LONDON: Marks & Spencer, the UK retailer, is heightening its focus on social media, as it seeks to engage consumers in conversations across a wide variety of different online platforms.

As the food-to-clothing chain has been trading for 125 years, Sienne Veit, its business development manager, argued it has a long history of interacting with its customers, with social media being the latest iteration of this trend.

"What we are now doing is moving that conversation along technologically, to where our customers are now having their conversations: Facebook, Mumsnet, YouTube, Flickr, Twitter or wherever they may be online," she said.

In achieving this, the company has taken a nuanced approach, and is utilising specific Web 2.0 properties depending on the particular goal of its communications at any given time.

"We use reviews for product-led customer feedback, Facebook for community building and rich media and Twitter for promotions, notifications and an instant feedback," said Veit.

The main obstacles facing M&S in its new media aspirations, she added, are adopting a consistent approach, and adapting its existing work practices to take full advantage of the available opportunities.

"We recognise that this is core to how we do business, and that it is not just an 'e-commerce thing' which is the responsibility of a small, isolated team," Veit continued.

Earlier this year, the retailer received a large amount of negative feedback on portals like Twitter following its decision to charge consumers £2 (£3.34; €2.23) extra when buying larger bra sizes, a strategy it ultimately went on to reverse.

The most important element of the organisation's response, according to Veit, was that "we admitted we got it wrong and turned it around."

"This was right before we set up our Facebook and Twitter pages. Now when customers do want to engage with us and lobby for improvements, alongside the traditional customer service routes, they also have the social media space to do so."

In terms of measuring the impact of its activity on social media services, Veit suggested M&S, like most other marketers, is still endeavouring to discover how best to do so.

"We don't think anybody has really cracked this one, and certainly not us. We thought it was as important to start engaging in social media because this is where the conversation is now happening (and it would with or without us)," she said. 

At present, the company monitors the electronic word-of-mouth about its brand, and aims to respond in a timely fashion where necessary, but tends to "leave negative comments as long as they are not directed at an individual or harmful." 
Its official page on Facebook currently has over 90,000 fans, and its Twitter feed has almost 4,500 "followers", but, for Veit, these sorts of metrics alone do not tell the full story.

"For us, the true strength of social media is engagement so we also look at which discussions, posts, videos and events get the most comments and the level of detail of those posts."

"What we also need to do is quantify the value of the insight we receive about our products, services and brand through social media," Veit concluded.

Data sourced from Econsultancy; additional content by Warc staff