New Shopping Center Social Media Study Highlights Best Practices and Trends

By: Brandon Chesnutt

Research firm Alexander Babbage, with the help of International Council of Shopping Centers, recently released a State of the Industry report outlining the current use of social media by shopping centers. You can view the report here. After reading through the report several times and visiting the social media channels of several of the shopping centers mentioned, I captured some important takeaways from the data and examples shared. So, let’s dive in and learn more about shopping center social media best practices and trends.

Content creation requires daily attention
Content is the fuel that keeps the social media engine running. Without it, shoppers cannot discover content nor are they incentivized to follow or subscribe to a center’s ongoing communications.

Daily engagement with guests and social media fans is a requirement. In fact, I consider it a non-negotiable. Once a shopper opts-in to a center’s social media channels, that center must attempt to provide value to that customer each day. This approach is reflected in the study, with most centers posting on Facebook and Twitter an average of once per day.

While I do advocate for the once-per-day approach for Facebook due to the network’s algorithm and approach for displaying content, Twitter often requires more effort to be successful. Most centers we engage with are posting at least 3-7 times per day on Twitter. That statistic does not include ongoing communication with guests and followers via mentions and direct messages. The real-time nature of the platform requires a great deal of attention, especially as Twitter continues its transformation into a leading guest service medium.

The other factor is time. According to the study, shopping centers devoted between “5 and 16 hours per week” to social media, with the majority of that time dedicated to content creation. From my perspective, if a center is only dedicating five hours per week, they are either operating at peak efficiency or social media is not a priority. A center with relatively average engagement and more than 60,000 Facebook fans can see between 15,000-20,000 (or more) engagements per month. That excludes any efforts on other channels. Sifting through the data and providing responses to guests can quickly chip away at that time.

Facebook is (still) the shopping center home base
Facebook is the dominant player in the social media space across virtually every industry. That’s no different when it comes to shopping center social media programs. Nearly 70% of the centers surveyed in the study were using Facebook, with 42% stating that Facebook posts were “very important.” Additionally, Facebook represents the platform where centers are most likely to have the largest audience. In fact, shopping centers using Facebook had an average of 34,297 fans, compared to an average of 4,166 Twitter followers and 4,089 Instagram followers.

Why does Facebook present such a great opportunity for shopping centers? First off, most retail brands are likely to have a strong presence on the network, including Facebook Pages dedicated to local stores. This puts shopping centers in the position to easily amplify retailer content by simply sharing and liking posts.

Facebook also provides shopping centers with the opportunity to market to multiple demographics using a variety of tactics: organic content, targeted paid posts, remarketing and more. As their audience scales, specific posts can be tailored to meet certain audience groups and interests. Additionally, the incredibly flexible Facebook advertising platform allows shopping centers to invest dollars into increasing the reach and penetration of event announcements, promotions and other guest engagement messages.

Let’s say a shopping center wants to announce an event at an outdoor sporting goods anchor. They can use the Facebook ad platform to narrow down the number of Facebook users within a defined geographic area and target against their interests. Do they like the retailer hosting the event? Do they like competing or peer retailers and might be interested in visiting this location? Do they have an affinity for outdoor activities? The data can be sliced thousands of different ways. The important takeaway is that key shopping groups can be surgically targeted, delivering the right message to the audience that matters.

Instagram is burning up, while Pinterest and YouTube are cold
With Facebook the clear leader in the space, what about other social media channels? According to the survey, 41% of respondents used Instagram. Another compelling statistic: 71% of the respondents stated that their property had not used Pinterest in the past 12 months.

From my perspective, Instagram represents the biggest opportunity for shopping centers to connect with their guests on social media. The platform is easy to scale thanks to Facebook’s integrated self-serve ad platform, and the right audiences can be quickly identified thanks to hashtags, location check-ins and more. We’re also seeing Instagram take the place of Twitter in terms of the preferred platform for quick visual content, with engagement numbers increasing by the week. Twitter, on the other hand, has evolved into a care and guest experience channel. We’re utilizing the channel more for official announcements and addressing guest issues, and less and less for marketing communications.

The inclusion of more video sharing features and a preference for promoting native video has helped knock YouTube out of the limelight in favor of posting on channels such as Facebook or Instagram. We still advocate using YouTube, but only for longer and high-quality videos produced by the shopping center. Short, raw and more authentic videos, as well as live broadcasts, should be relegated to Facebook.

Large audiences do not always result in high engagement
This stat was the biggest shocker from my perspective: Virtually every shopping center type on the list suffered from lackluster engagement numbers. Centers with large followings are reaching hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of fans each month. However, only a small percentage of those fans are engaging with content. By adding up total engagements and dividing that number by the total number of impressions, the numbers can be pretty sobering.

However, we’re seeing average per post engagement rates between 5% and 9% on the Facebook Pages of lifestyle centers. Granted this approach to calculating engagement is different. Our current reporting tools look at the average engagements across all posts within a given time period divided by the average number of impressions. What I like about this approach is that users engage with different types of content in different ways. Links to content may receive more clicks than text updates without links. Videos may see a higher number of shares compared to text-only posts. Combining the numbers and averaging the data helps to even the playing field between types of content. Additionally, most scraping services that can be used to compared engagement numbers without administrative action can only see data on the surface. It’s incredibly helpful from a comparison perspective, but shopping center marketers working behind the scenes might want to take a different approach to measure engagement numbers related to their content.

From a content strategy perspective, my belief is that shopping center communities see much higher numbers when a stronger focus is placed on community and event programming in lieu of retail promotions. I see a number of centers that utilize a content strategy that is almost an 80/20 split, with the heavy majority focused on retail promotions. I would rather see this approach flipped, with 80% of the content focused on center initiatives that attract, inform and entertain the community.

The shocking lack of reporting
According to the survey, 58% of marketers are reporting and tracking their digital efforts on a monthly basis. However, 25% of the shopping center marketers surveyed did not report their progress at all. When I read that number, my jaw hit the floor. One of the greatest strengths of social media is its ability to showcase data points and behaviors of engaged audiences. Social media can measure just about every aspect of a program. At the same time, this is its greatest weakness. Businesses, not just shopping centers, often struggle to identify what to measure.

The good news is that every platform provides some level of native analytics to measure and track progress. Reporting can be relatively high-level at the start of any program. Has our community grown this month? Are impressions numbers up or down? Are guests responding to posts containing events or promotions? How many reviews did we receive about guest experiences?

To take reporting a step further, shopping centers social media marketers can invest in tools and platforms that provide additional clarity regarding social media and digital activity. This can range from tying blog posts shared on social media back to e-mail opt-ins or insight as to what guests are sharing publically on social media when on property. Regardless of the approach you take, data is valuable. You just need the right people in the right seats to interpret the information and make suggestions for improvement.

Where do shopping centers go from here?
Property managers and developers love to use the word “experience” when describing their centers. We want to create an experience. In today’s digital-first world, that experience transcends what happens at the center. The digital experience is just as important at what guests and shoppers see, hear and feel when on property. Social media is a critical part of that experience. We’ve reached a point where processes can be developed and technology can be put in place to maximize and measure success. It’s really up to the team behind each property to put the right resources in place to make sure they follow the successes of their peers, as evidenced in this study.

Do you want to chat more about social media marketing for shopping centers? Feel free to reach out to me at [email protected]