By Eric Abensur, CEO, Venda

The commercial potential of social networks for enhancing business is now undeniable. Consumers’ ability to interact with each other during the purchasing process has never been greater.

According to Experian Hitwise, social networks are now sending almost 13 per cent more traffic to online retailers than last year and, more than ever, consumers are using social media to shape the brands they buy.

Moreover, retailers are now becoming more accessible. Social media has enabled retailers to begin to add another thread to the unified shopping experience, by engaging in real conversations with customers and by facilitating customer conversations as they learn from each other.

UK companies have started allocating increasingly bigger parts of their budget to social media and s-commerce (social commerce), and this is growing at an exceptional rate. Many retailers have evolved their offerings from ‘s-commerce 1.0’ (user reviews and ratings) to ‘s-commmerce 2.0’ (integrating social networks into their marketing and shopping channels).

However, for many retailers there’s still scope to take these activities to the next level and, although s-commerce can provide a unique opportunity to engage with customers, many challenges remain.

The reality is that, as the s-commerce arena becomes increasingly packed, it is essential that brands stand out from the crowd. Sites such asFacebook provide some of the tools to create a personalised relationship with customers that helps give a unique shopping experience but companies still need to find creative ways to connect with consumers to keep them engaged and interested in the brand. One way of doing this could be offering exclusive Facebook deals and offers. For example, in October 2010, Tesco initiated its first Facebook flash sale and saw users who “like” its Facebook page soar from 500 to 40,000 in only a week.

Retailers also need to provide their online fans with regular exclusive access to unique content so that they have a reason to log onto their companies’ social media channels. Once engaged, social channels can generate real-timefeedback that can be used by a retailer to improve overall positioning, offers and promotions and flag any problems customers might be experiencing.

The plethora of social networks can be confusing, not only to consumers, but also to the retailer. Brands will have to monitor social media platforms and define which ones fit their positioning and deliver their message best,whether this is Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn or Google+ (or indeed all of them). Equally, multi-national brands should be aware that these networks are not ubiquitous across the globe (e.g. in China “Sina Weibo” is more popular than Twitter).

Similarly, customers need to know where to go to access a brand online and it is essential for a retailer to cross-promote its social channels via its traditional retail channels - such as people signing up to newsletters in stores and having the company’s social connection information on its website. Emma Bridgewater, the innovative British pottery company, is a good example of a company that successfully used its newsletter to get people to sign up to its Facebook page and Twitter feed, so that it could fully engage directly with its loyal customer base.

S-commerce and social marketing can also provide an abundance of data around an individual’s buying habits. This can be used to ensure the right product is targeted to the right customer at the right time and so it is a potential gold mine for companies. Already retailers are tapping into this by allowing their customers to add products to their Facebook pages for purchase by others, through gift suggestions or recommendations.

Yet privacy concerns still remain a spanner in the works. More than ever, people are wary of their privacy settings, with many limiting what they share withothers online. There is a lack of trust over what brands do with customer data, which needs to be addressed and it is often not clear who owns the data — the social media channel or the business.

The ubiquity of connected devices is often a driver for s-commerce as well. The challenge lies in the utility apps. Users are deleting more than half of downloaded apps within the first month, so retailers have to focus on functionality in order to engage their customers in the long run. Mobile should act like the “glue” between the offline and the online world as it offers an intimate and personally relevant customer experience. Many shoppers use devices such as smartphones while shopping in store to discover product information, read reviews and compare prices and message friends for opinions so brands that neglect mobile offerings do so at their own peril.

Overall, the huge promise around s-commerce and social marketing is slowly turning into a reality. It is a potentially lucrative channel that needs retailers to push the boundaries of marketing,selling and technology to reap the benefits. Retailers need to evolve from ‘s-commerce 1.0’ to ‘s-commerce 2.0’ for a more holistic approach and to integrate this as part of an overall convergent multi-channel strategy. Only by fully embracing s-commerce (within a wider e-commerce and m-commerce strategy), can brands foster meaningful and personalised engagements and reap its full rewards. Join us on
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