As if its disappointing stock offering and loss of GM as an ad client wasn't enough, Facebook is facing growing competition from upstart social-media site Pinterest.
Big retail companies are taking notice. Specifically, while Facebook still has the most consumers in sheer numbers, Pinterest users follow an average of 9.3 retail companies compared with 6.9 retailers for Facebook users, according to the 2012 Social and Mobile Commerce Study released by Shop.org, comScore and the Partnering Group.
Even more intriguing to retailers, a study by Shopify.com recently found that purchases by Pinterest users from a retailer on the site averaged $80 in value, twice what Facebook users spend per order.
For retailers, it's all part of a rapidly expanding world of social media that is confusing to some, enticing to others, but above all a great tool, said Jim Wright, senior vice president of marketing at local apparel company Express.
"If you look at what's happening today, it's an evolution of our relationship with customers," Wright said. "Business had been in the habit of talking at customers. This is about talking with customers."
Pinterest's rise into a major player in that conversation has been rapid, and it was the fastest website in history to surpass 10 million unique visitors, said David Shaw, senior social media strategist at Resource Interactive.
The website initially appealed almost entirely to women; "it was like 95 percent female," he said, and that appeal remains at a robust 60 percent. Because women are more-frequent shoppers, " that's why a lot of retail clients are quick to adopt it."
Pinterest's highly visual "pinning" format, which some have compared to online window shopping, is a big part of the website's appeal, said Vicki Cantrell, executive director of Shop.org, who led the social and mobile commerce study.
"Pinterest is by far one of the best tools for retailers who want to see exactly what their shoppers like and don't like," Cantrell said in an email.
The more savvy retailers are learning "how to spin it to intrigue the customers already out there," said Lyndsay Theibert, who develops Pinterest strategies for retail clients at SBC Advertising in Columbus.
"I look at it in terms of styling things," Theibert said. "What is the big life event or 'theme' of my life at the moment -- whether it's redoing my bedroom or preparing for a friend's baby shower. It's great for retailers to grasp that. Ultimately, you'll see that a brand that does really well is one that presents a full outfit. When I see it all together like that, I'll probably want all pieces of that outfit."
Victoria's Secret has quickly caught on to the thematic approach that works best on Pinterest, Shaw said.
"They're great at integrating their content and giving people a reason to pursue links. They have a rabid fan base."
The Limited Brands lingerie giant started slowly, at only about 1,000 Pinterest followers in February, but as of Monday was up to 10,460. While that's far below its enormous, 18 million-plus following on Facebook, its Pinterest pages show a firm grasp of how to use the site.
For example, one of the "boards" on the Victoria's Secret Pinterest site -- "One Fabulous Summer" -- not only features swimsuits and other clothing from the company but merchandise with some tie to the summer theme.
Express jumped in to Pinterest early on, Wright said, after the retailer saw that people were visiting Express.com from Pinterest. "We saw customers were looking at fashion, at what was important to them, and that Express played a role in that. We looked a little deeper and said, 'We ought to have a dialogue back.' "
On Valentine's Day, "we had images and pins that related to 'date night,' " Wright said. "Some was our product, some just set the mood. But that was our way of saying back to customers, 'Here's what we think about date night.' "
While big local retailers such as Limited Brands' chains, Express and Abercrombie & Fitch are among the biggest local users of social media sites such as Pinterest, other local businesses outside of the sector maintain pages on the visually oriented site, including Nationwide Insurance and The Dispatch.
While the Shopify.com study showed a startling difference between sales through Pinterest vs. sales through Facebook, individual retailers are loathe to disclose sales information.
"Every marketing department is held to the standard of return on investment, that's not something we ignore," Wright said. "But at the same time, when you're looking at something like this, it's about putting the customer first and having a relationship with the customer. Everything builds off of that."
The social media area is so fast-developing that many retailers must develop a strategy on the fly.
"Retailers are quickly learning that there is no single answer to their social and mobile strategies," Cantrell said, "that it's far more important to first evaluate where the customer is and where they want their favorite brands to be and then to react."
As if all that isn't enough, retailers must also make sure customers' online experience with them works regardless of platform, from laptops to smartphones, Shaw said.
"Pinterest's weakest point has probably been their mobile app," Shaw said. "They will fix that, but they haven't yet. Once they do, that will probably unlock more interest in the site."
That will be especially important among the 20-something customer, Wright said. "You take all these things, and they're doing them from their phones."
Ultimately, the rise of Pinterest and continuing evolution of social media have pushed retailers to realize that they aren't just in the business of selling merchandise, Theibert said.
"Retailers are becoming publishers, in a way. It's still kind of scary for some. For others it's the opposite. They say, 'Oh, we want that,' but then they don't understand how much time is needed to put it together. I think it's important they have an overarching strategy."
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