This week I am at Blog World in Las Vegas– in light of the event and the upcoming webinar my company blueKiwi Software will be hosting on social business for retail with speakers Esteban Kolsky, Principal with ThinkJar and customer Laurence Mayer of Corporate Training for Louis Vuitton–I interviewed Doug Stephens, President of Strategy Consultancy Retail Prophet Consulting.
Doug Stephens is thought by many to be one of the world’s only retail industry futurists. He’s worked with some of North America’s best known retailers and brands including Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Hudson’s Bay Company, Disney, Loblaw and Benjamin Moore. Prior to founding Retail Prophet Consulting Doug spent 20 years in retail holding senior international roles, including the leadership of one of New York City’s most iconic retail chains. Doug is the author of Retail Prophet’s Shift 2020 Retail Trends Report and a member of the Retail Wire Brain Trust. He is also founder of the Retail Prophets industry think-tank and a Contributing Blogger to Technorati’s business channel. In addition, Doug sits on the advisory board of the Location-Based Marketing Association. Check out our interview to learn more about external community management, social business and the future of retail!
Blake Landau : Doug you have told me before it’s a mistake to build communities on Facebook. Why do you think this is the case?
Doug Stephens: In the short-term, I don’t necessarily think it’s a mistake for brands to build communities within Facebook. For many brands, a Facebook page serves as a good introduction to what hosting a community is all about. And I know given Facebook’s growth that it seems counterintuitive that brands should look elsewhere but in the longer term I do foresee the need for brands to establish communities outside Facebook for few reasons;
Firstly, when brands put money into developing a presence on Facebook, they’re really contributing to building the assets of Facebook – not their own. When they drive traffic to their page, they’re adding to the richness of Facebook’s database, not their own. They are simply the curator of something that Facebook ultimately owns. I think brands will slowly awaken to this and begin to look for ways to better allocate those assets.
Secondly, as branded Facebook pages become increasingly ubiquitous, I think companies will seek to create greater levels of differentiation. The only way to achieve this will be through developing their own branded communities. There will be a more exclusive feel to many of these communities, in contrast to the communal feel of Facebook. They will likely represent consumers who consider themselves a step above merely being a Facebook fan of a given brand.
Lastly, I think building a social community outside Facebook makes a stronger statement about both the brand and the consumers that join it. It signifies the desire to offer and engage in a somewhat deeper and perhaps more meaningful relationship or dialogue.
The ultimate goal should be to create a branded social experience that has such high perceived value that consumers would literally be willing to pay to belong to the community. If you can get to that level, you’ve really created something remarkable. Look at it this way; People pay to get into Disney World for a reason.
Having said all that, I do feel that Facebook can and will continue to serve as one of many access points or paths into these branded communities. It’s still a great place to initiate Consumer interest in your brand.
BL: What do you think is the future of the retail industry as it relates to purchasing patterns?
DS: We’re at a really interesting point right now in North American retail. We’ve essentially come to the end of an era – that was sort of sped to its conclusion by the recession.
For about the last 30 years retailers have been able to count on relatively steady and robust demand across a massive and homogenous consumer base – the baby boomer family. When you add a historic level of credit spending into the equation it was like rocket fuel for retail.
All signs are pointing to the beginning of a very different looking period, where demand is increasingly less predictable, consumer preferences more fleeting and customer segments smaller and more diverse. There’s no one consumer group that constitutes the bulls eye anymore.
I think we’ll continue to see growth in both the super-luxury and super-discount segments but a widening value gap in the middle. And all consumption will be more thoughtful than we’re accustomed to.
BL: Why do you think social business will be important to the retail community?
DS: For the same reasons social business was important 200 years ago. Social business isn’t new. If the village shoe maker wanted to stay in business he needed to understand the needs and preferences of his customers. He also needed to know first-hand what made them happy. In turn, his customers would either spread positive or negative word of mouth. None of that has changed it’s only been digitalized. The mass media era, beginning around the 1920’s was really just a fad – a blip that lasted less than a century. In every other time in history, businesses succeeded by connecting personally with their customers. We’re simply returning to that.
BL: In your opinion is it important to have a customer engagement strategy and collaboration strategy on the same platform?
DS: Yes. You may recall through 1990’s companies everywhere were preaching the benefits of employee empowerment and connecting every employee to the needs of the customer. Unfortunately, very few companies could actually execute against that rhetoric.
A social business strategy that places internal collaborative systems at the center of the customer community achieve this implicitly. Every employee can then be connected to both the needs of their consumer and also to the internal collaborative process in meeting those needs – there can even be points of cross-over where customers become co-collaborators. This requires enormous trust on the part of companies in their people.
BL: Are retailers ready to buy social business software platforms?
DS: Like everything else, I see a real spectrum of understanding and comfort in the retail community with respect to social marketing. Early adopters like Best Buy and Starbucks are already there. For many others, a branded Facebook page is still a daunting idea.
Statistically anyway, the majority of major brands surveyed indicate that they’ve at least made social marketing a budget item for 2011 but I doubt that a high percentage are far enough along the curve to consider developing their own communities outside facebook. Like most things however, when it hits the inflection point it will tip quickly. The goal for all brands will be to own the best social experience in their category and I don’t believe that can be achieved without taking ownership of the platform.
For more on Doug Stephens you can reach him at www.retailprophet.com