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Study finds retailers are thinking socially

A majority of retailers and brands are already engaging in social activities, even though they harbor fears about such close engagement with consumers, a study finds.

Retailers have a love-hate relationship with social media, according to a study set to be released next week.

The E-tailing Group, which specializes in retail sector trends, surveyed 117 companies--from small to large--to assess how retailers and brands view the social Web.

The biggest concern among respondents is that consumers will "trash their products in front of a large audience," according to E-tailing Group. At the same time, companies very much want to partake in the social Web.

Ninety-three percent of companies surveyed said they are seeking greater customer engagement through social-media efforts. And 76 percent want to use social networks to "mobilize advocates through word of mouth."

"Brands are especially worried about negative comments hurting a brand, but they also know that they need to go social. That's why they're using Facebook and Twitter with some success," E-tailing Group spokeswoman Lauren Freedman said.

Of all social media, Facebook drew the most interest of respondents, followed by Twitter. Tying for third place were customer reviews and blogs. Viral videos took fifth.

Eighty-six percent of respondents already use Facebook Fan pages to deliver a social experience to their customers. Only 1 percent of those companies have no plans to deploy a Facebook Fan page.

Sixty-five percent of companies are using Twitter as a tool to market their brands. However, 9 percent said they don't plan to open a Twitter account or market their brand through it.

Fifty-five percent said they allow customer reviews on their sites and feature blogs. And 50 percent have used viral videos.

Company marketers aren't testing the social waters just for the fun of it, though.

"They don't want to do this unless it delivers the return on investment that their companies are expecting," Freedman said.

Still, it's not Facebook or Twitter--the two social tools retailers are using most often--that companies expect will help them increase sales. Instead, customer reviews take the top spot.

According to the study, about 85 percent of respondents believe customer reviews across the Web are a great way to increase sales. They reason that consumers listen to their peers. By comparison, just 33 percent of companies believe a Facebook Fan page can increase sales.

Looking ahead, the E-tailing Group sees social adoption continuing to grow in the marketplace. Twenty-five percent of respondents expect that companies will be "much more aggressive" in the social arena. And 50 percent said companies will be "more aggressive" in the next six months.

"Quick adoption of social networks is a guarantee over the next six months," Freedman said. "That's mainly due to movements to social brands by the competition."

In other words, no company wants to be left behind.