In the Age of COVID-19, Social Media Proves a Savior for Sales

In a world where brands are limited when it comes to ways to connect with their consumers, engaging visuals on social media platforms is the gold standard.

When used effectively, social media could prove the difference between sluggish sales and success, according to Michelle Belcic, vice president of brand strategy for Dash Hudson, a firm that offers visual marketing software to companies like Tapestry, Nordstrom and LVMH, among others.

“Social media isn’t going anywhere: there’s been a 61 percent increase in usage across platforms during the pandemic,” Belcic said. “Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp have increased in countries hit hardest by the virus, Twitter is seeing 23 percent more users than a year ago, and the average time U.S. adults spend on social media has increased to 82 minutes a day on average. With stores closed and no physical events, social media is one of the few places where marketers can engage with their customers.”

Estimates say it will take off-line sales five years to return to pre-pandemic levels, she added, and online sales are now expected to jump 18 percent this year, up from the previous forecast of 13 percent.

“Retail’s shift to e-commerce has been accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Belcic said. “Nike said it wants 50 percent of sales to be digital and is already on pace to hit 30 percent by the end of 2021, two years earlier than planned. Inditex will close between 1,000 and 1,200 stores globally over the next two years with plans to grow e-commerce by investing $1 billion into it over the next three years.” And the retailer expects online sales to account for 25 percent of overall business by 2022.

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But consumers are faced with a daily barrage of digital options, and visual cues will help them cut through the clutter.

“What can we focus on to cut through all of this content? Ninety percent of information transmitted to the brain is visual and it’s processed 60,000 times faster than text, so we begin to understand how important the visual is in a social strategy,” Belcic said. A “community-led and circular visual strategy,” she added, will drive that dialogue with the audience. “Many retailers who are thriving now are those who have made community the heartbeat of their visual strategy.”

Belcic pointed to Matchesfashion as a prime example. The company takes insight from its community and uses that information to create content across a variety of touch points. Those top-performing images are then being featured on its web site, product pages, in e-mail marketing and ads. “It makes the audience feel seen, heard and valued — and it actually drives sales.”

In order to use data in a scalable way, artificial intelligence will be key “to ease this process of understanding what visuals are going to work for your brand online,” Belcic said. At Dash Hudson, the company uses what it calls Vision, a combination of machine learning and computer vision, that analyzes thousands of visual cues and, “ties them back into the historic engagement with that brand on social media. This creates a unique brand algorithm. The machine learning gets smarter over time as the audience engages with certain content. Vision is always learning.”

Cotton On, an Australia-based vertical retailer, also uses Vision to predict performance when selecting images to use for social commerce, and those images “consistently outperform in terms of click-through and conversions,” she said. The same goes for Colourpop Cosmetics, which also utilizes the data to respond to customer feedback to “stay ahead of the curve” and quickly create new product.

One of the most valuable platforms, Belcic said, is Pinterest, whose users come to the site prior to major spending sprees. “Some 84 percent of active pinners say they use it to plan for purchases and 98 percent have purchased something because of Pinterest,” she said.

As a result, it was the “perfect channel for wedding dress retailer Bhldn” which created a Pinterest board to “capture brides early in their dress-shopping journey by using images the community loved the most. Each pin linked to an e-mail capture page that prompted pinners to sign up when ready for purchase. They recognized that imagery with product details outperformed their average pin performance. And off-the-shoulder dresses were really a hit with their audience. The social team then worked with the merchandisers on the imagery and dress styles were making an impact on Pinterest and guided their e-commerce creation.”

“The number-one factor driving a brand’s sales lift from any digital advertising can be directly attributed to the quality of the creative,” Belcic said. “So what does that mean for your brand? It’s what the audience thinks that will drive them to purchase. If you don’t have AI informing your decisions right now, you may be missing out on a huge opportunity, especially as we head into holiday season.”

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