MT Expert - IT: Using technology to attract social shoppers

Shopping online is a social activity - and smaller retailers can now cash in too, says Mark Elwig.

Social networking has turned us into a nation of sharers. We Twitter our thoughts, upload our photos to Flickr and keep everyone up-to-date on our news on Facebook. Culturally, it’s now completely normal to spend time online sharing your thoughts and ideas with people you might not even know.

Just in time for Christmas and the usual shopping frenzy, this compulsion to share is reinforcing some useful behaviour that benefits online retailers. Product reviews and user ratings help other people feel more comfortable about buying the same products online. They fall under the heading of ‘user generated content’, which typically means free content that also helps improve a web retailer’s natural search ranking. All good stuff.
Alongside the now fairly well established convention of looking online at price comparison sites to research the best deals, retailers are set to incorporate these social media-influenced elements into online shopping. Shopping gurus Verdict Research have stated in their tips for 2010 that ‘retailers who try to win on price alone will be left behind’. The era of experience-based ‘social shopping’ has arrived.

Nielsen carried out a survey of 26,486 internet users in 47 markets which revealed that consumer recommendations are the most credible form of advertising (empirical proof of something that we all kind of knew anyway). And yet 73% of online retailers are yet to incorporate any kind of reviews into their sites (according to Forrester). That is surely set to change.

Creating space for a community to take hold online is part of the new mantra for successful online retailing. But it takes resources. Businesses of all sizes are competing for their share of user time and loyalty online. Giving people space to share their views and reviews is a great way to give them a sense of ownership and cement that relationship.

Community is also a great leveller. Small and niche can feel very knowledgeable - consumer electronics brings out the geeky reviewer or needy customer in us all. If you want proof from a local player, UK retailer IT247, which specialises in IT infrastructure and business computers, has jumped in to enable customer reviews with complete conviction.

As an aggregator of other retailers’ content, we have tried to help level the playing field by giving away the technology that allows smaller retailers to include reviews on their sites. This isn’t complete altruism – remember the user-generated content? The reviews that will be generated as a result will enrich the experience for our entire community. Shopping as a social phenomenon is not a new idea, but online, it’s heading in a different direction. Its unique properties deserve to be recognized and are crying out to be exploited.

Mark Elwig is Head of Merchant Services at UK

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