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People around the world are using social media for many reasons. They are meeting long lost relatives or high school classmates on social media sites, watching videos, reading blogs and most importantly for retailers, they are using social media to connect with brands they know and love.

And the numbers show no sign of slowing down any time soon. By the end 2011— more than 63% of Internet users will be using social media. (148 million people) and the number will climb to 67% by the year 2013. (Source: emarketer.com) That's a lot of people spending a lot of time with social media to do a lot of things.

And while some retailers are just getting started in using social media for their businesses, the industry is steam rolling ahead at warp speed. New social media sites are being created every day and the ways consumers use social media continues to evolve. So the question is - How is social media evolving and how will retailers be able to use it for their retail businesses in the coming year?

Here we present 5 emerging trends in social media. Many of them will be perfect for retailers like you as they seek to engage and share word of mouth experiences with customers in real time across a broad group of users. When you read them, don't think about where you are with social media today, think about where your business could be if you integrated some of these tools in the coming year.

Consumer content creation—It's all about being in the stream. Yes, you need to have an engaging presence with social media on your own that inspires people to come back on a regular basis. Now taking it to the next level and getting your brand evangelists and social media community members to talk about your business in their posts will be critical.

Think of it as PR and word of mouth marketing from your best customers. You will need to create programs that inspire them to share what you are doing in their social media posts. When your customers create the content for your business, it's the perfect word of mouth referral- except that it's on line and a lot more eyes will be on the message!

Niche Location — Niche location social media sites target the exact location of the user and tells others about it. This has a great connotation for retailers who can use location based sites like Foursquare or Gowalla to run contests or make offers to customers who check in when they shop.

Its like getting free advertising for your store in real time, from people who are shopping at that moment! Customerse check in and get discounts, etc and then their friends see on line that they are shopping in your store and may be intrigued to come in and get the same deal. If you want to see how some brands have implemented location based marketing programs, take a look at what Ann Taylor, McDonalds, Starbucks and Best Buy have already done in this area.

Group Purchasing — This trend continues to grow and will expand with more sites in 2012. Simply put, group purchasing is based on the premise that creating a sense of urgency around purchasing will incentivize users to act quickly and to share the information with friends in their circle to insure the deal happens.

For retailers, it's a great way to get a tremendous amount of marketing impressions for your brand that you could never afford on your own. And while the group purchasing sites take a percentage of the sales generated from the deal (and yes, there is some profit erosion on this first deal and customer transaction), the goal for using a GP site will be to create a longer term relationship with the customer over time to recoup your profit.

Using group purchasing sites like Groupon or Living social or Daily Deals has become a hotbed topic for retailers because they are concerned these sites don't attract the right type of customers that can be retained long-term. I would suggest that the key to successful group purchasing participation is how you structure the deal and how you prepare in advance to create a process for you to capture contact information from the customers as well as create marketing programs to speak to them after the Groupon is over.

Social Gaming — In 2012 more game applications will be integrated in to social media programs to further engage customers with brands in a fun way. More than 56 million people currently play games with social media on a regular basis and brands that connect with customers while they are using the game platforms are poised to form a meaningful connection with them going forward.

Mobile Marketing — More than 50% of all cell phones will be smart phones in 2012. Consumers understand the time saving benefits that a smart phone can deliver and the social media trends for 2012 call for more mobile marketing programs from brands to connect with customers where they are. Discount codes coming thru phones, interactions with products while in store and QR codes offering information, games and other relevant services will further engage customers with brands and stores in 2012.

Whatever trend you think is right for your business, one thing is certain. Social Media is the way of the future for retailers to connect with customers. Just like creating a website was important 10 years ago and email marketing they way to connect with customers 5 years ago, social media is a trend that is here to stay.

Social media is and will continue to be a way of connecting with customers for your store and if you plan on being in business in 10 years – you must continue (or start!) to integrate these new social media tools into your marketing plans today.

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Latest posts by Lynn Switanowski
Lynn Switanowski
Lynn Switanowski is the Founder of Creative Business Consulting Group, an International Retail Consulting firm based in Boston, MA. With more than 25 years retail experience CBCG partners with retailers to create and implement profit improving sales, inventory management, marketing and social media programs.
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