Reaching out

While retailers are wholeheartedly embracing social networking to build brand loyalty and drive new sales, this rapidly expanding and changing science is causing a headache for their IT departments. Richard Thurston reports.

Many retailers - including Burberry, BestBuy and Liberty to name a handful - have developed powerful marketing strategies based around Facebook, Twitter and their bespoke portals, and are closely engaging with new and existing customers to drive ideas and respond to their concerns. Their staff are actively blogging and posting comments to public pages, driving closer customer relationships. Companies are also deploying social networking to drive internal productivity gains.

However, IT departments are becoming increasingly concerned about data leakage and compliance. Despite their extensive technology-led efforts at protecting the network and the information that flows across it, it only takes one member of staff to post the wrong information to a social networking site to cause a commercial and even legislative headache. Furthermore, the information sprawl caused by social media engagement with customers is proving tough to handle. No longer does information sit tidily on an enterprise server.

“There is a lot of take-up and interest in social networking, especially in retail,” says Laurence Buchanan, executive consultant for social CRM and CRM at technology consultancy CapGemini. “But integrating a cross channel (customer) experience is incredibly challenging.”

Buchanan said that IT departments were not always kept in the loop when it comes to businesses - or marketing departments - deciding on a social networking strategy. He said this could lead to functional overlaps and contractual complexities. “It’s a challenge to get handles on what is happening in the business. How does IT get control of IT capabilities that are at the beck and call of a business person?” he says.

Buchanan’s comments illustrate potential friction that can be created by social networking between the IT and marketing departments. While marketers want to be open and engaging with customers, it is natural for IT departments to want to protect data.

One marketer, Kevin Cochrane, CMO at enterprise software vendor Day Software, recognises the problem. “IT has all these management systems and policies in place, and suddenly you see leakages outside those systems. You face a challenge. IT and marketing need to be partners, and at the same time still meet corporate mandates for (information) governance,” he says.

Though Cochrane says there was a happy balance between the needs of IT and the needs of marketing, some retailers’ IT staff may understandably be reluctant to compromise. There are, however, a number of tools that can assist IT departments with managing social networking, while allowing the business to harness it. Day Software, and several other social networking vendors,
provides software that monitors social networking posts made by employees, and flags them up if the message meets certain criteria, such as negativity or crudeness.

There are also a growing number of collaboration tools designed specifically for enterprises that can harness the power of social networking while providing management tools that can be used to control usage.’s Chatter application is one of the leading examples. It works in much the same way as Facebook, allowing a retailer’s employees to connect with each other to form groups with common interests, and to find experts within their company. Like Facebook, it permits status updates, and in addition it allows the sharing of documents and signing up to feeds. Actionable information can also be pulled in from Facebook and Twitter, according to user requirements. Tools like this come with the added benefit of being secure, preventing data leakage, and with
management tools IT departments are likely to be comfortable with.

“CIOs are thinking: how can I use the ideas of social networking to make my organisation more collaborative?” says Tim Barker, EMEA vice president of strategy at “So we created a really high-value social collaboration application that has the same appearance as Facebook and Twitter, but is also secure for your organisation.”

Off The Cuff

While applications like Chatter may be effective at increasing internal productivity, retailers are designing a host of initiatives using publicly available social networking platforms that they themselves host. TM Lewin is a successful example. The clothing retailer has built an online community from scratch, hosted on its website. Called Off The Cuff, it was designed firstly to position the company in the minds of consumers as an authority on business attire, and secondly to engage with both new and existing customers.

TM Lewin has achieved this by encouraging its employees to blog within the community and to reach out to customers on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. Off The Cuff now features short video clips offering fashion advice and an Ask The Experts section where customers can ask questions on clothing styles.
The result of Off The Cuff is that customers are spending 22 per cent more time on TMLewin’s website, the retailer says, and that site visitors that enter the community are twice as likely to buy on their first site visit. Off The Cuff has also turned into an ideas factory for the retailer, with 180 ideas received from would-be customers within just a few weeks. In launching it, TM Lewin has brought within its control discussions which would have otherwise gone unnoticed and unmanaged on Facebook and Twitter, and been able to respond to these. And by hosting the community itself, it has an IT department that is much more in control of the company’s data. That doesn’t make TM Lewin immune to the prospect of workers publicly posting the wrong information, but it does demonstrate that IT departments can operate successfully at the core of a retailer’s social networking strategy.

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