Ever felt bombarded by ads the second you scroll through your social media? What if instead, you found posts that resonated with your personal experiences or content that genuinely made you feel connected to a brand? Would you be more inclined to stay loyal to that brand?

In this episode of Social Pulse Podcast: Retail, we’re challenging the conventional use of social media as merely a sales or broadcasting tool. Our guest, Caroline Shaheed, an expert in social media strategy for retail, brings us insightful perspectives on how shifting the focus from selling to connecting can transform customer loyalty and brand presence. Listen to the entire episode below or read on for the highlight reel.

Mike Allton: Let’s start off by sharing your journey in social marketing and what led you to advocate for connecting overselling.

Caroline Shaheed: I have a bit of an unconventional path into social. I started my career in lifestyle journalism, so I wrote for a lot of magazines, worked at magazines. I wrote about the things that make life fun: travel, food, fashion, music, design, etc. So it was really about connecting with people, telling stories of how to enjoy their lives. And that really requires speaking to people as they are. People and not using academic speak or marketing speak.

So it really helps get the message out there that you want and people can see themselves in what you’re talking about and want to experience what your story is about. And social is very much that.

The magazine world, it’s a small pie, and it’s just getting smaller. And it’s hard to make a living in magazines. So journalism, especially with the advent of blogs, where you’re getting information for free, it became a harder field to make money. And then, it was a natural progression to move into storytelling on social when somebody approached me and said, “Hey, I think you’d be great at this.”

And then it sort of expanded my career, and I’ve worked all kinds of marketing roles from like PR, social, brand marketing, creative strategy, etc. And they all come under that same umbrella of really connecting with people and helping them improve their life.

Mike Allton: That makes a lot of sense. So when we’re talking about engaging and connecting with individuals, …

What does a successful interaction look like on social media for a brand?

I’m guessing it’s not just likes.

Caroline Shaheed: No. And to be honest, likes is your least valuable engagement metric. And I know it’s what everybody looks for.

How many likes did a post get? But a like isn’t super-valuable. A share is incredibly valuable. A save, very valuable. A comment, also great because you can understand how your audience is reacting and relating to that.

Now, I personally think shares are the most valuable because that is somebody finding your content so good and so compelling that they want to share it with their audience.

They want other people to know how great this product, service, post, etc., is, and you do that by connecting with people on an emotional level.

Four emotions to tap into in social

So there are really three to four emotions that you want to tap into on social, and, once I say this to you, it’ll completely ring true.
Like you’ll understand what I mean. And the way that you get people to engage is you tap into one of these.

  1. Humor. People love to laugh. If something is funny, they’ll engage, they’ll share, they’ll comment, etc.
  2. Heartstrings. Pulling at someone’s heartstrings, showing something emotional. Like, for example, those videos of dogs being reunited with their owners. Those always get people. They love it, they feel good.
  3. Relatability. So when somebody is able to see themselves in what you’re talking about. So, I worked in the book industry for a long time. So we talk about the feeling of canceling plans and staying in to read your book, and people relate to that.
  4. Anger. Oftentimes, you don’t want to tap into anger as a brand. But you will see on your social that’s where people connect. If it’s something that they can uniformly feel anger with then, sometimes you do want to use that as a brand but as a joking way. April Fool’s is great for that.

But that’s how you connect with people by tapping into those four emotional states. And if you’re just trying to sell to people, it’s not what social is for. You have other channels for that.

Social is about building community

So social is really to build your community and to give people a reason to follow you. So you have to do that, and part of this comes from my journalism background, but you need to stay on top of what’s happening in the world. You need to pay attention to the news to be successful on social because you need to understand what people are going through, what the economic climate is like, people are spending their time doing.

You need to understand what your clients are interested in on and offline. Where do they spend their time?

For example, the economy is not great right now. People do not have a lot of disposable income. So, trying to push really expensive products and services on social is not necessarily your best move.

But if you want to show them what they can do to feel happy with a small investment, like buying a new book that they can read in a park, experience with their friends. Well, that’s sort of an easy win. But if you’re trying to sell them like a $600 outdoor barbecue or $600 outdoor fireplace, that might be out of reach for the majority of people right now when groceries are so expensive.

