09/08/2013 09:10 BST | Updated 06/10/2013 06:12 BST

The Growth of Social Retail: How Brands Are Wooing You Online

As consumers, our buying decisions are increasingly influenced by online content and campaigns, as we use social media platforms to research products and seek advice from friends. Retailers who don't invest in their digital communications will quickly become left behind.

In the not too distant past, retail was a purely offline experience. If you wanted something, you went to a shop to buy it, or browsed through a catalogue and rang through your order. But the internet, the development of online retail, and most recently the social media revolution, has changed all that.

We are currently seeing a major shift in consumer spending habits from offline to online, and the impact of failing to embrace this change has seen many high profile brands go bust in the past year alone.

This extraordinary growth has seen online sales reach £56 billion last year, with predictions by retail observers IMRG and Capgemini of 110 per cent growth in the next decade.

The most major growth is coming as the result of larger retail stores and websites putting more money into their online marketing, mobile marketing or what is currently being referred to as "omnichannel" or "multichannel" efforts - all geared towards promoting e-commerce shopping and making consumers more comfortable with buying online.

Author of the report, vice president and principle e-business analyst for Forrester, Sucharita Mulpuru, wrote "online retail's growth will outpace that of physical retail stores." She goes on to say that "as a result, stores will continue to lose wallet share to web retailers."

And social media will have a massive part to play in this growth. The impact that it will have on the way people shop, and as a result the impact on a retailer or brand's bottom line, is set to be huge. In fact, new research from eBay estimates that in the next two years the value of social media for retail will more than double from £1.5bn to reach around £3.3bn.

The research predicts that UK retail sales directly via social media are forecast to grow to £290m by 2014 from £210m (a rise of 44%) as more and more retailers target consumers with personalised offers and deals on social networks.

However, the real value from social media will come from the way it is used to influence and inspire purchases. Nearly half of social media users are already using social platforms while thinking about making a purchase, and a similar number are actively deciding what to buy based on what they have seen on social media platforms, including reviews and recommendations.

The power of online communications and networks to make or break your brand has never been greater. But while we all know which retailers have failed, what makes a successful online campaign, and who is harnessing the power of social media to successfully drive online sales?

Firstly, let's look at what the best social media campaigns have in common...

Just as important as a user-friendly and engaging or 'sticky' website, is how well integrated a website is with offsite social media pages such as Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, blogs and YouTube - which drive website traffic, and enable sharing and targeted campaigns.

Savvy retailers now recognise that their customers spend time on a variety of different social media sites, at different times and for different reasons. They also know which sites their target customers are using - and it varies between age groups. Facebook holds strong for sharing offers with friends, but Pinterest has seen rapid growth in popularity for visual content, while teens are now experimenting with others, like Vine and Snapchat.

User generated content' (UGC) is digital gold for retailers, so the best campaigns both enable and encourage UGC. Help Me Shop, recently launched by Ebay, enables shoppers to share products they've seen online with their friends on Facebook and run polls to help them make buying decisions.

Public endorsement is highly valuable to brands. Recommendations from friends are rated more highly than any other form of advertising, and successful online retailers understand this and make the most of it. They do this by ensuring their online content is easy to share (via highly visible 'one click' share and recommend icons) and that they tell the story behind the brand or product so that customers can understand and care enough to so.

Engagement is key for online retailers. Online shops lack the touchy-feely, face-to-face element that many consumers like, so need to make up for this by delivering a highly personal and hassle-free buying experience.

ASOS Facebook campaign brings mixes gaming with ecommerce

Online fashion retailer, ASOS, has previously had success by previewing their summer sale through a Facebook application. The application allowed fans to play a series of games that meant players with the most points went to the front of the virtual queue and could access the sale first.

Supported with Facebook Ads and Sponsored Stories, the campaign saw 174,000 people join the virtual queue, more than 1 million views of the application and ASOS' fan base grow by 32%.

As consumers, our buying decisions are increasingly influenced by online content and campaigns, as we use social media platforms to research products and seek advice from friends. Retailers who don't invest in their digital communications will quickly become left behind.

Online retail has infinite potential. Brands who are embracing digital and coming up with enticing and engaging campaigns that make the most of the latest technology to create a fun buying experience for their customers, continue to raise the bar (and our expectations). As social retail campaigns become ever more sophisticated, it will be exciting to see what the future holds, and how much the balance of power will shift into the hands of us as consumers to make or break a brand by what we share online.