system needs to be put in place to make sure the ideas coming from customers over Facebook and Twitter are passed along to the appropriate decision-makers. Communication is essential in order that feedback can actually cause change. Also, once customers realize their ideas are being turned into reality, they’ll be more likely to contribute new ideas again.

The good news about social media is that it’s prime real estate for trying out new things and talking to your customers all at once in a way that’s never been possible before.

Ever find yourself violating any of these social media faux pas? What have you done to make your communities more vibrant channels for capturing ideas?

Image courtesy of iStockphoto, ra2studio.

Illustrations by Dana Zemack. To see more of Dana’s stick figure comics, check out her Tumblr and follow her on Twitter.

More About: community, contributor, customer engagement, features, Marketing, Social Media

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January 10 2012

5 Ways Brands Can Use Pinterest to Boost Consumer Engagement

On Pinterest? Follow Mashable to check out our favorite infographics, tech news, internet memes and digital culture!

Constance Aguilar is a social media strategist and account manager at Abbi Public Relations, where she oversees client strategy on social media channels, through traditional media relations and event production. You can follow her on Twitter @ConnieAguilar and read her blog posts at abbipublicrelations.wordpress.com.

The surprise smash-hit social networking site of 2011 wasn’t Twitter, Tumblr or Google+. In fact, it was a site that, even today, is still an invite-only social network. The Palo Alto site Pinterest has skyrocketed into the top ten most visited social networks of the past year and continues to gain traction and popularity.

The image-based platform is a simple enough concept: Users create and name Boards anything they like (Places I’d Like to Visit, Pretty Dresses, My Cookie Creations, etc.) and post relevant photos on corresponding Boards, while categorizing Boards under one of the 32 general Pinterest categories. Users follow one another based on interests, and photos are displayed in a pin board-type feed that is simple, yet visually stunning.

But how can brands and companies utilize this platform to their advantage? Here are five ways to jump on the Pinterest bandwagon to reach an already established female audience and a rising male audience.

1. Contests

Brands and companies can connect and build buzz among their audiences by hosting various types of contests on Pinterest. Contests can range from creating the “Best Board” to a earning the most Repins. Users could post photos of the best outfits they put together or of sculptures built from products bought at a specific store. Similar to photo contests on Facebook or Twitter, Pinterest offers a way for brands to build visually stunning interaction between themselves and their patrons.

2. New Product Approval

When launching a new product, whether a new dress, dinner dish or cellphone, companies want to determine initial reactions to the product’s look and feel. Because of Pinterest’s commenting ability, it’s an ideal platform on which to introduce a new product and gather firsthand opinions. Because Pinterest’s popularity hasn’t reached the caliber of Facebook, brand managers can easily organize, analyze and determine sentiment from the results. As users Repin a photo, brand managers can gather more intelligence, and ultimately decide whether their companies should move forward with mass production. Think of it as a social media focus group.

3. Showcase Brand Personality

For companies that don’t necessarily have product lines to show off, the social networks allows photos to communicate a brand’s personality. For instance, a mayoral candidate could have a Pinterest Board of photos that features his philanthropic outreach and community relations. A magazines can post past and present photos that showcase places it has sent journalists, events it has covered, etc. Each Pin allows for a description and a link to the original story. Therefore, any company can quickly connect an audience with its story, mission and future plans, all via photo Pin.

4. Display Various Sectors of a Company

Larger operations can use Pinterest to nicely organize areas of focus and relay them to the public. For instance, an integrated marketing agency may host several individually themed Boards. One Board showcases photos of its public relations efforts, while a design department Board displays logos and web pages it has created, and a final Board hosts photos of employees in action. These types of organized displays would also allow other businesses to view similar work, effective strategies and innovative teams, making Pinterest a strong B2B community.

5. Creative Communication Between Brands and Customers

Using Pinterest, brands can create Pins and Boards that feature customers’ product interpretations, and then showcase them for entire audiences. This way customers can further relate to products, and brands have a way to thank to their supporters by integrating them into their communities. For example, a clothing company Pins a photo of a shopper in one of its outfits, and writes caption “Brandy A. paired this floral dress with our black lace stockings and brown leather boots to create the perfect fall ensemble.” Brandy feels special because the brand recognized her involvement and creativity, and thus is inspired to return, and the company creates content that keeps fans constantly involved.