If you’re not paying attention to the news, then you’re not understanding your customer’s pain points. So that’s why it’s so important, and also, there’s moments, zeitgeist moments that you’re going to want to tap into if they relate to your brand or your product. So that’s why it’s so important to understand those cultural moments and current affairs.

Mike Allton: I couldn’t agree more. I know many of our listeners are probably going to want to take the clip that you just said and share that with their heads of marketing, the directors of marketing, because as a social media manager, I know folks are often looking at your role and saying, “You just have to post to social media once a day. How much time could that possibly take?” Much of the job, to your point, [is to] spend a lot of time on social, reading, engaging, paying attention, reading the news, reading the room, and being aware of what’s going on out there.

Caroline Shaheed: And everything in social is so quick. So it’s not a job for everyone.

Everyone’s like, “Oh, just throw the 22 year old, the “just out of college” kid, on social.”

But what you need to understand is there has to be a strategy in place and you have to understand how to speak to people and understand that social is the voice of your brand. It is the persona of your brand, and that is something you need to protect and nurture.

There are many places on social where people directly connect with you, that they can have a conversation with you. It’s very different than out of home than email. And where a lot of brands falter is they take their out of home ads and they simply place them on social.

And that is not what social is for. Back in the day? Sure. Hyper-polished, beautiful campaign imagery. Great. Everybody wanted aspiration. But now, especially after the pandemic and people being locked in their homes, away from their friends, family, co-workers, life as they knew it, authenticity is what wins now.

They don’t want to see a perfect room. They want to see your mess. They want to see those bloopers. They want to see you getting your hands dirty cooking. They want to see that like you failed and like you burnt the brioche or, oops, that fell on the counter. They want to see that life is messy and real, and it’s something that they can engage with and see themselves in there.

And that’s also why something that I think brands really need to think about is when customers see themselves in your content.

They feel represented and when they feel represented, they become loyal. And that’s why activism and advertising is important. But with a caveat, you can’t just—and like we’re in June, so it’s Pride month-you can’t just slap a rainbow on something. You cannot do that. If you’re not actively promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion within your brand, within your company walls, where your employees feel safe, you do not get the right to put a rainbow on it to say we’re here for Pride. If you’re only doing that in the month of June, then you’re rainbow-washing.

You have to be authentic and real. And you can’t for Asian history month just say, “Hey, it’s Asian history month. We’re celebrating with this recipe, with this book, with this post.” You have to actively make sure that the people who are in your company, who are part of that community, feel safe, feel heard, feel represented, and that your customers who are of that community, you’ve spoken about this before.

And it’s the same with representing who is showing up on your social. You have to make sure that the team is also diverse. And I’m not just talking about races. I’m a woman of color. Yes. But also like we were talking, so I previously worked at Indigo, which is Canada’s lifestyle department store but a book retailer.

We are the answer to Barnes and Noble in Canada, Waterstones in the UK. So lifestyle products, books at the core, beautiful. And so they would talk about wellness and life, etc. And there was one month that, I think it was January, and we’re looking for, this was a couple of years ago, stock images to represent wellness.

And I found this really beautiful post of a yoga teacher and someone with Down syndrome. And I was like, “This is a great way to represent diversity.” And this post with the cut, with the message that we shared exploded. People love to see it and so then we would show books about neurodiversity, about different mental health, about Down syndrome, Asperger’s, lots of different kinds of different mental capacities and disabilities as well as physical disabilities.

And a lot of brands don’t think about that. Nike does. And you will see people who are amputees, you will see all of these different body types. And I love that we’re starting to see this in advertising because it shouldn’t just be the skinny, beautiful, hyper-ripped people because we’re not all that. And when I see somebody who’s got big, boofy curly hair and darker skin in somebody’s advertising or social, I want to know more because finally I’m seeing myself.

 When people see themselves, they become loyal. You don’t just become another brand.

And, so we see that and same with working in books. I always made sure that we were representing books written by a diverse audience because books are our casting. So if you’re not using a model, you need to show that because that’s real and authenticity is key.

