Retailers Should Rethink Promotional Content to Maximize Social Engagement

Retail brands have always been hard-hitters when it comes to social media.

The industry's often visual and lifestyle-based content lends itself well to opportunities for social engagement. However, retailers often focus too much of their social efforts on pushing promotions rather than developing content and conversations that foster meaningful customer relationships. In fact, the Q4 2015 Sprout Social Index found that while about 40 percent of messages received by retailers warrant a response, only 17 percent-or about 1 in 6-actually receive one.

Unfortunately, this imbalance often leads to people disengaging with a brand. Promotional messages can be much more persuasive if brands cultivate relationships with their customers first. According to Rosetta Consulting, people are seven times more likely to respond to a brand's promotions after that brand interacts with them in some meaningful way.

According to our Index data, the retail industry sees 19 percent more messages across Facebook and Twitter than it did a year ago. So the demand is increasing, yet most retailers are stuck in broadcast mode and missing their opportunity to participate with customers on social. Here's why:

1. They straight up ignore people on social. Eighty-three percent of brands don't respond to customer questions on social, while the rest wait an average of 12 hours before responding.

2. They prioritize promotions over customer service. Instead of addressing people's concerns, retail brands send out three times as many promotional messages-deals, coupons and product merchandising-as they do helpful responses.

3. They misplace their social attention. While retailers are sending three times more messages on Twitter, incoming messages to retailers on the site have trended downward while messages on Facebook have increased.

Promotions are a necessary part of any retail strategy-and they do have a place on social-but it's time to take a hard look at the proportion of effort and resulting engagement, or lack thereof, when it's the bulk of created content. Stronger customer relationships and repeat business is fostered by understanding their wants, preemptively meeting their needs and responding through the right channels in a way that is thoughtful and authentic.

For many brands, this means redefining the term "social listening" and potentially allocating more resources to active monitoring and responding. It's important to employ staff dedicated to monitoring and responding to inquiries on social-and to equip them appropriately. Lacking the right social media tools is akin to a brick-and-mortar location operating short-staffed and without a point-of-sale (POS) system. When shoppers don't receive the attention they need from a brand, regardless of the channel, they'll turn their backs and turn to competitors.

Appropriately allocated staff and the right technology in place gives marketers better opportunities to listen to what customers are saying about their brands, their category and their competitors-and respond accordingly and in real-time. By actively listening to what people are discussing, marketers gain important insight into their preferences and priorities. Discussing those preferences and priorities and building a rapport leads to trust and loyalty, the very components that makes promotional messages matter.

It's crucial that brands understand where their customers are most vocal. Social monitoring enables brands to stay on top of industry trends, which can help shape marketing and product development efforts in the future. Conversations happen on a number of networks and, while prioritizing Twitter is natural, it may not always be the best platform to reach the people who require a response. Some shoppers might prefer Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest for expressing concerns or starting conversations, so it's imperative to be present and persistent in improving response rates on the platforms of choice for your community.

While it's natural for retailers to adopt a promotional stance on social, remember that many customers view and use social as a viable customer service and communication channel. Only when brands have gained the trust of shoppers through active monitoring and engagement will promotional content have the maximum impact it may very well deserve.

Andrew Caravella is vice president of marketing at Sprout Social, a leading social media management and engagement platform for business. He leads a team that creates and delivers relevant, engaging content and conversations through multiple forms of media and technology.