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How Birchbox uses social media for personalisation and discovery

The UK marketing director of subscription service Birchbox told the Retail Week Tech conference about the retailer’s use of social media and data to offer customers a personalised service

Cosmetics subscription service Birchbox has been using social media and customer data to offer customers a personalised service focused on “discovery”.

UK marketing director of the brand, Janis Thomas, said the modern customer doesn’t have time to browse stores for cosmetics or try new things, and without intervention will end up buying the same products they always have.

“If you’ve been going to Boots month after month buying the same conditioner for £5, you’re not suddenly going to try one for £35 unless you’ve tried it,” she said.

“The people who subscribe to our service then go on to spend more in the beauty sector because they discover products they never knew they needed.”

The increase in access to digital technologies has shifted the consumer mind-set from “I’m going shopping” to “I’m always shopping”, according to some, meaning consumers are more open to having items suggested to help them discover relevant products.

Thomas used Amazon as an example as to why discovery is important. Amazon currently has a million different brands of mascara listed on its website, “which is great if you know what you want to buy”.

“There’s so much going on [in retail], so the discovery point is really key,” she added.

The brand launched a redesign of its website this year, focused on producing content in line with the box subscription experience and giving additional details on the types of products available through the service.

Thomas said the website features “help and discovery and interesting, engaging information, which is in line with what we hope our whole experience is like”.

But part of offering a bespoke experience to customers, as well as the opportunity to discover products relevant to them, is collecting data on customers to make sure “discovered” items are still relevant to that consumer.

Part of this is “going where our customer is”, says Thomas, which is predominantly social media platforms such as Instagram, with around 80% of the brand’s traffic coming through mobile.

Birchbox has also introduced partnerships with other websites as a result of customer requests, for example the brand worked with several designers from Etsy to produce different styles of artwork for boxes.

As well as a focus on Instagram, Birchbox has begun working with Facebook on its “education piece” to create posts that help educate users on different beauty products and why they might be helpful, and is working to use the social platform’s “refer a friend” feature as part of its marketing push.

What products users receive information about is based on user data – for example, people with different hair types will get personalised recommendations based on what product better suits them.

This helps to grow trust and loyalty with customers, which is harder to build in the modern age, reminiscent of old school retail where brands and retailers knew their customers and would cater to their specific needs.

Thomas pointed out that loyalty is an “interesting idea” for a subscription-based business, as “the customer is completely in control, they decide every month if they want to stay”.

Birchbox overhauled its loyalty system more than a year ago to focus on rewarding customers from the very start of their relationships with the brand, offering a 10% discount for full-sized versions of products that have featured in the current or previous month’s box, with the discount increasing to 15% after six boxes. Previously, the brand had used a points-based scheme.

“For us, it’s about making it an amazing experience. We listen to our customers. and particularly at the heart of our marketing strategy is a test and learn approach,” said Thomas. “It’s almost like launching a product every single month.”

Rather than focusing on a fixed marketing strategy, Birchbox adapts to how customers are responding to particular products or box designs.

For example, one product included in the brand’s subscription box was a makeup brush cleaner, which people unexpectedly “went nuts for” because the majority didn’t know what it was and weren’t cleaning their brushes, leading to 1.2 million views across Birchbox’s social accounts of a video on what the brush cleaner was and how to use it.

“We never predicted going into the month that this would be a key product for our position,” said Thomas, with the brand changing its strategy as a result of this reaction. “We are constantly seeing what’s working, what’s not working, what’s inspiring customers and what’s engaging them.”

Many in the retail industry have said that the most powerful tool at the disposal of retailers is social media, and Birchbox has found social to be the “number one” way to find out what customers think about the boxes they have been sent in a particular month. As a result, Instagram has become the main platform for a lot of the brand’s campaigns.

Consumers have also said that being able to interact with brands through social media can increase their loyalty for those brands.

“There’s no way you can get that customer feedback so quickly in any other way,” said Thomas. 

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