Pinterest holds immense potential for brands to interact with their audiences and to visually entice current and potential customers. Using the power of image, companies can create buzz around products, display more in-depth aspects of their businesses, and ultimately create more personal and visually pleasing social experiences for their audiences.

More About: Business, community, contributor, customer engagement, features, gamification, pinterest

January 04 2012

10 Easy Customer Engagement Ideas for Small Business

Scott Gerber is the founder of the Young Entrepreneur Council, a nonprofit organization that promotes youth entrepreneurship as a solution to unemployment and underemployment. The YEC provides young entrepreneurs with access to tools, mentorship, and resources that support each stage of a business’s development and growth.

Business and technology writer Efraim Turban defines customer service as “a series of activities designed to enhance the level of customer satisfaction — that is, the feeling that a product or service has met the customer expectation.”

While customer experience means different things to different people, it is generally about the sum of all the interaction a customer has with a brand or company. That’s a significant difference from customer service, which generally focuses on a single transaction.

All of which begs the question, how do you create a customer experience that sets you apart from the competition and keeps customers coming back? Luckily for you, I recently asked a group of successful young entrepreneurs those very questions.

1. Our Customers Are Our Models

At Sweat EquiTees, we make sure to feature our customers as best we can. After all, they are our life and soul. Since we sell clothing to entrepreneurs, we have our customers send us photos of themselves in their shirts, and then we feature them as “model entrepreneurs” on our website. It’s a fun and engaging way of promoting our customers and showing off our products.

- Benjamin Leis, Sweat EquiTees.

2. Hold a Virtual Party

Everyone loves to attend parties, even more so if they don’t need to dress up and drive somewhere. I’ve held virtual parties where I’m on camera interacting with people via chat, giving away fun tips, making jokes and answering customer questions. Why not make learning fun? I should mention it was Halloween and I was a wearing a witch’s hat!

- Nathalie Lussier, Nathalie Lussier Media.

3. Put the Spotlight on Customers

We like to write about the attendees to our events and their companies on our blog. This makes them happy because we’re spreading the word about their activities. They also feel more engaged and involved with our company in between events, and feel part of a larger community.

- Tim Jahn, Entrepreneurs Unpluggd.

4. Put Money In Your Clients’ Pockets

Once you know who your clients are and what they do for a living, connect them to people who need their services. You can make virtual introductions, but this also works offline. There is no greater compliment you can give a customer than referring someone to their business. If you put money in your clients’ pockets, they’ll keep putting money in yours.

- Robert Sofia, Platinum Advisor Marketing Strategies, LLC.

5. Call Your Customers

Call me old-fashioned, but what could be more engaging than a one-on-one phone call? Try calling some of your customers, even if it wasn’t part of your agreement or the package you sold them. If you spend 10 minutes getting to know a customer, you’ll learn some incredible things about why people buy your stuff. You can also win a fan for life. If you just have to keep things online, use Skype!

- Corbett Barr, Insanely Useful Media.

6. Geocache Scavenger Hunt

I’ve set up a geocaching scavenger hunt for some of my clients to work together as teams and integrate my product while on the hunt. Geocaching uses GPS coordinates to find destinations or hidden objects. This generates a lot of buzz and is a great way to shake-up traditional marketing methods. If you have a product or service, introduce it as a geocache to make some curiosity.

- Vanessa Van Petten, Science of People.

7. Use YouTube

YouTube videos are some of the easiest, least expensive ways to create a fun, engaging experience. Use a Flip video camera, which has easy editing software, to record testimonials from your employees and clients. Upload videos of your team doing unique or entertaining things. Be sure it’s tasteful and your clients will like it.

- Nick Friedman, College Hunks Hauling Junk.

8. Solicit Participation With Contests

Engage your customers with trivia, contests or promotions which require a public response to participate. For example, I ask musicians to share their stories on social media. The best stories shared win free digital distribution to get their music on iTunes, Amazon, etc. The goal is to get the conversation going to reach friends of friends. Costs are minimal and ROI is great.

- Lucas Sommer, Audimated.

9. Make Yourself Accessible

People love feeling like they have access to you whenever they want. If I’m emailing my mailing list, I always try to add a line that says “Anything I can do to personally help you out? Just hit reply.” I always get a lot of responses, and build a much deeper bond with my audience and customers.

- Sean Ogle, Location 180, LLC.

