In early February, several high-powered consultants arrived at Target Corp.’s headquarters in downtown Minneapolis. They spoke with executives, tested products and toured the facilities.
Online, they go by @teachmama, @afrobella, and @sweetgreens. Not to mention @simplekids, @skinnyhouse, @couldihavethat and @citysage.
But in real life, these social-media mavens make up the Inner Circle, a group of prolific bloggers that Target recruited last year to plug the retailer into cyberspace and advise new products and initiatives.
Although Target does not pay Inner Circle members, the retailer has flown the women to Minneapolis and New York, where they attended Media Day and previewed Target’s holiday collection with Neiman Marcus. Target also invited the women to attend local events related to their blogs’ subject matter such as parenting and education.
“We have the ear of the leadership,” said Alyson Seligman, author of the “The Average Girl’s Guide” blog. “People don’t get that type of access.”
Target joins a growing wave of companies using social media to plug products. Before launching its initiative last year, Target had been increasingly aware of the clout that social media hold over consumer opinion, company officials say. So the retailer recruited 16 women active on everything from Twitter and Pinterest to blogs and Instagram to serve as both brand ambassador and sounding board.
“We have known for quite some time that [social media] was something we wanted to be in,” said Target spokesman Eric Hausman, who oversees the program. The Inner Circle “could be great influencers for Target.”
Retailers are investing more resources in social media. While Twitter and Facebook posts have not yet directly generated significant amounts of sales, social media heavily influences consumers’ perception of the brand or product, analysts say.
Although it’s not unusual for consumers to use social media to monitor and respond to consumer praise and complaints, retailers are now seeking more proactive ways to shape that opinion, though not yet to the organized extent of Inner Circle, said Lynn Switanowski, founder and president of Creative Business Consulting Group in Boston.
General Mills Inc. does something similar. It sponsors Baking with Betty, a two-day, all-expenses-paid event giving bloggers a chance to bake in Betty Crocker’s kitchen, taste new products and, the company hopes, create an army of Betty Crocker disciples in the digital world.
Consumers are increasingly relying on other “ordinary people” for advice about what to purchase or ignore, Switanowski said. That’s especially true in the cosmetics world, where a YouTube tutorial on blush and eye shadow can draw thousands of viewers and the courtship of makeup companies.
“Social media has evolved into a referral system without having to meet someone,” Switanowski said.
According to a recent report by PricewaterhouseCoopers, 26 percent of consumers visit a retailer’s social media site based on the recommendation of a friend or expert.
PricewaterhouseCoopers makes special note of what it calls “social addicts ... [consumers who use] social media to talk about their experiences with brands, learn what their friends like and recommend, find customer-service answers, and submit ideas and product feedback to companies.”
“Getting the message out to social addicts can support the brand, while ignoring them carries significant reputational risk, as these very active online users tend to have huge social media networks and wield an outsize influence among them,” the report said.
Seligman certainly counts as one of them. Seligman, who owns her own public-relations firm in Palm Beach, Fla., is active on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
Her blog attracts about 30,000 to 35,000 unique viewers a month. On average, each Inner Circle member operates six social media accounts, which cover everything from parenting and fashion to schools and shopping.
Amy Mascott, author of the Teach Mama blog, said she likes how Target caters to each member’s personal interests. For example, Mascott, a former English teacher, recently covered a ceremony in which Target donated $25,000 to a school in Baltimore. Actors from the show “Good Luck Charlie” also attended the event.
“Target looked at us as experts in what we write about,” said Mascott, a Washington, D.C., area resident whose blog has about 80,000 unique viewers a month. “It’s not like I woke up one day and instantly had 80,000 viewers. Some of the people in Inner Circle are real rock stars in the blogger world.”
Such social addicts can offer Target a chance to reach new groups of customers, such as foodies, Switanowski said. In recent months, Target has launched new advertising campaigns around food and even bought Cooking.com and Chef’s Catalog.
Since Target is really not known for high-level cuisine, courting food bloggers would be a nice way to reach that community, Switanowski said.
Seligman says she uses herself as a guinea pig of sorts for Target. For example, Seligman submitted questions to Target about how to decorate her office. She will post the responses, possibly from a celebrity designer, on her blog. The retailer also provided tips to Mascott on how to redo her child’s bedroom.
Hausman, the Target spokesman, insists Inner Circle members enjoy complete editorial independence.
“They are absolutely free to write what they see,” he said. “We are looking for authenticity.”
Nevertheless, Target spent considerable time vetting each member, and experts say it’s doubtful it would recruit someone who hates the retailer. Quite the contrary.
“I have a borderline obsessive love for Target,” Seligman said.