Be authentic in all your interactions

Mike Allton: Yeah. In fact, I was going to underline something else that you said earlier, which is that shares are the most important, most valuable engagement that we can get. And I couldn’t agree more. I’ve said that time and time again. And I think the underlying truth there on top of the emotions or underneath the motions that you mentioned was that a share demonstrates trust. If I share your content, that means I’m trusting that it’s factual. It’s good that it’s going to make me look good to my audience, that there’s nothing wrong with it. And that’s what allows that brand loyalty over time. So I appreciate that you brought that up.

Caroline Shaheed: And it goes both ways. So brands also sharing content from users. UGC is a great way to engage your customers and people like finding great content and then showcasing somebody and saying, “Hey, we got this amazing video or photo from Mike Allton. Check out his page!” and tagging them. Giving them attribution shows that you’re a valuable part of the community. So this is another thing. A lot of brands don’t engage and don’t realize that social is two ways and you need to be part of the community.

You can’t just take, you have to give. So go on other people’s pages, engage with them, comment, say, “We love this. Oh, this is so fun. Love the way you’re using our product.”

Even if it’s not using your product. So it’s not just using your product but engaging with your top users or creators that are doing things that you’re eventually going to want to work with.

And that’s another thing for success is you want to make sure that you have a program that also uses influencers and content creators for diversity, again, on your feed. Because you don’t just want to have the same thing time and time and time again. You want to switch it up.

I mean, also let’s be real certain things you need to have templates for. You need to make sure that you are agile enough to adapt to that zeitgeist moment that makes sense for your brand. And this is another thing with social, something to tap back to what you said is you need to pay attention to what’s happening in the world and zeitgeist moments and be able to respond and react to them.

So it’s not just posting something today. I write out my content plan for three months because I know what we’re we’re focusing on. But I always leave room for zeitgeist moments so that we can be adaptable and make sure that we can weigh in here.

TikTok is awesome. So you need to pay attention to TikTok because what happens on TikTok is going to come down to Instagram. It’s going to come down to YouTube shorts. It’s going to come down to Pinterest. It’s going to come down to Facebook. So TikTok is a really great place to see what’s going on.

There’s lots of trends ,and Capcut is going to be everybody who works in social is best friend because those filters are such a great way to do quick content. So if you’re having a sale and you want to let people know, and there’s a great Capcut filter, use that. Don’t just post a red block saying 15 percent off or something.

You also have to be really thoughtful, and it’s objective. Not every trend makes sense for every brand. And you need to think about what conversation does it make sense for you to enter?

Let’s go back to the pandemic and Black Lives Matter. So many brands jumped in there and they had no business talking about Black Lives Matter because they weren’t doing anything. And if you don’t have something valuable to add to that conversation, you need to stay out of it.

Know when to join in the social trend … and when to keep quiet

So, I mean, this will date me because this goes back a few years, but I was leading social at Microsoft Canada, way back in the day when the bombing happened at the Boston Marathon.

And brands were jumping into that. I will never forget. It was a horrific moment when … Epicurious was like, “Support Boston by making our Boston clam chowder.”

I can’t remember which brand it was … It might’ve been Dasani, it might’ve been Nestle, [where] somebody was saying, “Hey, go here. We have water and safety for you.” Google, I think, had something about maps to find people that were safe. That’s when you jump in. But saying, “Make this”? No, you, you stay silent. You don’t have anything of value. And a tragedy is not a branding moment. I remember there was a shoe company that sent out an email saying like “Celebrate Veterans Day with this discount.” And I was like, “Nope. Nope. Nope.” Those don’t match up. Those are somber moments.

Mike Allton: I remember over a decade ago having to chastise brands for having a 9 11 sale. Can you just imagine a 9 11 sale?

Caroline Shaheed: You have to really be thoughtful. This is why again you need somebody with some seniority behind your social media strategy, and don’t just throw it to the kid who’s just out of school, as eager as they might be and as good as a job as they’re going to try and do without understanding those nuances of what can damage your brand. You can get really excited. Like here’s this really fun trend. You know, we should jump on it, but it’s like, “Hey, hold on. What is this going to do for us? Is it going to harm us or is it going to help us?”

