As the use of social media has become virtually ubiquitous, many retail property owners are changing the way they approach marketing, by building Facebook and MySpace pages and creating Twitter feeds. But an intelligent approach to new technology goes beyond trying to imitate Internet-addicted college students.

What a lot of owners have been trying to accomplish is a successful blending of traditional, on-site marketing events with social media to increase traffic and drive sales. Recently, Inland Western Retail Real Estate Trust Inc., an Oak Brook, Ill.-based non-listed REIT with a 45-million-square-foot portfolio, attempted to launch such a program at its Southlake Town Square, an 840,057-square-foot lifestyle center in Southlake, Texas.

Inland Western properties set up a Facebook page for Southlake Town Square this past summer. And while many malls and lifestyle centers have accumulated followers fairly slowly, Southlake amassed 5,000 fans in about 60 days. The reason has to do with the center’s demographics, says Cherilyn Megill, vice president of marketing with Inland Western. More than 12 percent of the population within a seven-mile radius of Southlake, about 34,000 people in all, are between 10 and 17 years old—a prime demographic for Facebook.

“We’ve noticed that there were a lot of young people joining, and they told their friends, so our [fan base] grew through a lot of recommendations,” notes Megill.

So when the marketing staff at Southlake Town Square decided to create a Teen Advisory Board for the center this fall, Facebook was the logical choice to promote the initiative. To get teens interested in participating in the volunteer program, Inland Western first teased its Facebook fans about an exciting new program at Southlake and then posted frequent Facebook announcements, urging them to apply for a spot on the board. Inland sweetened the offer with the promise of a VIP invitation to a kickoff party for a new fashion retailer at Southlake.

Meanwhile, Inland Western also engaged in traditional promotions, including visits to local high schools, meetings with community leaders and on-site advertisements. The firm partnered with Dallas-based marketing firm the Dealey Group on the efforts, which helped organize the application process for spots on the board and supplied the on-site promotional materials. Over the past several years, more and more of the firm’s real estate clients have been turning to social media to engage with their shoppers, says Dealey Group Principal Jen Augustyn.

“Right now, we are working with 22 properties across the country and plan to increase to between 50 and 60 in early 2010,” Augustyn notes. “We are definitely seeing that as a new business area for us and we think that individual properties see it as a relatively low cost, but high value opportunity.”

In the end, Southlake Town Square ended up with a diverse mix of 20 teenage board members, ranging from high school athletes to an aspiring photographer. The board’s goals going forward will be to help the center’s management cater to Southlake’s large teenage demographic through community events, interactions with the center’s tenants and advice on how to promote activities through social media, according to Megill. Another of its responsibilities will be to produce the 2010 back-to-school fashion show at the center, which will benefit a charity of the board’s choice.

Meanwhile, the board’s members have already been thinking up ways to promote Southlake on Facebook. One of their recommendations involves advertising discounts specifically aimed at teens, says Madison Manning, 16, a member of the board. “We are thinking about coupons for teens, because what teen doesn’t like free stuff?” she notes. “Discounts [geared] exclusively for teens will make more teens become Southlake fans.”

Inland Western executives have been very happy with the campaign not only because it received a strong response to its marketing efforts, but also because social media has helped make those efforts much more cost-effective. For example, the company did not need to spend any extra money on print advertisements. “Just because we did so much of it through social media, the cost has really been pretty minimal,” Megill says. “I think what social media allows us to do is promote to a large number of people and we can deliver our message instantly to our 5,000 fans, as well as to the people who visit our website.”

—Elaine Misonzhnik