Recently I came across a telling statistic: according to a recent survey by PriceWaterhouseCooper seven out of ten people never use social media sites to purchase items or services, even though almost half of the respondents check those sites on a daily basis. 

As it is, marketers have tended to treat social media as either a shiny new toy or an Arctic island -- frozen and desolate, far from the rest of their strategy. You’d think stats like that would dampen enthusiasm, or kill any future budget allocations towards social media initiatives. If nobody’s actually buying through Facebook, Twitter, Google + or Pinterest, then why bother with social media at all? Where’s the ROI in this scenario?

While it’s fair to say that social media has a long way to go in becoming an important retail channel in its own right, it currently does provide powerful indications of what shoppers are interested in buying -- and what they ultimately do buy.

Consumers’ social media activity impacts every other channel they use to interact with brands; wise marketers are finding ways to further integrate the data coming from social media into their strategy as a whole -- even going so far as to highlight products on their website which the user has “liked” on Facebook.

The survey highlights three types of behavior that are particularly noteworthy in this respect.

1. Warming Up to Future Purchases

PWC’s survey noted that 38 percent of social media users follow brands and retailers online. This doesn't seem like much until it’s noted that 58 percent of that particular group buy from a brick-and-mortar store at least once a week, while 45 percent of them make a weekly online purchase. Clearly these folks love to shop -- and they’re using social media to research, find recommendations/reviews and get a fuller sense of what they’re looking for before they commit to a purchase.

So give them what they want! Sprinkle customer reviews and recs throughout your social media outlets, as well as links to similar information on the company site, so followers and fans can see what’s popular and why. Use A/B testing or Multivariate testing in social media to ascertain what sort of information gets the best reaction, and what the most efficient ways are to put that info across.

Finally, make sure the company’s branding throughout all social media networks corresponds with that of the main site, so wherever they are on the Web, consumers know they’re actually dealing with you.

2. Sizzling Deals at Your Fingertips

If offered a sweet deal or exclusive offer, 49 percent of survey responders said they’d definitely click through from a social media page to an online store. It makes sense to capitalize on this behavior -- thereby driving more traffic to the main site -- by providing coupons, contests, and other compelling content as calls to action on social media outlets.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that thrift is the main motivation here, however. While low price points tend to matter during initial interactions, PWC noted that there are four things that keep customers coming back: fast and reliable delivery, a clear returns policy, exclusive or early access to products and innovation in marketing.

Twitter is a great way to inform followers about pre-sales and “preferred customer” specials, while contests and giveaways can be promoted on Facebook. Display shipping and returns information prominently on your main site, then provide links and/or CTAs on each network you use. Social media’s real-time immediacy can alert consumers to new products, tip them off to updates for existing products or build excitement for upcoming marketing campaigns.

3. Thawing Out Negative Feedback

A small but highly influential group of surveyed consumers aggressively use social media to discuss their experiences with brands and retailers: submitting ideas, providing product feedback, giving or getting recommendations from their extensive online networks and interacting (ferociously at times!) with customer service. This type of customer isn’t always the easiest to deal with… but marketers who ignore them do so at their peril!

Some companies try to avoid unpleasant comments or complaints by staying away from social media. The problem is, negative customer experiences can go viral on the Internet whether a company uses social media or not.

In fact, social media engagement is often a quick, effective way to nip a customer service problem in the bud before things get out of hand. Why not curate “listening posts” where customers can vent -- or enthuse -- about your products, and make sure whoever’s responding on your end has the training and/or experience to handle things in a positive, appropriate way. Reach out to disgruntled customers with coupons or discounts, to show that their business is important to you.

Successful social media retail marketing is about creating a unique, compelling and fully engaging consumer experience. In that sense, social media is less like a desolate Arctic island and more like any other aspect of your marketing strategy: a brick and mortar store, a direct mail campaign or a TV commercial. You can’t just sign up for a Facebook or Twitter account and expect things to happen -- you have to connect with your audience and make them want what you have to offer.

So bring your social media efforts in from the cold, and use them to create dynamic, participatory spaces for your fans, followers (and occasional haters) to enjoy. Doing so will provide numerous opportunities to build those connections… and ultimately make the sale.

Image courtesy of Denis Burden (Shutterstock) 

Editor's Note: To read more of Mark's social media tips, check out Social Media is Not an Island: 5 Ways to Move From Awareness to Conversion