That’s why you have to be strategic and plan and understand that kind of language. And a lot of people will jump in and write something that’s just going to be hurtful. So you have to really think about what makes sense. Are you going to hurt a particular cohort of your community? Is this inclusive? Is this kind? Is it thoughtful? Are you offering something of value? And that’s another reason why you have to pay attention to the news.

Mike Allton: Yeah, absolutely. And those are some great examples of what not to do, some good cost sharing details.

What are some examples of what social media managers in retail today should be doing?

Caroline Shaheed: Yeah, like memes are awesome. People love memes. They love humor. They love to use it. I’ll give you an example of one that I used last year that exploded for us. So everybody remembers last year, Kourtney Kardashian holding up the sign at the concert saying, “Travis, I’m pregnant.”

That was a perfect meme. And at the time, when I was working at Indigo, we were about to have a “buy three, get the fourth book free” sale, which was something we hadn’t done in years. And I was talking to my boss, who is the SVP of marketing, of how we were going to execute this. And he’s like, “Just throw up a graphic image text saying buy three get four off.”

And I was like …we can do something more fun. And I was riding my bike home from work that day and I was like, “I’ve got the perfect idea. We’ll use that meme. We’ll change what it says on the board saying buy three books, get the fourth free!” And we did that, and people loved it.

We used it across all of our channels because we like to try and repurpose as much as we can. It exploded, like it went so viral. I think we had something like 400 and 20 or 30, 000 followers on Instagram. And this post reached organically. I put nothing behind it, well over 250, 000 people. We had … like maybe 10K or 20K likes, tons of comments.
One person commented, “I just bought 24 books.” And we got accolades from our president, our CEO, like the retail market, our stores grabbed it and put it on theirs. It was just something so simple, but it gives people joy and a laugh. It was great.

And we did something very similar with that Victoria Beckham/David Beckham meme at Christmas time. You know the one where he’s like, “Be honest!” And she says, “I am being honest” And and it was something like, “I’m not buying anything for myself for Christmas,” “Be honest,” “I am being honest” and then eventually the last frame said, “Just bought myself a stack of books.” And he’s like “thank you.”

And people loved it. Super simple. Made it in CapCut in 20 minutes. Sometimes, you can do those and then other ones are more thoughtful, and you take the videos that are trending and you translate them, but you also have to make sure things work for the different platforms.

What’s really interesting is how we’re seeing video explode due to TikTok’s popularity, but not on every platform. So for Facebook, stills and carousels did so much better than video because the audience is different. It’s a little bit older on Facebook and they don’t necessarily want to engage with a video. They have their sound off their multi screening and same with Twitter or X as it now is.

X is so quick. Nobody wants to stop and watch a video unless it’s incredible. So, we would change up what we were doing. So a lot of times we were doing a video, it was Instagram, it was Pinterest, it was TikTok or YouTube short, and then the other channels we did stills or YouTube and learned. You want to make sure that you’re picking a really great cover photo for your grid, even though very few people look at the grid anymore. But it’s still important because it’s your brand identity.

Mike Allton: Yeah. And that, that point about testing and learning, constantly is hugely important.

How do you approach creating strategic content that connects?

Caroline Shaheed: Yes. So again, that’s super-important. So a lot of brands that I currently work with are still, even in 2024, wrapping their heads around what social is all about. And they want to stick these big graphic branded logo centric images on social, and they’ll never work. Those just don’t work because in order for something to work again, you have to touch on those emotions that I mentioned earlier and you need something that’s thumb stopping.

So it needs to seamlessly integrate with somebody’s organic feed. So you want to create as a person would not as a brand. So you want to have your social team, your designers, your content creators, creating those videos and images like they would as if they were doing it for themselves.

Again, that authenticity. Just using a product like a human would instead of just doing flatlays. Like flatlays have their time and place, but logos do not belong on social media except for Pinterest, and we can talk about that later, but social media should not have logos. It’s coming from your page. People already know it’s yours. It doesn’t work with the platform. The platform is not designed for that. It’s designed to engage, to entertain, to showcase people’s lives, not hard sell. And a lot of brands, especially with the state of the economy right now, and brands are reeling and losing money. They’re scared. They’re nervous. They want to sell. They’re like, we got to sell this stuff. We got to get this out the door, like make a hard sell. And it’s like, “Slow down.”

