On a Wednesday night this July, the marketing staff for Scottsdale Fashion Square, a two-million-square-foot superregional mall in Scottsdale, Ariz., owned by the Macerich Co., updated the mall's Facebook page with a few reminders to its 638 fans. There was a Nordstrom Anniversary Sale going on and shoppers could save up to 40 percent on their purchases. Customers throughout Macerich malls could also enter a $10,000 sweepstakes by registering at inspireyourstyle.com, a Macerich-run Web site complete with advice about fashion.
Among the news about Scottsdale Fashion Square and Macerich, the most curious post was about a couple named Kevin and Libby, who attended a premiere of “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” that evening at the local movie theater. The post included photos of Kevin and Libby in line for movie tickets, at the concession stand and engrossed in the film. It revealed that “Kevin loves movie popcorn!” The catch? Kevin and Libby are plush mannequins.
Dreamed up by Macerich's marketing folks this spring as a way to generate buzz for the opening of a new Barneys at Scottsdale Fashion Square, Kevin and Libby have become an amusing diversion for Scottsdale shoppers, who like to keep an eye out for sightings of the mannequins throughout the city, says Traci Weber, senior vice president of marketing with the Santa Monica, Calif.-based REIT. In recent weeks, Scottsdale Fashion Square's “hottest couple” rode the downtown trolley, had margaritas during happy hour at Z'Tejas' restaurant and attended a Saturday night Arizona Diamondbacks baseball game. In July, Libby even took a trip to New York, renting a suite at the W hotel, getting a tour of Barneys with the help of the store's famed creative director Simon Doonan and experiencing authentic New York City cuisine with a pretzel from a street cart vendor.
The reason Scottsdale locals are aware of all this is because Kevin and Libby, who appear to be in their late 20's or early 30's, are typical of their generation — they love to share their experiences on social networks. And when Libby is seen around town wearing a cute skirt or Kevin finds a particularly cool pair of jeans, Macerich helpfully lets the mall's Facebook fans and 578 Twitter followers know which Scottsdale Fashion Square store carries such items. (There is no word yet on which bookstore sold Libby the Jodi Picoult novel she took with her on the flight to New York.)
“It's a great example of how social media is making an impact and allowing us to have more of a relationship with our shoppers,” says Weber. “We drop clues about where [Kevin and Libby] are going to be and then people talk about seeing them.”
The Kevin and Libby phenomenon is part of an industrywide push to take advantage of social networks to create new interactions between shoppers, retailers and shopping center owners. In the past, retail property owners' online presence amounted to static company and property sites. In fact, the mall industry has historically eschewed doing too much online because the business is so reliant on people coming to properties. Mall owners have largely viewed the Internet as a threat because of the rise of online shopping. Now the sector is learning how to leverage the Internet to enhance the in-mall experience.
One reason for this is the increasing popularity of handheld wireless devices and social networks. Facebook now has 66 million registered users in the U.S. and 250 million registered users worldwide, according to the Nielsen Co., a global marketing and media information firm. About 120 million of those users visit Facebook at least once a day. This spring, micro-blog service Twitter's U.S. membership passed the seven million mark, a 1,382 percent increase from the same period last year. And increasingly, people are accessing these networks via mobile devices. The number of mobile service subscribers in the U.S. is now above 224 million.
For mall operators, that's a lot of potential shoppers and not just in the low-spending teen demographic — the largest group of Twitter users, for instance, is made up of people in the 35- to 49-year-old age range. It also means that shoppers can be reached while they are on site, via promotional texts, e-mails, tweets or Facebook updates that can pop up on Web-enabled mobile devices.
All this technology allows property owners to engage customers in two-way conversations. When a mall posts a notice on an upcoming sale or marketing promotion on its Facebook page, shoppers can post feedback on the event, giving the owner a sense of how successful the promotion has been.
It also doesn't hurt, given today's market environment, the cost-effectiveness of it all. Setting up Facebook pages or Twitter accounts is quick and costs nothing. For Macerich, creating Kevin and Libby's escapades is no more expensive than the price of two mannequins, a camera and maybe a trolley ticket. What social networking does require, however, is time and effort. Being consistent with postings and making sure what you are putting up is interesting is essential to build and sustain a network of engaged followers. If you can do that, you can reach hundreds, if not thousands, of people in a shopping center's trade area regularly.
For example, when Atlanta-based REIT Cousins Properties ran a gift card contest for its Avenue lifestyle centers this summer and advertised the event through its ShopTheAvenue Facebook page, the total costs for collateral, promotions and creative work came to less than $1,000 per property, says Kim Tanalgo-Minshew, marketing manager for the Avenue East Cobb in Peachtree City, Ga. By contrast, a traditional on-site marketing event like an art show would cost three to five times that amount when factoring in the price of equipment rentals, extra staffing, entertainment and supplies.
“Social media is much more cost-effective than doing on-site campaigns and than doing traditional advertising,” Tanalgo-Minshew says. “And we like the fact that shoppers start interacting. It has been a big retailer moral boost.”
Next Page: Getting social
The retail real estate industry's forays into modern technology range from nascent to bold. PREIT, a Philadelphia-based REIT with a 34.5-million-square-foot portfolio, has recently become one of the first in the industry to use the online video-sharing site YouTube for marketing purposes. In preparation for the 2009 back-to-school shopping season, the company shot a minute-long video of kids using old school supplies in unconventional ways in a short entitled “What happened to last year's school gear?”
