Want a marketing tool that can reach thousands and costs you nothing to set up or operate? Then it’s time you faced up to Facebook argues Aidan Fortune

One billion people - or a seventh of the planet’s population - are on social media site Facebook. And chances are this includes a lot of your customers, so why not take advantage and set up a business page for your store and start interacting with them on a whole new level.

Although Facebook might not seem the likeliest marketing tool for you, the sheer number of users and ease of accessing it make it hard to ignore. A recent HIM survey found that two-thirds of smartphone owners use them to view social media sites Facebook and Twitter.

HIM research & marketing director Jill Livesey urges retailers to get online. “It’s easy to get left behind when it comes to online, but social media cannot be ignored,” she says. “A lot of customers are looking for a web presence, and if businesses don’t offer this facility they risk losing these customers to competitors who do. More than half of the retailers we spoke to didn’t have any online presence.”

Livesey advises retailers to “start off small and build it up”. “Keep your digital strategy simple and focused,” she advises.

Steve Bassett, who runs four Londis stores in Dorset and Southampton, recently relaunched a Facebook page for his Weymouth store. Always ahead of the curve, Steve had one for the store four years ago, but stopped posting on it. “I decided a couple of months ago that it was time to start it up again, but do it properly this time,” he says. “I made sure I set it up as a business page rather than a personal one, and I have a couple of people in the store who manage the content.”

He admits that while it is difficult to measure exactly how beneficial it is, he believes the page is a great way of interacting with customers and building a stronger relationship with them.

“It’s not something you can easily measure the benefit of,” says Steve, “but at the end of the day it boils down to community marketing, which is vital for independent retailers, but difficult to put a monetary value on.”

One thing Steve was concerned about was the volume of posts to put on the page. “I didn’t want to bombard people with everything that was going on in the store, but I also didn’t want days without a post, so we set up a schedule that involves us posting something different every day,” he says.

Steve tries to vary his content as much as possible, alternating between photographs of the store, information on new lines and services, and offering prizes to customers who interact with the page. “It’s all about getting the balance right and ensuring that the page stays fresh and interesting,” he says. “We also put links to relevant local news stories and information on local charity initiatives. It helps highlight how involved you are in a community to your customers who may not already realise.”

Isla Craig of Londis Crianlarich in Perthshire set up a Facebook page for the store she runs alongside her and husband Bryan last December. She also uses it as a virtual noticeboard for the community. “We felt it would be a good way to interact with customers and build up a better relationship with them,” says Isla. “Where we’re based, we’re not necessarily going to attract new customers so it’s more important to build a relationship with the ones we have.”

Isla is amazed at how the page has taken off. “We still have the noticeboard up in the store, but a lot of the younger people who don’t use it still want to know what’s going on in the area, and Facebook was the way to do it,” says Isla.

Isla and Bryan attracted people to the store’s Facebook page through a combination of word-of-mouth and a launch day around Easter. “I use Facebook personally so I invited a lot of people from there,” she explains. “We also held a special launch day and entered everyone who liked our page into a competition to win an Easter Egg. It was just a little incentive to get people interested and it really worked well.”

Having captured people’s interest, Isla makes sure she keeps them entertained through interaction. “We ask what people think about the store and promotions we have. It’s a good way to make them feel included as well as gauging opinion about the store,” she says. “We find that customers tend to respond more to posts with photographs, as these stand out.”

Mobile support

With 60% of the British public owning a smartphone, the potential to reach people through mobile marketing is great.

Spar is one company that has realised this and is trialling a mobile marketing scheme to help retailers communicate with their customers. It has created an app for consumers through which they can receive alerts about Spar national promotions as well as deals from local retailers.

The scheme is being trialled in the south-west of England, with a national rollout set for the coming months.

Spar UK marketing manager Andy Burt says: “Mobile marketing represents a fantastic opportunity for Spar and we want to lead the way in this innovative sector. The initiative is set to improve communication with shoppers, find out more about our local customers and their shopping preferences, and increase footfall and basket spend through relevant offers.

“It will also empower retailers to respond quickly to the changing needs of their local shoppers and provide them with a leading-edge way to market their own local deals.”

Spar isn’t the only company to embrace mobile communications. In response to a recent survey of independent retailers in which 65% reported a drop in customer numbers, communications giant O2 has launched Priority Moments for independent businesses.

The free service enables small retailers to send out special deals to their shoppers and is available to businesses that aren’t O2 customers.

Nisa retailer Rav Garcha uses Facebook to let his customers know about new promotions and lines in his store. “If we get a new product in, or have a promotion that I think our customers will like, I’ll post a message on Facebook about it,” says Rav. “It’s a cost-effective way of marketing to customers and is another way of interacting with them. As soon as it’s on display in the store, I take a photo and load it up to Facebook. It takes two minutes, but has a massive reach.”

Joe Williams of The Village Store in Hook Norton, Oxfordshire, strives to give his store’s Facebook page a community feel. “We post messages about what’s going on in the store and link up with the Hook Norton page so that anyone can find out exactly what’s happening in the town or the store,” he says.

Of course, in order for the page to be productive, you need people on it to build a following, so Joe reminds customers in the store to find them online. “We market the page in-store with signs on shelves and window vinyls,” he says. “I’ll also mention it to people as they come in. You have to really push people at first, but once they get going they really get involved.”

Joe’s parents, Tom and Gloria, who also help run the store, have been involved in retail since before he was born, but social media is huge a departure for them. “They’re happy to let me get on with it, but it shows how marketing to customers has changed,” Joes acknowledges.

“It’s all about the next generation - they all have smartphones and are constantly checking them while on the go so you need to be able to reach them quickly,” says Joe.

Advances in technology are also making the job of marketing easier, Joe believes. “With social media and smartphones, you can take a photo and post it online immediately, whereas before you would have had to take the photo, upload it to your computer at home and then upload it to the internet, which could take hours.”

Joe says he saw its real benefit when posting about the store’s refit. “It’s really created footfall for us as people see the posts and want to have a look at what we’ve done with the business,” he says. “And if they come in once, then there’s no reason why they can’t become regular customers.”

He urges retailers to get online as soon as possible. “Retailers should really be getting on board with social media. It’s a low-cost, quick and easy way of reaching your customers.”•

The secrets to building a successful Facebook presence for your store

● When setting up a Facebook page make sure to do it as business page rather than a group or individual it will make it easier for your customers to find you online. Plus if Facebook finds out that an individual page is being used to promote a business, they will shut it down and you will lose all of the content posted.

● Build customer awareness by posting signs in your store to ‘Like us on Facebook’. Print the message on receipts if possible.

● Aim to foster engagement on your Facebook business page at least once a day. One of the best ways to do this is by sharing links to articles of interest from other sites. The best time to post content is 8am-4pm, Monday through Friday.

● Encourage two-way communication by asking questions. Ask customers what they think about promotions you’re running or what they’d like to see sold in your store.

● Use visuals generously. Photos are the number one things that are shared on Facebook. You should post photos and videos as much as possible as they tend to get better visibility on news feeds.

● Offer prizes and rewards to your loyal fans to get them to post on your fan page. This builds ‘likes’ and brand awareness.