Should every retailer be advertising on social media?

By Will Gillingham

It goes without saying that social media is an ingrained feature of 21st century life. Data from Statista shows that as far back as 2016, 39 million people were actively using social media in the UK alone, and in 2019, it’s predicted that there will be somewhere in the region of 2.77 billion social media users worldwide.

Couple that with the fact that the average person spends 2 hours on social media every day, and what remains is an internet phenomenon with a vast global reach. For retailers, the sheer volume of activity on social media makes it seem like an advantageous route to increase traffic and exposure.

But is this truly the case? Are social media users looking to interact with retailers, and even shop, on the platforms? And, if so, to what extent is having a presence on social media a lucrative investment for retailers? We approached our community of experts for their insight.

A Crucial Undertaking

The unequivocal response was: yes, social media is an integral cog to the retail machine.

As Padraig Slattery, VP Retail, Safecharge, explains: ‘With 42% of shoppers now predominantly using social media to research brands, going social is a must for merchants. Furthermore, a new global study of 111,899 consumers across 45 countries conducted by GlobalWebIndex, revealed that 49% of UK consumers are using social platforms such as Facebook and Instagram to purchase items.

Social media is no longer simply an online facility to be sociable. It now comprises everything from news and games, to political leanings, to, as the data shows, commerce. Some people have shown willing to buy directly from the social media they use, and in light of this, companies such as Instagram and Snapchat have worked shopping into their apps.

It is this shift which, in truth, has been speculated upon for years, towards so-called ‘social commerce’ which has led Matthew Foo at AsiaPay to describe social media as, ‘one of the most important aspects of digital marketing.

Foo continues: ‘it helps to reach millions of customers in a cost-effective manner, especially when compared to traditional media. It’s a crucial platform for retailers to increase brand awareness, and reach, communicate with, and engage their potential or targeted customers.

So, data shows that social media is an active and vibrant aspect of retail. But just what is it that customers relate to? Which aspects of social media make it an ideal platform for retailers?

Social media on phone

The Retail Perks of Social Media


With friends, celebrities, and fashion icons all crowded into a singular space, it’s no surprise that social media has become a place that people go to look for inspiration.

As Stefan de Jong, Retail Strategist at KEGA explains, ‘most retailers should be active on social media, especially fashion retailers and those that focus on a younger audience. This is where people spend a lot of time, and the place people look for inspiration for new products to buy.

Retailers can further plug into the community of potential customers receptive to inspiration by utilising brand ambassadors. In our recent interview with Paul Hornby, eCommerce Director at Matalan, IMRG were told that any products worn by Matalan’s ambassadors usually ‘fly off the shelves.’

The Younger Generation

Millennials and Generation Z are two generations of social media-savvy customers, and while it’s easy to speculate that social media would be an ideal pathway to tapping into these groups, Brightcove have provided data which seems to cement the notion.

Mark Blair, SVP International Operations, Brightcove: ‘Brightcove recently conducted research finding 66% of Millennials engage with a brand after viewing a video on social media, and more significantly, 30% want access to links that allow them to directly purchase a product. As social media continues to grow so will the demand for shoppable content as consumers no longer want to spend time searching for where to buy products online.

Chris Haines, Director of Consulting at Amplience, is in full support of using social media for those retailers targeting a younger audience.

Haines: ‘The rise of social media has led to a decisive shift in customer priorities. For today’s younger customers, it is crucial that the retailers they love are on social media. While the quality of products still matters a great deal, increasingly brand loyalty is driven by their experience with the retailer. Shoppers are seeking an added social aspect to their engagement.

And a final perk of social media is that it can be beneficial without the need to dip into funds.


Even without generating inspiring video content, investing in brand ambassadors, or collaborating with platforms to feature shoppable content on their apps, social media can generate interest in a retailer.

All it can take is a seed of conversation, and a customer base will begin to spread the word about a retailer’s brand. However, unmonitored and unchecked, this conversation is wont to deviate into irrelevant avenues and not provide the level of attention to a brand which it otherwise could.

