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Editor's Comment: Can retailers ever drive sales in 140 characters?

Keely Stocker

As Twitter turned 10 this week, it was interesting to look back and see not only how the platform has changed, but also how retailers’ attitudes towards social media have evolved.

Brands and retailers gradually built up their engagement with Twitter. sent its first tweet (“How sizzling is Jessica Alba – and her white dress? – in the Campari Calendar?”) back in December 2008, Marks & Spencer in May 2009 (“So excited to finally be on Twitter with all you lovely people. Let your friends know where to find us! #marksandspencer #M&S”), while John Lewis was a relative latecomer in October 2010 (“Hello and welcome. John Lewis is now on Twitter! Please follow us for news, views and details from Britain’s favourite retailer”). I’m pleased to say @Drapers was also one of the first adopters in the fashion sector, launching an account in July 2008, although the first tweet (“@Drapers is about to move desk!”) was perhaps not quite as thought through.

A recurring question over the last decade has been: how should businesses use Twitter and why? Is it just to drive brand awareness or can it generate sales? Many shoppers now turn to Twitter for customer service. Users tweet their questions and complaints, and expect retailers to respond quickly and efficiently. As many retailers and brands have found, it is also the quickest way to gauge reaction (particularly when it is bad) to any new campaign or product. In recent weeks, young fashion chain Forever 21 removed a men’s T-shirt with the slogan “Don’t say maybe if you want to say no” from its website, and Asos removed a T-shirt emblazoned with the word “Slave” from its Marketplace site, both following a backlash on Twitter.

Twitter may not be around in 10 years’ time, but for now it is still a dominant force in the social media world

The Twittersphere has become a key platform for the industry in many other ways, from new collection launches, to debates (who can forget #thedress from Roman Originals?), coverage of fashion weeks and news. Last Sunday, as visitors were evacuated from the Westfield London shopping centre after a fire alarm, Twitter was alive with the latest updates. At the last London Fashion Week, Topshop collaborated with Twitter to launch the #livetrends real-time campaign, where billboards were set up near Topshop stores, and the retailer tweeted from the front row and recommended collections with similar trends to buy immediately in store. 

Other retailers are now looking at how to take social platforms to the next level. In its “Oasis My Way” campaign, Oasis uses the hashtag #OasisFashion to pull photos and videos from social channels into a gallery on its homepage. Technology from visual marketing platform Olapic allows Oasis to tag the products so users can shop straight from the images. It’s just one way of generating sales from a social platform.

So what next for Twitter? Despite speculation over the years that its appeal will reduce, Twitter users are still very active. However, it still doesn’t seem to have answered that initial question: from a business perspective what should it be used for? So far, it has failed to become a core sales channel. Crucially, it must continue to excel at its USP: providing immediate, short bites of information and contributing to the reach of campaigns. Retailers that know their audience and get this strategy right – with an engaging hashtag to match – can use Twitter to reach a vast audience, and enhance their customer service experience.

Consumer habits change and new social players are coming to the market, so Twitter may not be around in 10 years’ time, but for now it is still a dominant force in the social media world.


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