How to turn social media engagement into real sales

Social media is great for audience engagement and brand awareness, but it takes a special touch to translate buzz into revenue

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PROFIT 500: Canada’s Fastest-Growing Companies
Employee watering social media plants

(Illustration by Sam Island)

Pictures of organic onesies and teeny-tiny Chuck Taylors draw plenty of “likes” on Instagram, Alyssa Kerbel has found. But the CEO of Toronto-based clothing retailer Mini Mioche (2017 PROFIT 500: No. 92) notes the social media platform is useful for more than collecting adoration. When customers post their own pics featuring their cute kids wearing her brand, sales surge. Case in point: influential photographer Jeff Mindell shared a picture of his infant son rocking a Mini Mioche cap with his 60,000 Instagram followers (with the caption, “New hat, who dis?”) and the item immediately sold out online.

So when Kerbel decided to expand her U.S. customer base, she reached out to Instagram influencers in the States and offered them select Mini Mioche products for free, in exchange for posts of their kids sporting the garb. Since launching this program last January, she’s seen the brand’s U.S. sales almost double.

You could attribute Kerbel’s success to selling a product that simply works well on a visual medium like Instagram. And partly, you’d be right. Nearly 50% of Canadian business owners use social media to promote their brand, according to ad agency Sherpa Marketing, yet many struggle to see tangible business results. So having “Insta-perfect” inventory helps. But Kerbel and her peers on the PROFIT 500 ranking of Canada’s Fastest-Growing Companies show that smart strategies are the key to turning follows, likes and regrams into cold, hard sales. Here’s how to maximize your social ROI.

Choose influencers wisely

Kerbel attributes the success of her collaborator program to the authenticity that parent bloggers and influencers lend her brand. “What works well on Instagram is when people tag their friends on our posts and say, ‘Check this out,’” she says. “It’s very real, and you can’t create the same thing in any other medium.” Kerbel and her social media manager spend about six hours a week scouring Instagram feeds. The criteria they use is mostly subjective: does the influencer have the right aesthetic? Do they have lots of likes and comments on their posts? Do they tag brands? “We don’t use any external data. We choose influencers based on our feelings about them, and whether they fit with our brand,” Kerbel says.

Through trial and error, she discovered that smaller influencers with between 10,000 and 50,000 followers gain the most traction with her target demographic. And when she wants to expand a certain area of her business, as she did with her U.S. sales, she connects with influencers who speak directly to the audience she needs to reach.

It’s an effective approach, says Lyle Wetsch, professor of marketing at Memorial University in St. John’s. “Electronic word of mouth is very powerful. People tend not to believe hard advertising but they’ll believe other people,” he says. “There’s truth in influence.”

Segment and target

It’s easy to get swept up in the seemingly endless grind of constantly posting on every platform. “We see a lot of businesses putting effort into every social platform because they think they need to be there, but they’re leaving money on the table if they’re not tracking analytics and allocating resources to the strategies and platforms that are working best,” Wetsch says. Detailed metrics gathered from tracking through the platforms themselves or third-party tools let businesses see exactly what interactions, platforms and devices are contributing to sales conversions, so you can spend time and money more smartly.

It’s a strategy that Oakville, Ont., membership software company ClubRunner (No. 463) uses to meet their marketing goals. As a company that provides software as a service, CEO Sarah Asterbadi and her team rely heavily on positive online reviews to drive sales. That’s why the company decided to focus their efforts on a social media campaign to solicit positive reviews from their customers. They started by using their customer relationship management software to target their most engaged LinkedIn and Facebook users with a piece of promoted content about the top 10 things to look for in membership management software. They then asked users who engaged with the post to review the brand on software rating site Capterra. The payoff was two-fold. First, the company earned a spot on Capterra’s list of the five most popular membership management software programs, which resulted in a 40% increase in inbound leads. Second, ClubRunner secured a list of customers who were both passionate about their product and interested in learning more about what makes great membership software.

Be engaging

Tracking how many followers you have is fine, but it’s a vanity metric, says Wetsch. What you really want is to capture customers’ attention with content that inspires likes, shares and, perhaps most importantly, time spent watching. Jeff Hurrle, VP and general manager for Sport Systems (No. 319), an Almonte, Ont.-based company that builds and installs sports equipment like bleachers and nets, knew he needed expert help to evaluate whether the brand’s content was engaging enough, particularly because they target the B2B market, a notoriously challenging audience to engage on social media. He hired Wetsch to consult and learned that video was becoming hugely important on all channels, especially Facebook, which rewards brands that engage people to watch videos or interact with live streams. This past February, Mark Zuckerberg identified social video as a mega trend on par with mobile. Video works because younger generations are “video natives,” says Wetsch. The majority of social media users grew up watching visual storytelling, so it makes sense that’s what users are looking for online.

In response, Hurrle developed a cost-effective video strategy that combines some professionally shot videos with ones shot on employees’ phones or inexpensive cameras. “When we built a grandstand at Carleton University in Ottawa, I made a two-minute time-lapse video of the process using a $150 camera,” he says. “It performed really well for us on Facebook and YouTube, and viewers visited the website to ask for quotes.” It’s not fancy, but it works: a large share of the company’s sales leads is driven from their video-heavy social platforms.

Soften your sell

Part of creating engaging content is using a light touch when it comes to hawking your wares. “We reduce the emphasis on selling through social,” says Roger King, president of Supplement King Canada (No. 85), a national franchisor of sport nutrition supplement retail stores. “We create an atmosphere in which our audience can share their goals and give them content to help them reach those goals.” The Dartmouth, N.S.-based brand posts recipes, exercise videos and inspirational quotes to gain customer trust and loyalty, a soft sell that embeds the chain in customers’ minds in a subtle—yet effective—way. “If we do a good job showcasing our brand, our personality and our values, our customers make their own decisions about shopping,” explains King.

The strategy is a smart one, says Wetsch, particularly on platforms where users aren’t looking to buy directly. “Hard selling on social can be like going on a first date with someone and asking them to marry you right away,” he says. “Businesses need to see that content is contributing to sales even if it’s not driving the sales.”

As for Kerbel, she’s actually posting less frequently than she used to, a concerted effort to avoid overwhelming her followers’ feeds with too much Mini Mioche messaging. “I make sure all my posts are purposeful and I don’t post just for the sake of doing it,” she explains. “We’re all about quality over quantity on social.”

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