Cotton On is one of Australia's best known fashion brands, and it is growing like crazy.  

It also has ambitious targets for ecommerce, so to drive more online sales Cotton On has invested heavily in its social media presence.  So how does social help build the brand?

Cotton On is one of the fastest growing retailers in Australia. Sales for Cotton On Group (COG) have been growing 20% per year for the past five years and revenue is projected to reach A$1.5bn this year. And COG plans to open 570 stores around the world over the next two years taking the total to almost 1,900.

A significant amount of that growth is projected to come from online sales, A$250m annually. To help hit that target, Cotton On, the group's apparel brand, is active on many social channels.

Let's have a look at some of its strategies.

Website

As with other social media strategy reviews, the brand website is a good place to start. The reason is that a brand can be very creative on its own digital property and really show off its personality.

Typically, brands put social icons on the front page of their site to indicate that they are active on social media and to help users get there.

Not so with Cotton On. This website is all business. There's not a bright blue 'F' or little bird to be seen anywhere.

I think there are two reasons for this. First off, it's possible that Cotton On has paid for you to get there so the last thing it wants you to do is to click away to a social network.

But also, everyone already knows that Cotton On is on social media. There is no need to tell people this any longer, and I expect other brands will soon remove the social icons soon too.

Another interesting thing about the site is that Cotton On serves up an interstitial page the first time you visit. It is full-screen and asks for your email address and personal info.

And you see the same offer again when you, inevitably, close the interstitial.

This is interesting. Most apparel sites focus on branding first and leave ecommerce as almost an afterthought. Cotton On, however, makes it clear from the start that its focus is getting you to buy something online.

Lessons from the website: If you're paying for clicks and already have a social following, then think about removing the social icons from your site.

So without an ordered list on the website, I'll cover Cotton On's social presence in order of numbers of fans.

Facebook

Unsurprisingly, Cotton On's Facebook page has more fans (650,000+) than any of its other channels.

Facebook is very popular in Australia and having good reach on the platform will help Cotton On achieve its ecommerce goals. It's a home base for content with attractive and shareable product shots, offers and branded videos.

And the photos Cotton On posts all have a photo and a link back to the relevant portion of the site.

Notice however the shortened link in each post which looks a bit out-of-place (http://ow.ly...).

The reason this is there is that the posts are 'photo posts' and do not have an embedded link. To link the posts to the website the text needs to include a somewhat unsightly link.

The simple way around this is to post the link into your status and then manually change the photo, headline, and text copy. Here is an example of this from another Australian retailer, Coles.

Notice how it looks cleaner without the link in the text, but still encourages the user to click to the site.

The downside of doing this, however, is that your photo dimensions are smaller on link posts. On a photo post you will get a 1:1 square (470 pixels square on desktop) but on a link post you only get 470px wide by 352px high. So there is a trade-off.

Another interesting aspect of Cotton On's Facebook page is that it also has content about its customer community, not just product photos and videos.

Here are two examples, one about a local artist and another showcasing community-generated Instagram photos.

I also noticed that Cotton On gives social media 'office hours' at the top of the page and its social media team actively monitor and respond to customers who post enquiries on the Facebook page. The social media team seem to be making a big effort in this area and respond rapidly and personally.

Some people seem to take advantage of this feature by posting their own, unrelated content, but thankfully Facebook gives page admins the ability to hide these posts to reduce clutter.

Lessons from Facebook: Facebook can be a lot more than a place to post product photos. Community support and customer service work well here too.

Instagram

Cotton On has 430,000 followers on Instagram making it the brand's second most popular social channel by fans.

But if you look at engagement perspective, Instagram is by far its most popular network. Whereas Cotton On's Facebook posts tend to get a handful of likes and shares, the brand's photos on Instagram typically gain more than 5,000 likes.

This is partially because Cotton On does Instagram well. The photos on its feed are unique and suited to the channel. And everyone likes to like cool photos of clothes and models.

But just as important, Instagram has the right audience for its products. Young people typically are the largest purchasers of clothing and Instagram's audience is younger than Facebook's. So even with a difference of 200,000 followers, there are far more people who are likely to 'like' Cotton On's products on the channel.

One issue with Instagram now though, is that it is tough to measure how engagement translates into sales. The issue is that Instagram only offers brands one clickable link - in the profile. And as Cotton On aims to grow its ecommerce business, being popular on a channel which can't deliver traffic isn't so useful.

To get over this problem, Cotton On are using a service (Like2B.uy) which helps the brand capture clicks and measure revenue from Instagram. The service does this by republishing Cotton On's Instagram feed and linking each post to the appropriate product page. Quite clever.

But with the roll-out of Instagram ads globally soon, I do wonder whether the platform will offer clickable links on posts and make this service redundant.

Lessons from Instagram: Great if you have a young audience, but beware that measuring ROI on this channel is tricky - for now.

Twitter

With 25,000+ followers, Twitter is Cotton On's third most popular social channel.

The content here is repeated from Facebook, and by examining the Twitter payload we can see that Cotton On is using Hootsuite to post across multiple networks.

Though I don't see this as a problem, I think that cross-posting may lead to missed opportunities. Sure brands need to get a clear and consistent message out across all social channels but what works on Facebook may struggle on Twitter, and vice versa.

And there is clear evidence of this phenomena on Cotton On's Twitter feed. Product shots have very low user engagement and even great brand shots only have a few favorites and retweets.

But when Cotton On was mentioned by a celebrity, who also has a large following, the Tweet had 36 retweets and well over 100 favorites.

Of course star power helped here, but the distribution of that message was far greater than any of the product shots.

It's not all negative here though. Cotton On also has an active customer service desk on Twitter and from the payload we can see that the team uses Zendesk to manage this.

Finally, I see that Cotton On is favoriting a lot of other people's Tweets. Most of these mention Cotton On and it's a nice way to say thanks for the mention.

What Cotton On doesn't do though, is follow many other Twitter users. As a result, it may be missing out on opportunities to interact with people who don't mention Cotton On by name.

Lessons from Twitter: Reposting content across networks may not be an ideal strategy. But direct customer engagement is another way to use Twitter effectively.

Pinterest

And finally, Pinterest. Here Cotton On has 3,700 followers making it the least popular of the apparel brand's social networks.

And you'd think Pinterest would work well for Cotton On. The photos are larger there than on other networks and, unlike Instagram, the posts can be linked directly to the appropriate product page via the "Visit site" button.

And Pinterest has just let everyone know that it's not a small social media platform. It now claims to have 100m monthly active users.

Now, Pinterest does let businesses pay for promotion. And that might make sense for Cotton On as 67% of Pinterest's audience is under 40. But until evidence emerges about other brands being successful on the platform, it may be better to focus on the more successful channels.

Lessons from Pinterest: It seems Pinterest is growing, but engagement is so low that it may be better to focus on other channels.

In conclusion...

Cotton On aims to be a global clothing brand and grow its ecommerce business at the same time. To do this, using social media for distributing product shots and offers appears to be a big part of its strategy.

Facebook and Twitter help Cotton On to promote its products to some extent and it has great visual content. It seems though that the brand is better at direct customer engagement on these channels than it is on content distribution at the moment.

Cotton On's brand shines brightest on Instagram, but at the moment I suspect that it's quite hard to capture much ecommerce traffic there, for now.

Pinterest seems to be a non-starter at the moment but, as with the other channels, paying for distribution may help.

Jeff Rajeck

Published 22 September, 2015 by Jeff Rajeck

Jeff Rajeck is the APAC Research Analyst for Econsultancy . You can follow him on Twitter or connect via LinkedIn.  

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