H&M believes in building relationships.

This story first appeared in the June 15, 2011 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Rather than just posting a static Internet page with a particular message for a finite period of time, the Swedish retailer seeks to create an ongoing dialogue with its customers. And thanks to Jordan Nasser, global head of digital media, H&M Hennes & Mauritz AB today has more than 7 million Facebook fans, 7 million YouTube views and more than 350,000 Twitter followers.

Hired in 1999, Nasser was one of the first 50 employees to work on the launch of the American flagship on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. That was followed by a stint in the visual display area and then the advertising department. In 2006, Nasser was offered the opportunity to oversee the company’s nascent Internet efforts.

At that time, he related, companies were spending enormous amounts of money digitally advertising particular products such as new films or cars. But once the initial push was over, the pages that had generated so much buzz were left to “slowly sit there and die,” he said. Nasser was flabbergasted at the lack of engagement generated by the companies and set out to change that at H&M. “It was so simple, I thought I was missing something,” he said.

The first order of business was to embrace the new social networking site, Facebook. H&M built a page and Nasser monitored it. He related how a customer asked a question about when the company was planning to open in Florida. Nasser told the customer to check back often for updates on new store sites. That exchange resulted in “hundreds of comments” on the page and opened Nasser’s eyes to the future of digital interaction. “Everyone was saying: ‘Look at my car, look at my movie.’ But no one was asking them a question they could respond to.”

H&M embraced this opportunity to engage customers, posting digital look books and asking people to vote for their favorites and running online contests, an effort that quickly resulted in 135,000 fans. “At the time,” he said with a laugh, “I thought I was the king of the world.”

Nasser was also among the first to understand the benefits of branding online. He worked with Facebook to replace the numerical URL in use at the time with the name of the company. “I can’t market a bunch of numbers,” he said. Despite resistance, Facebook relented and facebook.com/H&M was born.

Within two years, the site boasted 1 million fans and by December of 2010, that number had risen to 6 million. Today, 7.4 million people follow H&M on Facebook.

Nasser’s appetite for interaction spills over to all of H&M’s Internet initiatives. From its e-commerce site to its Twitter and YouTube pages, the company offers a unified message with a local component to make them relevant in each market.

As an aside, he cautioned the audience to be wary of viral campaigns. There are plenty of agencies who will offer to create a viral message, he said, but a true viral offering cannot be forced. He related how H&M hired a company to film a video on its Fashion Against AIDS initiative. It got 5,000 views. But when the videographer filmed a water-filled condom being tossed around instead, 500,000 people tuned in in a single day. “We really learned from that,” he said.

At the end of the day, however, Nasser said that “at the heart of everything we do is hm.com.” Launched in 1996 and expanded into e-commerce in 1998, the company initially supported two sites: one inspirational and one for commerce. But those were merged two years ago. Today, the page offers a blend of both messages and encourages interaction with customers, whether it’s navigating through a virtual dressing room or seeking out promotions being run in local markets. “Everything we do should be interactive in some way,” he said. “This increases the time spent online and our sales.”

He also revealed that the company will finally launch e-commerce in the U.S. market next year.

Nasser said the company’s H&M Life magazine, which comes out four times a year, has also been “brought to life” online. The digital magazine has received a “fantastic response,” he said, “and we’re working to do more with it.”

Next up for the company is mobile commerce. H&M’s foray into this medium launched in 2008 and in 2010, it offered an iPhone application which resulted in 1 million downloads the first month. IPad and Android apps have been added since then and the company has received 4 million downloads.

“Inform, inspire and interact,” he said. “That’s the key to everything we do in digital media. You can’t do just one. It’s all about finding the balance among all three.”

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