10. Show Your Fans Some Facebook Love

We really love the relationship that we have with our fans and potential customers, so we like to show the world. Every week on our Facebook page, we highlight one of our fans as “Fan of the Week.” This is fun because their love for our company is displayed to our fans, and that person will then share it with their own network.

- Andrew Saladino, Just Bath Vanities.

Image courtesy of Flickr, Kaptain Kobold

More About: community, contributor, customer engagement, customer service, features, gamification, Small Business, YouTube

For more Business coverage:

August 11 2010

HOW TO: Pick the Right Social Media Engagement Style

Social Media Service Image

Matthew Latkiewicz works at Zendesk.com, customer support software. He writes for and edits Zengage, Zendesk’s blog about customer engagement. He also writes about wine for McSweeney’s and imagines stuff at his own website, youwillnotbelieve.us.

What’s your customer engagement style? It’s a question reminiscent of those light-hearted quizzes that proliferate magazines: Are you strong or sassy? Independent or group-focused? When someone @-replies you on Twitter, do you respond immediately or wait a couple days?

These questions are actually important to consider. Why? Because customer engagement encompasses your company’s customer service, support, and marketing. It also deals with your company’s forums, Twitter accounts, blogs and meetups. How various companies use Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, and its ilk, goes a long way to define the long-term relationship consumers have with that brand.

There are some amazing success stories. Old Spice, using both Twitter and YouTube, recently ran a customer engagement masterclass that created a much-needed mania around the brand. Yet, for every success story, there are plenty of flops. When a Domino’s Pizza employee uploaded a disastrous video about the company’s hygiene standards to YouTube, a widespread negative viral campaign ensued.

The lesson: Ensure that your engagement style matches your company’s brand, goals, and general attitude. We took a look at the top five engagement styles that currently dominate the social web. Which are you?

1. The Game Show Host

virgin image

Your message: Winning is sometimes the only thing. We’ve all seen things like this before: “RT – FREE STUFF OVER HERE LINK #welovefreestuff.” This social media personality knows that contests and special offers generate a lot of activity and set up a very clear (if slightly old-fashioned) relationship with the consumer. The consumer follows whatever steps you’ve laid out: Retweeting something, sending in a picture of yourself with company swag, or signing up for a newsletter. Then they are rewarded for taking these steps. Dialogue or community isn’t as important as having consumers hanging around hoping they’ll win something or get a special deal.

How you say it: Giving stuff away or offering deals works well only if you’ve got some trust built up. There are a lot of scams out there and acting like a wacko Twitter user doesn’t instill much confidence that this offer is trustworthy and/or legit.

Who’s it good for? Big companies with big pockets wanting to speak from the perspective of the corporation.

Example: Virgin America. Nearly all of Virgin’s Twitter stream is devoted to special deals and contests.

The bottom line: They keep the voice friendly and light, but also faceless. The brand itself is speaking here.

2. Your Friendly Neighborhood Service Rep

staples image

Your message: Like a good neighbor, you listen to your customers and engage them on an individual level, mostly to solve customer support issues or to capitalize on sales opportunities. You monitor social network channels because “that’s where the customers are,” and if conversations are happening about your brand, you want to be there to participate.

In this engagement style, Twitter is an extension of your customer service reps (albeit in a limited, loose way). Businesses following this style don’t so much start the conversation as they react to the ones that have already started – whether that’s a customer complaining about your brand or a consumer asking a question that your business is well-equipped to answer. You live by co-tweet, the @-reply and direct message.

How you say it: With one friendly “individual” voice. This engagement style calls for a business to officially anoint someone or selected people from within the company to be the official Tweet-voice. Their personality is allowed to come through on some level within company boundaries. Customers need to feel as if they are being handled by an actual human being who is personable, but not too edgy.

Who’s it good for? Larger, consumer-centric businesses, especially service and retail outlets, that have the resources to monitor multiple channels of customer feedback.

Example: Staples. Staples’ Twitter stream is full of @-replies asking for DMs. And they even use little illustrations of the actual people who are sending out those tweets as the background of their Twitter page.

The bottom line: Staples chooses to engage customers on a somewhat personal level; each tweet is “signed” by the person who tweeted.

3.The Beehive

ibm image

The message: We’re all in this together people. Everyone who works for you can be your social network identity. Instead of having an official company account, you encourage all employees to participate in social media networks. Work identities collapse into personal social identities.

