Inseparable: How Paid Social Media Connects Online and Retail Channels

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From retail apocalypse to online-inspired reawakening

Before the coronavirus pandemic, retail locations were being hammered in what was termed the “Retail Apocalypse.” 

Once the pandemic started, prophecies around the future of retail were dire; surely the game was up, and the world would now embrace online shopping almost exclusively.

And yet, this isn’t exactly what happened. In fact, online channels – and specifically paid social media advertising campaigns – are being used to drive traffic to physical stores, giving these stores a new lease on life.

This is driven by consumers expecting a hybrid purchase experience, a trend accelerated by the upheaval of 2020. 74% of consumers want such an experience – such as ordering online and picking up in-store, or being able to return items in-store – as 85% of retail consumers say they have made additional unplanned in-store purchases when picking up an order placed online

In this BrandTotal exclusive, we’ll take a closer look at how brands are using online channels to drive traffic to retail locations, and how our online and physical worlds are more intertwined than we think.

Online was supposed to kill retail

To start, let’s rewind to 2017. The retail world was hemorrhaging, as the online threat became a reality and many chains were struggling with debt. As a result, many big brands such as Macy’s drastically reduced its number of retail locations, and household names like Toys ‘R Us and Sears ceased to exist. 

2019 saw over 9,300 stores being closed down, and from 2019 to 2029, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects losses of nearly 20,000 jobs in retail. Remember, all of this is before the coronavirus hit, which further depressed retail sales

Yet, despite all this turmoil, brick-and-mortar retail sales are still going strong.

Brands are using online channels to drive retail visits

During the Retail Apocalypse, online shopping was booming. What’s more, social commerce – the combination of social media and e-commerce – was taking off as the next hottest thing, creating a perfect storm for brick and mortar retailers. Research shows that almost 36% of U.S. consumers will make at least one social commerce purchase in 2021, and social commerce sales are expected to grow by 35% to over $36 billion this year. 

While this could have meant that consumers’ shopping habits were changed for good – and retail was truly finished – brick-and-mortar retail establishments rallied, buoyed by an unlikely source: the very online world that was threatening their existence. 

The BrandTotal perspective

We see an increasing trend of brands leveraging online channels, and specifically paid social media advertising, to drive traffic to retail stores. In 2020, ad spend was up 12% overall, with ad spend on social media channels responsible for 30% of all digital spending. 

The Salesforce report observes an interesting trend: over 33% of Gen Z’ers return items in physical stores. What’s more, over two thirds of consumers report going into a physical store to return something, but leaving with another purchase. 

This shows that the nature of the retail store experience has changed somewhat: it is now a place of product discovery, pick ups and returns. And significantly, still a central part of brands’ omnichannel sales strategies. 

Examples of online driving physical retail

BrandTotal’s U.S. Retail data show how brands are doing this. Typically, brands use dark ads – highly targeted at a specific consumer segment and thus invisible to the general public (and competitors.)

Examples of this include:


Ad for Dove

In this ad campaign, Dove drives traffic not to an online store, but a physical retail store – in this case, Dollar Tree.

The Home Depot

Ad for Home Depot

This ad from Home Depot highlights the interconnectedness of the two worlds, and the blurring of lines between them. While the ad’s CTA features a link to the brand’s online store, the description specifically encourages consumers to visit the chain’s retail locations. 


Ad for Lush

Lush presents a prime example of using paid social media advertising to drive consumers to retail locations. The ad itself combines the best of ecommerce advertising – a limited-time offer, hashtags, encouragement to check out its Instagram account, and emojis – with a tantalizing in-store experience, including free samples. 


Ad for IKEA

In this ad campaign, IKEA leads with sumptuous sausages instead of couches, chairs and tables. It’s a great example of how brands are getting creative when it comes to paid social media advertising in order to drive consumers to retail stores. 

The future is a fusion: online and physical retail will continue supporting each other

Driving consumers to retail locations has a number of advantages for brands, including a more holistic shopping experience, an opportunity to connect in real-time and real-life with consumers, and upselling opportunities that are different, if not better, than those available online. 

As the Salesforce report notes, “The opportunity for retailers is to make the two channels feel seamless, and use it to create opportunities for further engagement. For instance, when shoppers are online, retailers can encourage store pickup to save on shipping and promote new product discovery.”

In summary, we saw how brands are increasingly using paid social media to drive consumers to retail stores. With many of the ads observed on social media being dark ads, much of this would have been invisible without the BrandTotal platform. 

In fact, over 85% of social media ads are dark. Only with the BrandTotal platform can you gain the visibility and real-time insights into what’s really going on, thus getting ahead of competitors and driving you forward towards your goals.

If actionable insights based on information no one else can see interested you – insights that you can implement immediately for your brand to see real results – get in touch with BrandTotal now.

Request a demo today.