Social Guru: Culture’s Ryan Newton discusses the power of social media for retail

With Covid-19 rocking the retail industry into uncertainty, social media has become an extremely helpful tool for elevating brand presence and driving sales. Here we talk to Ryan Newton, general manager at social-led agency Culture, about the value of social strategy for a business’s success, and how to use each platform to the best of its ability. 

Would you say social media is more useful than traditional media when it comes to retail?

I wouldn’t say it’s more or less useful, I think they serve very different roles. Traditional gets your message out there, normally a sales message, really wide to the masses. I think it’s also good for brand positioning and building brands over time, which then leads to sales down the line. 

But I guess a limitation with traditional is it’s very one dimensional and that’s normally shouty when it comes to retail. With social for retail, it allows you to show off different parts of your business and communicate that to different audiences. Social allows you to be hyper targeted, which makes it cost effective, so you can be present more often with messages to different audiences. But, socials biggest strength when it comes it retail, is really in conversion, and connecting social to your online store.

What’s it been like running social for some of new Zealand’s biggest brands like Rebel Sports and Briscoes?

I think we’re pretty fortunate to work with those brands. They’re two of New Zealand’s biggest retail brands, they’ve got such a presence, and are such a big success story who continue to perform year after year. We’re also fortunate they really believe in the power of social media and there’s also a large element of trust there as well. 

They trust us to bring our expertise to the table and make a real difference to their business, which we’ve done for them. Briscoes and Rebel Sport are big retailers, so promotional activity is a really important part of what we do for them. Pretty much every weekend they have a big sale on so our job is getting those messages out there to the country. But then we do a lot with showing their products in different ways to drive inspiration and engagement. It’s a really close working relationship, there’s no red tape as we have access to their suppliers and their buyers. So it’s quite different to a traditional agency, where the relationship would have lots of layers or hoops to jump through. 

How important has social strategy been for retail during times of Covid-19?

I think it’s incredibly important, mainly because it allows brands to pivot their communication strategy and get their messages out there really quickly. And you can’t do that with any other channel, definitely not any sort of mass media channel. Thinking back to that first lockdown that we had, which was pretty severe for the whole country, in particular retail, we did a lot of social listening for the brands that we look after so we could see what people were saying. And then when essential items became available for sale, it was something we could switch on really quickly. 

We had a number of different messages out there talking to different audiences, encouraging them to purchase those essential items, and to keep the brands in market. The customer service element of social also really came into its own during that lockdown. The days of picking up the phone or writing emails to customer service are quickly disappearing, they just go straight to social channels and then ask questions directly through the chat option, which really skyrocketed during that lockdown. 

For the brands that couldn’t sell or advertise products during that period, what they could do was continue to stay present in people’s mind, so that when they could start selling again they’re top of mind and people are going to choose them over their competitors. 

For the most recent lockdown, social has provided the flexibility to have different campaigns in markets; one for Auckland, and one for the rest of the country.

How valuable is social in regards to e-commerce, particularly leading up to heavy sales periods like Black Friday and Labour weekend.

Social is a great conversion tool to get people to visit a brand’s website and buy their product, but it’s also great at just raising awareness, general commerce and driving people to the store. You can also do a lot with competitions or games, which allows you to understand the kind of products or the mindset that people have, so you can retarget to those people. 

You can use influencers as well, which gets people excited, cranks up participation and drives them into store. Social is also a lot more cost effective and allows you to be at market for a lot longer. You can start to tease content a lot earlier before the actual sale is on and then have a long tail to it as well.

What are some of the worst social media practices you’ve seen and how do you think agencies can avoid them? 

The first one that comes to mind is not using the platform correctly. And the biggest thing there is you occasionally see a TVC or a busy flyer that someone’s put up on social, and they think it’s going to really resonate with the people that are on those platforms, but it really need to be social-first content. I guess a good example of that is when radio first came out, people on radio, just read the newspapers. And then when TV came out, they started having radio shows on TV.

It takes a little while for people to understand how to use the platforms to the best of their ability. Facebook has been around for 15 years, and people know how the platform works, but you still see the odd piece of content pop up that’s not fit for the platform. Another thing to remember is that it’s a two way conversation, where your audiences are going to engage with posts. You often see questions or comments from consumers that are left unanswered by brands. It’s important to make sure that you are engaging with people on social platforms, to develop that relationship.

What social platforms do you think would work best for retail? What advantages to each of the platforms have in comparison to each other?

Facebook and Instagram would be the main ones because that’s where the masses are. Around 67 percent of Kiwi’s have Facebook accounts, so they have the reach. The advantages of both Facebook and Instagram, really are their targeting ability. You can target niche audiences which makes it really cost effective for getting the message out. These two platforms are also well ahead of other platforms in terms of the social commerce space, making it easier for people to buy.  

In terms of age demographic, there’s crossover, but typically Facebook’s a little bit older and Instagram, has a slightly younger audience. Instagram is definitely more of an inspiration type platform whereas Facebook’s a bit more educational. 

The other platform everyone’s talking about at the moment is TikTok, which is really popular with Gen Z in particular. It’s an authentic platform and I haven’t seen any brands really crack it. Ultimately it’s around how you can get your message out there in a really engaging and natural way. 

What are three top tips you would give for elevating retail through social? 

I think protect the channel, first of all. You don’t want it to become a mass awareness channel where you are shouting the whole time. Really think about what your audience wants and what the platform can do, and then try and create content around that. It doesn’t need to be a hard sales message the whole time, it could be other types of content which might inspire or educate, which is going to lead to a sale. In saying that, retail is all about sales, so any product or sales messages you do post, try and make it as easy as possible for people to buy using the platform functionality like ad formats or product tagging. 

How do you see retail, through social media, evolving within the next ten years? 

Ten years is a long time and it changes so quickly in the social space. I think the interesting thing is going to be what new platforms come along, capture the attention of people and then force the other platforms to die or to adapt. You look at how Snapchat introduced Stories and the other platforms changed their experience, or TikTok, who have shaken up the social space, and caused things to change again.

How Social Commerce evolves is going to be really interesting. At the moment, you can’t actually buy within the social platforms, but how they make it as seamless as possible so that can happen will be really interesting and will be a game changer.

And then I think, with 5G coming along, just what that’s going to do for digital in general, and in particular AR and how that’s going to impact retailers. Think about a Nike shoe, with AR, you could select this then see how that shoe looks on your foot automatically and then buy straight away from within the platform. AR with the social platforms will be big and make a real difference to retail.

Ryan Newton is General Manager at Culture

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