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CHICAGO-As many shopping center owners cut marketing, Inland Western Retail Real Estate Trust Inc. has turned to implementing innovative market strategies, including use of social media, to bolster its multi-tenant shopping centers. The REIT says it has seen positive results so far in the use of its blogs, Facebook, e-mail blasts, direct mail and special promotions and events. The efforst are hoped to drive customers to its retail sites, to increase traffic and sales, and in turn improve occupancy of its properties.

“From a marketing standpoint, social media is one example of something Inland Western is continue to do to focus on marketing efforts,” says Cherilyn Megill, VP of marketing for Inland Western. “Social media is becoming a lot more popular in communication with your customer base, and it’s a very cost-effective way to communicate with your customers.”

Last holiday season, one new tool for such efforts was launched – www.hollygreenguru.com, a savings and sustainability-focused blog. Fictional character Holly Green became the ambassador for the ideals, suggesting ways to practice a more sustainable lifestyle and sharing cost-effective and eco-friendly gift giving ideas. Holly Green also operates through a Facebook page, and people who friend her receive a free eco-friendly tote bag.

“We’re probably on the leading edge of using social media in marketing,” says Michael O’Hanlon, CEO and president of Inland Western. “We’ve spent time and effort and focus on this, and we have seen results in our properties. If you work with the community, it benefits the community and helps everybody, and I’m not sure anyone else we know of is doing this now.”

In the Chicago region, Inland Western has attempted to drive traffic to its retail centers through events tied with the Holly Green blog. Events were held at the Brickyard on the northwest side of Chicago and Oswego Commons in Oswego, IL, filling five large school buses with toys, coats, blankets and other items for Salvation Army, and collected 8,000 pounds of nonperishable goods for a local food pantry, respectively. Megill says the events both drive traffic and promote community goodwill toward the shopping centers. Another Holly Green event is planned at Brickyard for Mother’s Day on Sunday.

Inland Western uses such special appearances and promotions as the impetus for driving traffic, and uses social media to mobilize people toward the events. “The free events create traffic, and that’s really how the retailers judge us,” says Niall J. Byrne, president of property management for the REIT. “All of our events draw more traffic for our retailers, which of course comes down to their bottom line.”

Inland Western’s efforts also include promotion of gift with purchase programs, and hosting community events, outdoor concert series and art festivals at several of its shopping centers. The REIT has collected e-mail addresses, and operates Facebook pages for some of its properties, which also helps reach out to customers and promote sales and special events.

“We combine nontraditional media with direct mail pieces to direct people to our Web sites and Facebook pages, and there’s been a response,” Megill says. “A lot of centers have cut back dramatically or cut entire marketing budgets, but we’re still being supportive and this is something we rely on to aggressively market our properties, increase sales and attract customers.”

Inland Western solicits feedback from retailers in its centers via surveys sent out to tenants to see whether its marketing methods are working, and if so how. “The reality is that we’re in a marketing business, and we’re constantly calling on people and marketing our properties,” O’Hanlon says. “This is just one more venue for us to use, and when we have retailer testimonials and can show increases in sales especially in today’s marketplace, it really does help. We’ve had tenants stay and renew with us rather than going to another center, even if it’s less rent, because they know we are going to be doing these things to drive traffic.”

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