I guess this is kind of what we want to do. I think what we want to do is come together as an engagement tool, as a community building tool. And once they see that, they will come. It’s that whole “Field of dreams” [movie]: If you build it, they will come. That’s another movie where I just dated myself and made myself 2000 years old but yeah.

It’s really important to understand the power of social and brands that do that win and brands that don’t.

Social is not what it was two years, five years, six years, 10 years ago … Another point that I wanted to talk about with you today is in order to have a successful organic strategy, you have to have a successful performance strategy. And what I mean by that is a paid media, team or plan.

So I had a really great partner in my performance team where we would look at what was going on, what was important, what was performing well and I would get in touch with her and we’d hop on a call and I’d be like, this is doing really well. Can we boost? And she’s like, yeah, let’s put this much behind it, work with the budget. And then she’s like, we’re boosting this because of this. Are you guys creating anything for this campaign that we can use because your organic posts do way better than a campaign image?

By doing that, we were able to make money hand over fist, as opposed to just a little sprinkle here and there. When you’re able to look at what’s performing organically and boost, that’s how you’re going to win. And that’s why it’s so important to have a paid media plan on social because they’ve realized these platforms have gotten wise and they are going to make you pay for their services.

It is not free anymore, which is difficult for small businesses, but it’s smarter to have a little bit of money here, create really good content and boost that as opposed to creating a huge amount of content and posting and posting and posting where no one’s seeing it.

So spend less on that. Be consistent though. You have to be consistent, but you don’t have to post every day. Instead of posting every day, post three times a week and boost a few of those posts. And then your content is cycling through to the right people because you can target it.

Mike Allton: I’m glad you talked about performance marketing a second ago because that implies you’re spending time and taking a look at your analytics and seeing what’s actually performing well.

How do analytics fit into this strategy of fostering connections?

Caroline Shaheed: Yeah, analytics are so important. It’s so important to be able to read and understand them and pull out digestible and actionable insights.

And this is something that I work with my team and make sure all my juniors start to understand analytics because it’s only going to make our content better. Generally I look at stuff all the time, daily, but you need to give stuff at least a week.

Pinterest is longer. To review them and see how it’s doing so that you can understand how many people did this reach? How many people engaged with this? What’s our engagement rate? Why is this working better or worse than something that we did that was similar before? And try to understand again, what’s going on in your customer mindset? What problems are we trying to solve for them? Are we solving their problems? What’s going on in the world?

And then also looking at what’s changed?

So our Q3 was Christmas time, so there was a huge budget for performance. And then after that, there was very little budget. And then we were seeing that translate into our organic reach … So I went back and looked at our analytics and our spend for the past three years during the same time period, where we were week by week by week, and then looked at our analytics to see how it correlated, what related. And if I wasn’t thinking about those patterns, I wouldn’t understand that there was a difference, something was changing and like, that the money that we spent affected the organic.

There were factors outside of the organic content creation that were affecting it. And this is why you really need to understand the whole picture and put strategy and knowledge behind that. Because if you’re not taking into account all of those other factors, you’re getting the wrong story. And to be able to tell the right story is how you create better content in the future.

So it’s really important that you understand the data because it’s all storytelling, whether through data, through visuals, through words, etc., you need to know what’s going on.

And that’s why you can’t just sit back and say, “Oh, I created this great video. It’s going to do well.” You need to look at everything else. And if it didn’t do well, you’re like, “Oh, well, I didn’t do it right.” Well, maybe you did, but you posted it at the wrong time. There were other things going on in the world that were more important. You had, if you’re a brand, your spends changed dramatically. There’s all those kinds of factors. And it’s really important to understand that.

Mike Allton: Yeah. So we’re looking at last week’s posts. We’re taking a look at the reach and the gauge from last week’s post. How do you connect that to actual business results?

How are you showing the impact that social media is having on the brand’s bottom line?

