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How Brands are Turning Likes Into Dollars

Savvy brands are honing their social commerce skills—and with good reason. Used correctly, social media delivers sales and data that provide lasting dividends. The challenge is learning how to grow, engage and inspire followings in a way that prompts them to reach for their wallets. It’s an art and skill that eludes the biggest and smallest brands as well as the most established and fledgling retailers, as illustrated by a recent class at Instagram’s headquarters where students included executives from Birchbox and Madewell as well as designer Cynthia Rowley, according to Bloomberg.

“Both large and small brands are equally adept at leveraging social commerce,” said Oliver Tan CEO of visual research company ViSenze. “It’s about the brand’s innovativeness, less about size. Pinterest, Instagram and WeChat are all platforms that engage well, because of their visual content.”

Even so, a ViSenze report found that only 46 percent of consumers have purchased on social media.

Part of the challenge is, it’s kind of the wild west. “There’s no one size fits all approach to producing content,” said Cassandra Napoli, WGSN’s associate editor, digital media & marketing. “What works for one brand may not work for their competitor. Similarly, if a brand produces content on one platform, that same message may not seamlessly translate to another platform. The only way for brands to determine which content works best on which platform, is to experiment and study the engagement.”

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If it sounds painstaking and time consuming, it is, but the payoff can be huge. Just ask Rebecca Minkoff.

“A majority of our traffic no longer comes from Google, it comes from Instagram,” the designer said at a recent Glossy+ event in New York. “These customers are huge conversions, and when we put up our [user-generated content] on our website, the best-selling items are ones where we have a picture of the customer wearing it.”

The response to the brand’s content has been such that the company reorganized around the see, buy, wear model that strives to close the gap between consumer and product. Minkoff’s VP of e-commerce, Krissie Millan, told Internet Retailing, “Data permeates every part of our business, we believe it will power the future of retail.”

What Minkoff learned is what other brands have found, getting consumers involved the process is key. Beauty brand Glossier has built a devoted tribe around interacting with its fans, so much so that the company’s Instagram account was once shut down because they replied to so many customer comments that Instagram thought it was spam. It’s the stuff of legend, and it sets a high bar.

Evaluating the ROI social media remains every brand’s dilemma.

For Bishop Collective, a 5-year-old digital native retailer of ethically sourced American-made fashion, the trial and error has been worth it, especially leading up to opening its first Manhattan brick and mortar store.

Co-founder Dimitri Koumbis said studying data has played a significant factor in the brand’s growth. “Once we determined who our audience was and when they prefer to interact with us, we started catering to each social media channel audience independently. Instagram has previously been our No. 1 touch point for conversion, specifically for driving consumers to our website. However, we recently began using the Google Business platform and this has shown great promise for the potential to link our website to our store in terms of conversion,” he said. ”Facebook and Pinterest have become irrelevant in terms of customer engagement for our brand.”

You are what you post, and well-curated content enables a brand to connect with like-minded individuals. Therefore, Bishop Collective’s Instagram feed shows product photographed in minimalist surroundings alongside contemporary American art and nature, reflecting the brand’s focus on local manufacture, sustainability and organic fabrics.

“What is difficult with social media analytics, is that it can only give you statistical data, it does not provide qualitative information in regards to emotional responses,” Koumbis said. The company thrives on its “independent or cult” status and as a result, Koumbis shies away from using influencers and prefers to grow the business organically without the help of the ads he and his fans find annoying.

At luxury label Louis Vuitton 33 percent of its 20.7 million Instagram followers are millennials, according to UBS. Vuitton’s Instagram feed features Vuitton-clad actors, athletes, and rappers, most of whom are millennials.

Kelly Helfman, vice president and brand director of WWDMAGIC which boasts 500+ womenswear brands under one roof, believes that influencers can be useful, bringing exposure, driving traffic and aiding in storytelling. “It doesn’t have to be Chiara Ferragni or Kim Kardashian. It’s beneficial to work with micro-influencers with smaller followings but have a wider reach; not to mention they are much more affordable,” she said. “Even if you have no budget, brands should be DM’ing local socialites/influencers with 5k or less followers to offer free product in exchange for them to post and tag the brand.”

Tan said brands’ most valuable resource could be the fans themselves. “In creating influencers of shoppable content, “prosumers” are the best bet,” he said. “These are consumers who use products so well/often they become expert promoters of such products they use.” He also advises brands to “increase more ad spend on aggregating, curating, and promoting natural content which have high engagement rates.”

Among the many challenges of pursuing social commerce is the ever-changing nature of the channels themselves. Given the ephemeral nature of Instagram Stories, the short live clips users can add to their profiles, some have predicted a move away from more classic feed-based format, but Napoli says the Instagram feed is still “the place for polished and highly-produced content.” She believes recently launched Instagram TV which could potentially rival Youtube is the new frontier to be conquered, but says, “I wouldn’t say many brands have found their footing yet.”

Napoli also predicts augmented reality ads, which have been pioneered by Facebook, could rise in importance, allowing audiences to interact and engage with merchandise and virtually test it out before being able to seamlessly make a purchase.

“I don’t think we have even touched the capabilities of going ‘live.’ Some are using these tools to sell, but most haven’t started,” Helfman said.