This holiday shopping season, more than ever, mature men and women really are joining fan pages on Facebook and following their favorite brands and stores on Twitter.
They're jumping on a retailing trend that's not here just for today's Cyber Monday online shopping sprees, and not just for this year's holidays - but for good.
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Over the past six months, retailers have upped their presence on social media, the various Internet-based programs that allow people to quickly communicate with large groups of "friends" or "followers" using text, video and other multimedia.
This year, the retailers have used Facebook, Twitter and other Web-based tools to offer exclusive deals and contests to their fans and followers, people they consider their most loyal customers.
That's meant free stays at the Marriott's Hawaiian hotels, free Kroger brand ice cream, free tickets to University of Cincinnati football games. It's meant sneak peeks at Black Friday deals, like Cincinnati Bell's bargains on handsets.
Social media is different from the e-mail offers, television commercials and newspaper circulars.
It isn't necessarily about generating sales for the retailer.
It's about creating buzz and engaging the customer, for good or bad. That in turn, helps sales.
"In some ways, it circumvents traditional advertising and takes a retailer directly to the customer without the cost of direct mail or even e-mail," said Ellen Davis, vice president of the National Retail Federation.
A recent holiday survey by Deloitte found that 14 percent of Ohio consumers expect to use social media as part of their shopping strategy this year.
Most will use it to find discounts, coupons and sales, or to research gift ideas.
It's impossible to compare social-media use to past years because 2009 is really the first year it's played a role in holiday shopping, said Ed Bentley, Deloitte's north-central regional leader for its retail practice.
"This year is just a building block for the future," he said.
"It's become a way of creating that anticipation and interest level by reaching people in new ways."
Retailers typically fall in three camps as far as the sophistication of their social-media strategy, Davis said.
Some, like Best Buy, Dick's Sporting Goods, Kroger Co. and Cincinnati Bell, have developed a strategy that includes customer interaction, incentives and quick support.
Others, like many big-box stores, have set up accounts that mostly drive visits to their Web sites rather than interact with customers.
Still others, like many luxury retailers, don't see the need.
For Cincinnati Bell, it was about joining an online conversation that already was happening around its products and services, said Jane Weiler, the company's senior interactive marketing manager. She recently hired a full-time representative to respond to customers via Facebook and Twitter seven days a week.
"People might be surprised we're not doing this to drive traffic to our stores. It's all about the customer, the conversation and the relationship we're building," she said. "That's what social media is about."
Cincinnati Bell launched contests on its Facebook and Twitter pages for Black Friday, entering fans and followers into a drawing for tickets to the day's UC football game.
"The thing we've learned is to keep it simple," Weiler said. "Create contests that they can do instantly while out on our page."
Kroger Co. set up multiple Twitter pages earlier this summer to reach different interest groups. @KrogerWorks informs job seekers of hiring news and job fairs at stores around the nation. @KrogerDeals earned followers throughout August and September for its Deluxe Ice Cream giveaways. @SharingCourage lets Twitter followers know about Kroger's breast cancer awareness efforts. Kroger utilized its Facebook page to push visitors back and forth between the two mediums.
Making fast friends
Mike Deininger created a Twitter page for his Over-the-Rhine boutique, Mica 12/v, about three months ago (www.twitter.com/mica12v). He also runs the account that promotes all of the businesses in the neighborhood's Gateway Quarter, www.twitter.com/otrgateway.
Deininger had followed several Findlay Market businesses, like Taste of Belgium and Dojo Gelato, through his personal Twitter account and noticed, inadvertently, that he was visiting those merchants more often.
"It reminded me to get up there on Saturday when I go to buy my Blue Oven bread," he said. "I'm hoping the same is true for me."
He's not seeing immediate sales generation. If anything, Twitter and Facebook take more of his time and attention. But he's finding new ways to draw his most loyal fans into his store and into the Gateway Quarter more often. And they're the ones that bring friends, too.
"It can't be ignored, because you are reaching your most enthusiastic crowd," he said.