The video is the centerpiece of a special site the company set up, Backtoschoolvalu.com, designed to bolster its retailers' sales during the late summer shopping season. In addition to the Internet version, a 30-second version ran during previews in movie theaters throughout PREIT's trade areas. PREIT has also set up Facebook and Twitter pages for its properties. Creating the video cost the firm less than $4,000, but a week after being posted, it had generated about 800 views even before PREIT began promoting it, says Judy Trias, vice president of retail marketing.
Cousins Properties is also on the cutting edge when it comes to using social networks. Last holiday season, the firm launched an “Affordable Luxuries” contest through Facebook. Fans of Avenue lifestyle centers were asked to become fans of the ShopTheAvenue Facebook page. Fans can upload photos of what they deemed affordable purchases found at the centers, share shopping tips and participate in surveys about their holiday shopping habits. Those who became ShopTheAvenue fans and participated in the contest were automatically entered to win a $500 gift package. An additional 250 shoppers received free cosmetics bags. The contest helped raise the number of fans on Facebook from 66 to 1,300.
Moreover, for four weeks this summer, Cousins ran its “Are You a Recessionista?” campaign through Facebook. Shoppers could post their favorite deals on the ShopTheAvenue page and each week, the poster with the greatest number of comments got a $100 gift card. In addition, later this year, Cousins plans to use YouTube for a video contest designed to promote its new Web site. In August, Cousins began working with DECA Marketing Education, an association of marketing students, to perform research on the best ways to target shoppers through Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.
“Part of the reason we are doing [YouTube] is that it's the number two search engine now behind Google,” says Tanalgo-Minshew.
In April, the most recent month for which data is available, YouTube viewers numbered more than 107 million and watched a total of 6.8 billion videos, according to comScore Inc., a provider of digital marketing intelligence. The site accounts for 17 percent of Internet traffic worldwide.
Macerich has also been tapping into Facebook and Twitter for promotions. In the past month, it has launched Twitter accounts for more than 30 of its 92 malls, says Weber. On a recent afternoon, the tweets for Kierland Commons, a 450,000-square-foot mixed-use center in Scottsdale, Ariz., which has run a test for Twitter marketing for several months, included an announcement about available job positions at the center, a reminder about a free summer concert series and a post about a gift card promotion by one of Kierland's restaurants. Kierland's Twitter page now has 1,230 followers.
While Twitter has yet to match Facebook in its popularity, the site's emphasis on brevity — posts should be no longer than 140 characters — and immediacy means information gets around quickly and with minimal effort. Not long ago, the marketing folks at CBL & Associates Properties, a Chattanooga, Tenn.-based retail REIT with an 83.6-million-square-foot portfolio, were surprised to see one of the REIT's properties, the 1.1-million-square-foot CoolSprings Galleria in Franklin, Tenn., on the local nightly news. It turned out the popular boy band Jonas Brothers was seen shopping at the mall that afternoon, and the sighting generated enough buzz on Twitter to merit CoolSprings a TV appearance.
CBL already has some experience with Facebook and MySpace. When the firm launched its “Retail Therapy Sweepstakes” this April, shoppers were encouraged to register not only through CBL's home site or through TreatYourSelfToRetailTherapy.com, but through Facebook and MySpace as well. The shoppers who registered and supplied their names and contact information got a chance to win a CBL mall gift card ranging in value from $2,500 to $10,000. Altogether, CBL awarded $30,000 in six prize packages. In the process, it collected information on 35,000 customers across the country.
“For the most part, we've used social networking as an add-on to existing programs to build a fan base and garner additional e-mail addresses,” says DJ Jackson, marketing services manager with CBL, which is testing Facebook and Twitter for individual malls.
Glimcher Realty Trust, meanwhile, has just signed an agreement with eProximity, an interactive marketing firm, to provide up-to-the-moment updates on sales and promotions to shoppers who carry wireless devices. The service has already launched at Polaris Fashion Place, a 1.5-million-square-foot regional mall in Columbus, Ohio, and before the start of the holiday shopping season, will be available at 19 additional Glimcher properties. When shoppers enter the Wi-Fi hotspot near Polaris' food court area, their laptops, smart phones and other wireless devices will immediately gain access to the center's Web site, complete with current merchant events and special promotions, according to Jessi Fausett, senior marketing manager with the Columbus-based REIT.
The trend is beginning to catch on — Developers Diversified Realty, a Beachwood, Ohio-based operator of shopping centers, is currently in talks with mobile marketing providers about rolling out a program at its properties. The firm plans to launch a mobile initiative by the first quarter of 2010, according to Scott Schroeder, vice president of marketing and corporate communications.
“Consumers are really taking advantage of technology and here they can turn on their laptop, learn about a promotion, print out a coupon [that they can use right away] and even make a reservation,” says Fausett.
Glimcher is also in the process of testing Twitter and Facebook pages at nine of its 26 properties. So is PREIT — the Twitter page for the one-million-square-foot Orlando Fashion Square already has 1,136 followers. And Facebook tests are under way at five of its malls in the Northeast.
Using modern technology is not just about gaining exposure for the center, however. As tenants continue to suffer from falling consumer demand, property owners have realized that their marketing efforts have to tie in with retailers' sales efforts whenever possible, says Weber. That's why Kevin and Libby are not just a lark — their updates always contain information about where at Scottsdale Fashion Square shoppers can find the products they are marketing. That's why the contests Cousins holds on Facebook are often about the best deals shoppers can find at Avenue properties. That's why the timeline for Glimcher's rollout of wireless marketing is set for before the holiday season — so by the time holiday shopping is under way, the REIT can promote its tenants' merchandise as effectively as possible.
“We found that if we can take what the retailers are doing and leverage it, that's always successful,” Weber says. “The more we can make our events intersect with their business, the more successful it's going to be.”