Caroline Shaheed: Yeah. So there’s, there’s a lot of different ways. So, for example, a couple of summers ago, we were selling these Brixton straw hats and I loved them and I was like, oh, we should do a post about these. So there was no other advertising about them. So we did this cute poolside post about them and it did really well. People loved it. And then I checked in with my merchandiser or my category manager. And I was like, “Hey, can you give me the sales numbers for this? Did we see a boost at all?” And she was like, “We saw a huge boost from this.” People didn’t necessarily buy from the social post, but we did see people go into store, people order online.

This is actually a really great question. I’m glad you asked it because people don’t necessarily purchase directly from social, and especially on Instagram in feed, it’s really difficult to purchase. So you have just about four clicks to get them to purchase. So they see the post, they like it. Then you have to click into the profile, click into link in bio, go into link in bio, find the product, then start trying to get through the purchasing funnel. So that’s a lot to ask people. Four clicks might not sound like a lot, but it’s a lot. And then stories, it’s easier. It’s like one click.

And then TikTok is very different. Not a lot of people click through on TikTok. Facebook, we tend to see more purchasing come through. Social isn’t necessarily for conversions. It’s for inspiration and ideation and then getting people to go to site or in store. So it’s sometimes really difficult to track that way, but if you’re trying to sell something in particular, the best thing to do is give it a bit of time and then talk to the people that you’re working with who are in charge of monitoring those sales and then find out.

What did we sell during this time that this post was active in the first couple of days and see, okay, so we saw a lift. Can we attribute that all to social? Probably not. Can we attribute some of it? Yeah, I think so. It’s not a direct linear line. So it’s kind of hard to track, but you can always track if you’re using proper software sales from social direct sales from social as well, but I would not say that the only sales. are the ones that you see directly related to those customized links.

And that’s another thing. You should always be using customized links on your social. So adding those UTM codes, so you can track the direct revenue that you get from it.

Mike Allton: That is a fantastic point. I know many of you listening in the retail space probably felt that pretty hard that you’re talking about your products and your stores on social media and it’s driving or it’s influencing walk in traffic and walk in sales, but you can’t attribute that. But if you haven’t checked it out yet, Agorapulse does everything that Caroline just talked about, where if you’re sharing a link anywhere, whether it’s a link in bio, a direct message, we’re releasing a sticker link support so you can post a story that has a sticker link. All of that can be tracked and attributed and we integrate with Google Analytics. So we’d actually be able to tell you specifically, which links, which campaigns, which channels are driving actual ROI for the business.

And the other thing I want to recommend is that you go back and listen to our previous episode with Jenna Galardi from Feedonomics, because she’s talking about how to make sure your ecommerce shops are tied to your Instagram shop, your Pinterest, your TikTok shop, your Facebook shop, all the social shops.

Caroline Shaheed: Yeah, we use Feedonomics as well. Great tool.

Mike Allton: It’s a terrific tool. It’ll help you customize and optimize those listings, so it’s not just copying and pasting the exact same product description across platforms, because that doesn’t work. There’s nuances and differences, so we’ve got to make sure that those are in place. Caroline, you have been absolutely amazing. This has been such an in depth conversation. I’ve loved so many of your insights. For those who want to reach out and learn more, follow you, connect with you, where can they go?

Caroline Shaheed: So it’s kind of funny. LinkedIn is a great place to find me, but because I do so much work for brands, like my social isn’t necessarily so educational. Like it’s like my Instagram is just CShaheed. I’m on all the channels. Like TikTok, I’m more of a lurker. I rarely post, but I’m on it all the time. because it is where I want to learn and, and grow. But, but yeah, definitely, LinkedIn is a great place to connect with me. If you want to talk about strategy or opportunities, etc.

Mike Allton: Trust me, everybody listening can 100 percent relate. Everybody here’s got a full time job running social media for a brand. They don’t get paid to run their own social, so we do it when we have time. So thank you for that. Thank you all of you for listening. That’s all we’ve got for today, friends. I hope you’ve enjoyed this episode of Social Pulse Podcast Retail Edition.

The Shift to Connection-Based Social Media Marketing