The Chicken pistachio salad at the Nordstrom Cafe at Macerich's Washington Square mall in Portland is apparently quite a lunch treat. How do I know this? The mall just let me know about the salad via a post on Twitter.

It's just the most recent example of how shopping center owners are becoming more interactive in their marketing efforts. (And I mean that literally. I got the tweet less than 10 minutes before writing this sentence.)

The challenges facing the sector have forced firms to embrace social networks and Web sites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube in a whole new way. Right now, retailers are suffering. Mall traffic and sales are down. To thrive, retailers and shopping center owners have to generate new sales any way they can. In that vein, the retail real estate sector is at the beginning of embracing these technologies as a way of connecting with customers.

So far, it does not appear that a dominant model has emerged. Many firms are doing creative things with all these media. Most have set up property Facebook pages. The types of information being shared varies considerably. In some cases, the information is limited to calendars of events at properties or promotion of discounts. In others, owners are creating contests or posting whimsical updates meant to cultivate an audience that checks back regularly.

Others have tested Twitter. Tweets range from the one I mentioned above that simply talk about a specific item at the mall to ones that share links and videos or directly communicate with the mall's Twitter followers.

In both cases, the numbers of people interacting are still very small. Companies have built networks of followers that number in the hundreds or — at best — in the low thousands. To truly make an impact I would think that companies will need larger networks. And it will also require embracing the next stage in this evolution — texts to customers.

What all of these — Facebook, Twitter, texts — have in common is that customers can access this information via mobile devices. This is key. Increasingly, this is how people are consuming information. And it's a powerful trend if the mall industry can get in front of it. Imagine being able to send updates about events, sales or hot merchandise and reach customers that are already on site or nearby.

That is the Holy Grail here. And in the coming years — where by many accounts customers are expected to keep their purse strings pulled extremely tight — connecting to customers this way could be an essential distinguishing characteristic between mall owners. Being able to offer a viable social network as a marketing tool to potential tenants may separate you from the owner down the road.

This will be an important trend to watch. We're just at the beginning. But how it plays out could very will determine who thrives and who doesn't in the years to come.