What it needs is some direction, and it is in this where the heart of social media from a retail perspective lies: it’s not just about advertising on the platforms. It’s about engagement.

As Haines states: ‘Engaging with UGC is a great way of making an impact on social media without the heavy spending of social ad campaigns. Providing a location where customers can engage with your brand through its values and real users literally brings your brand to life.

All it takes is a reply here and a tweet there and you could steer a conversation directly into the pathway of new customers.

People using phones

Engaging an Audience

Maginus are explicit in the ways retailers should use social media. Gavin Masters, Industry Principal eCommerce, Maginus: ‘any business who sees social media as simply an advertising channel has grossly missed the point (and the opportunity). Social Media is about two-way communication, and any brand who uses Twitter and Facebook, etc to push messaging without soliciting feedback, or replying to messages, sees more damage than reward from using these channels.

Masters even goes so far as to state that the way a retailer interacts with customers on social media is more important than advertising on the platforms. He says, ‘your conduct (and that of your customers) on social media channels is your advertising on these websites, and whilst there is no harm in supplementing this with advertising and paid messaging, these paid initiatives are completely redundant if you haven’t got the credibility on the platform to support your messaging.

Haines has a similar conviction on the usage of social media, and explains how natural conversation between customers can be used to directly prop up a retailer’s website. Haines states: ‘Social media provides a sense of belonging, a community of opinion, and the vindication of choice. As retailers cannot control the court of social media opinion, they should do their best to leverage it. Positive customer sentiment can be collected and integrated into the retailer website as user-generated content (UGC).

The consensus is this: for a retailer to yield the maximum amount of benefit from social media, they should concentrate primarily on interaction with those who demonstrate interest, and look at advertising campaigns as an additional means for engaging and conversing with potential customers.

As with anything, however, it’s not as simple as establishing a presence on social media and reaping the rewards.

Tablet and computer


Establishing a presence on social media is akin to playing chess, in that moving a pawn won’t mean checkmate every time. It’s possible to miscalculate a target audience, and moves such as these can reflect exceptionally poorly on a brand’s stature.

Louise Robertson, Marketing Director at Localz, questions: ‘Is bad social media worse than no social media? There are plenty of examples of people who have done [social media] badly, and it’s backfired.

Without appropriate prior research and an intimate knowledge of a customer base, social media interaction can have a negative impact on a retailer.

And, in fact, there are other types of outreach which can be more preferential than social media, particularly amid the Golden Quarter which we find ourselves within. While social media is awash with a plethora of deals and an unfiltered cacophony of customer feedback, eClerx suggest that the good old-fashioned email can cut through the noise.

Devashish Satarkar, Campaign Operations Manager at eClerx Digital: ‘While social media is the preferred channel to target the wider audience and draw them to the store, it does not mean that email communication is not relevant, especially for e-tailers. In fact, for their existing lead database, retailers could utilise the email channel to help them navigate through the mad rush of relevant and irrelevant offers being thrown at them.

Social media isn’t a one-off investment. It requires dedication, research, and a continual stream of customer engagement to properly make the most of the benefits it offers, and even then, it may not be the prominent medium for a retailer to reach their target customers. But as it continues to evolve, having no presence on any platform could be a shot in the foot to a retailer; if not used at all (or used badly), the potential loss could be greater than the potential gain.

Banana skin on floor

The Online Gold Mine

To repeat the opening statement: yes, it makes sense for every retailer to be on social media. And not just in a silent, advertorial capacity, but as a conversational, fully engaged communicator.

A good deal of today’s customers are not only active on social media, but are actively searching for inspiration for an upcoming purchase. And inspiration they will find, either from other people discussing popular products, or from the retailer themselves.

It comes down to this: either a retailer can dictate and get involved with the way their brand is being represented to a community of billions, or they can allow it to happen unmonitored. Either way, a conversation is occurring, and it’s occurring on social media. If a retailer is looking to connect with their audience, social media is the place to be.

Will Gillingham, Content Executive, IMRG

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