Marks & Spencer’s online strategy has gone through a variety of changes in recent months. As well as revamping their main website, the British retail giant has embraced social media by incorporating ratings and reviews into their website, and using Facebook and Twitter to join the conversation and better engage with customers. 

It is encouraging to see a major brand like M&S experimenting with new online channels. By incorporating social media into their strategy, Marks & Spencer has enhanced its ability to respond to customers. Additionally, the brand is better placed to manage their online reputation more effectively.

At a recent iCrossing social media briefing, I asked Business Development Manager, Sienne Veit about the changes that Marks & Spencer has implemented and the impact of social media on the brand. 

What are some of the social media techniques that Marks and Spencer uses to engage its customers and which have proven to be the most successful?

The social media platform we use will depend on the issue and what we are trying to achieve. We use reviews for product-led customer feedback, Facebook for community building and rich media and Twitter for promotions, notifications and an instant feedback.

As a business, we have been engaged in conversations with our customers for all of our 125 years, from store discussions with customer assistants, to the many letters, phone calls and e-mails we receive everyday. Really, what we are now doing is moving that conversation along technologically, to where our customers are now having their conversations: Facebook, Mumsnet, YouTube, Flickr, Twitter or wherever they may be online.

What are some of the biggest challenges that Marks & Spencer faces in the social media arena?

Adapting the way we work to get the best out of social media channels, being responsive and also ensuring that we are consistent in our response. These are challenges in a large business such as ours, but we are learning as we go and constantly making changes to our business processes. 

We recognise that this is core to how we do business, and that it is not just an ‘e-commerce thing’ which is the responsibility of a small, isolated team.

Who takes responsibility for managing and monitoring social media channels? Where does it sit within the organisation?

We have a core group of individuals across a range of business functions who manage our social media using a common set of guidelines and systems, but the strategy and day to day management is centrally managed by the M&S Direct team, mainly because this is where the core skills currently sit. 

Marks & Spencer is a brand that can polarise many consumers. As a brand, what is the best way to deal with negative commentary? 

Firstly, we wouldn’t agree with the statement that M&S polarises customers, on the contrary, it tends to be a brand that unites customers. No more is this evident than across social media where we often see our community self-manage and stopping individuals from stepping out of line. 

Of course, no customer-facing brand is without issues though and we have always been open to our customers’ honest views, positive and negative, because they are in valuable to us as a business and help us improve our products and service. 

Right at the start of our entry into social media, we agreed on a common set of moderation guidelines and escalation procedures so that when we do need to act, everybody is clear about what needs to be done. We tend to leave negative comments as long as they are not directed at an individual or harmful.

Following on from that, the recent “Busts for Justice” campaign demonstrated the power of social media. As a brand, what did you do to address the negative publicity, and what did you learn from the experience? 

Most importantly, we admitted we got it wrong and turned it around. This was right before we set up our Facebook and Twitter pages, now when customers do want to engage with us and lobby for improvements, alongside the traditional customer service routes, they also have the social media space to do so.

However, social media is so vast, that our advice is to actively monitor community conversations and respond to them in good time, before they start to build momentum.

What are your views on paying bloggers to post?

We’ve not yet paid for any bloggers, but our approach would not be any different from what applies to advertorial in the traditional press: it is OK to have paid for content as long as the author/publication makes this clear. Consumers demand transparency and social media make it very easy for consumers to get to the truth of any matter.

How did you use social media to analyse the effectiveness of Marks & Spencer’s recent site relaunch?

We used a Facebook discussion group for qualitative feedback, but we also monitored any mentions of our new site across the web, especially site reviews by new media industry bloggers. We used this to measure overall satisfaction, but also to get specific areas for improvement that we can add to our rolling list of stuff to work on.

We found the response and the specific feedback tremendously useful and incredibly detailed. It’s like having thousands of hours of customer panels or user testing!

Are there any occasions when it isn’t appropriate to engage with the community? As a brand, how do you decide when it’s appropriate to join in the conversation?

Some conversations are customer to customer. We think that with the power of search we have at our disposal it’s a bit like eavesdropping. Our steer here is that, as with any discourse, as long as we follow the rules and we can add value to the dialogue we will engage with site administrators or directly as is required. If brands cannot add value, they are just noise.

What are your views on Twitter? How useful has the service been for Marks & Spencer?

We think that customers and Marks & Spencer are still learning, trying to find out how it fits in to all the other discussions. 

It is very useful from a real-time new and alerts perspective and if there ever is an issue with a product or service, this is usually the first place we will find out. We have once used Twitter for a product recall (a striped hammock) and customers responded very well to receiving this information in this way. 

We believe that by simply being in the space we will learn what it is that Twitter is best for, and that may change over time.

Metrics are something that many companies struggle with. How does Marks & Spencer measure and benchmark social media success? 

We don’t think anybody has really cracked this one, and certainly not us. We thought it was as important to start engaging in social media because this is where the conversation is now happening (and it would with or without us). 

Now that we have trialled a few different approaches and platforms we are moving on to what success looks like. It is easy for us to look simply at the metrics: 80,000 Facebook fans, 4,300 Twitter users, traffic and revenue directly from social media sites building. However, for us, the true strength of social media is engagement so we also look at which discussions, posts, videos and events get the most comments and the level of detail of those posts. What we also need to do is quantify the value of the insight we receive about our products, services and brand through social media.

How are you using the mobile channel to engage customers? 

We have been trialling a number of approaches. Customers can text in to receive SMS alerts, offers (including loyalty points) and wap links to mobile web content (like our Dine in for £10 menus and Back to School brochure). 

We have trialled 2D barcodes on our freshly squeezed juices as a way of getting additional information about provenance and the product to customer using their mobile. 

We are also trialling a service called Fizzback in some stores: this lets customers send us instant customer service feedback (and to receive a reply) by SMS while they are in a store.

Most importantly, we know that most people are accessing more of the web more often using their phones (and this includes social media), so we need to be conscious of how we format content. For M&S, it is about trying a few things and seeing what is most useful to our customers and then building on that.

Photocredit: Marks & Spencer