In this engagement style, the focus is not so much the direct relationship between consumer and business. Instead, it’s a distributed relationship whereby the business benefits by all the small relationships between its employees and the wider world. This is a radical way of thinking about customer engagement because it’s about cultivating a culture of engagement throughout your entire company.

How you say it: In a wacky, edgy, at times out-of-control voice. Often a company in this style will have a social media policy setting some ground rules and expectations; but the real thing holding this strategy together is a philosophy of engagement.

Who’s it good for? Idea-based companies, large or small. If your business is based on innovation, networking and generating buzz, this is the style for you.

Example: Any number of small software companies, but IBM is one of the most interesting examples of this style. They have an extensive and thoughtful approach to social networking (and computing). They encourage each of their employees to identify themselves on social networks as IBMers.

4. The Community Builder

timberland image

Your message: Always an acquaintance but never a friend. You think of your customers as like-minded folks, and so you build spaces on the social web for them to hang out and share in their like-mindedness. You use Twitter to share non-business related links and quotes that you think your customers will like, but you also keep a slight distance from them in an attempt to let them drive the conversation. You probably use the word ‘movement’ in your Twitter bio.

Oftentimes, a business who follows this style will integrate their Twitter use within other social technologies – blogs (but for strictly non-business news), forums, and even entire websites devoted to the things your community cares about.

The community builder’s goal is to create conversation around things the company cares about and then link that conversation to the brand.

How you say it: With a balanced combination of passion and detachment. You want to encourage your customers to join your movement but you don’t want to either dominate the conversation or make the whole thing feel like it was cooked up by your marketing department. You are going for what people actually care about and so a little humility — making the brand ride shotgun or even in the back — works best.

Who’s it Good For? Businesses whose products and services already target a community with a definable set of values. If your customers and you would have a lot to talk about at a dinner party, this is a good bet for you.

Example: Timberland. They run a community effort called Earthkeepers, a set of initiatives (including social media) devoted to environmental action. As described on its site:

“When you’re an Earthkeeper, you’re part of a community of like-minded people from all over the world intent on doing the little things and doing bigger things, like replanting eroded areas and retrofitting their engines to run on bio fuel. Earthkeepers learn from and support one another through original and inspiring ideas of making the world a more sustainable and livable place. And the more of us there are, the better.”

Note that while the Timberland logo is on the top of the page, it’s not mentioned here. In their tweets they take a more anonymous tone and almost always include a link to something the community might care about (often linking back to the Earthkeeper blog).

5. The Friend

foodcart image

Your message: Every customer interaction is like one amazing high-five. You are the business owner who knows all your customers by name and hangs out with them on the weekends. Your business Twitter account is way more important to you than your personal account (in fact you may not even have a separate personal account – it’s all the same to you).

Businesses in this style will share relevant info like menu updates, new products and event information but will also mix in personal thoughts, jokes and pictures of themselves at work. They tweet about things that have nothing to do with the business per se. These businesses want to their relationship with their customer base to be fluid and up-to-date.

How you say it: Just as you would say something to a pal. Pretty much anything goes, though the more personal the voice the better. Because your engagement with your customer is based on the friendliness of the relationship, the more natural and true to the voice of the person communicating, the better.

Who’s it good For? Smaller, local businesses. This is best when your social media presence mostly extends your face-to-face relationship.

Example: Choose any local restaurant and look at their Twitter account. There are a lot of food carts here in San Francisco like The Creme Brulee Cart which use Twitter to update their customer base as to where they’ll be that day, but you’ll also see messages to customers, friends, and other business owners.

The bottom line: They engage with their customers as friends.

What’s Your Style?

It is important that you think through how you want to engage your customers on Twitter and elsewhere on the social web. It’s important to stay true to your brand but also to make clear the ways in which your customer engagement style furthers the type of relationship you want with your customers and potential customers.

More Business Resources From Mashable:

- Cubicle Spy: At Work with David Berkowitz of 360i [PICS]
- How Online Retailers Can Leverage Facebook’s Open Graph
- How Small Businesses Will Use Social Media In The Future
- 11 Free Services for Scheduling Social Media Updates
- 6 Online Tools for Expanding Your Video Strategy

Image courtesy of iStockphoto, AndyL

Reviews: Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, iStockphoto, timberland

More About: customer engagement, earthkeepers, IBM, List, Lists, staples, timberland, twitter, virgin america

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