Do you remember where you were on July 11, 2017 – a seemingly random Tuesday in the middle of summer?
If I were to venture a guess, I would say there’s a good chance you spent at least part of your day taking advantage of retail giant Amazon’s one-day shopping extravaganza, Prime Day. According to Amazon, it was the company’s biggest sales day in its history, with tens of millions of customers making purchases in nearly every retail category imaginable. To put that in perspective, Amazon sold more items on Prime Day than it did on Black Friday and Cyber Monday – combined. That’s a lot of shopping carts to ring up!
As the world’s third-largest retailer, Amazon has grown to the point where its inventory practically sells itself. But the brand also has a range of branded content products and technologies it’s developed to speak (literally) on its behalf such as its Echo digital device, its Prime streaming entertainment service, and its digital Dash buttons.
Though Prime Day represents a major benefit for deal-seeking consumers and Amazon’s retail partners alike, it also serves to highlight some of the big content challenges faced by all retail industry marketers – whether their operations are online, brick-and-mortar stores, or a combination.
Let’s look at a few of those challenges, as well as some top content opportunities marketers in this sector should be exploring to remain competitive in the face of the great Amazonian conqueror.
Marketing cost containment is critical
With the cost of goods constantly rising, profit margins in this industry can be razor-thin, which means retail brands need to be highly strategic when it comes to their marketing budget and content team’s resources.
Complicating the matter is retail’s shorter sales cycles and lower customer lifetime values as compared to high-consideration purchases like automobiles or technology solutions. That can make it tougher for marketers in this segment to get the necessary buy-in for the kind of long-term commitment required for successful content marketing.
Fortunately, content marketing’s overall cost-efficiency makes it a highly accessible technique for retail brands at any budget level. Casandra Campbell, content marketer lead at Shopify and managing editor of the Shopify e-commerce blog, points out that content marketing can even help retail brands to decrease paid-traffic customer acquisition costs (CACs) and build more sustainable businesses. “Using tactics like blogging, you can create warm traffic to remarket to later, with a much lower CAC than cold traffic,” she says.
Despite content’s significant value proposition, Casandra still finds many merchants relying too much on paid advertising to drive their traffic and sales, which she sees as problematic on several levels. “As more and more businesses start up, ad space becomes more and more competitive and, as a result, more and more expensive. On top of the placement costs, digital advertising also typically requires considerable oversight and ongoing optimization to maintain success over the long term,” she says.
Competition is getting tighter
Speaking of competition, retail happens to be one of the most dynamic of industry verticals, with new businesses constantly entering (and exiting) the market and plenty of disruptors looking to change the game entirely. Consider how crowdfunding services like Kickstarter have reshaped the way retail products are being brought to market or how explosive the subscription commerce category has become over the last few years. Hitwise research found that “sub-box” sites received 21.4 million visits in January 2016 alone – a growth rate of 3,000 percent in three years. To put that in perspective, the Hitwise study reported that visits to its top 500 online retail sites increased by only 168% in that same time.
All this extra competition is making it increasingly difficult for retail brands to stand out and get discovered by potential buyers – both the products/ services they sell and the content they create. Not to mention time is always of the essence, considering retail purchases are highly subject to impulsive consumer decision-making. To attract the right consumers at the right time –and translate their initial engagement into quantifiable conversions – brands in this space need to look for ways to get more creative in their content ideation, more inventive in how they deliver that content, and more responsive to the customer’s needs and preferences throughout the content experience they provide.
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Context can conquer all
According to Deloitte’s 2017 Retail, Wholesale, and Distribution Industry Outlook report, consumers’ expectations are high when it comes to identifying the products they want, finding the best prices for those goods, and getting their orders fulfilled in the most convenient ways possible. “Using just a few taps and swipes, many shoppers now expect products to be delivered to their door in record time, at a competitive cost, often with free shipping and returns,” the report notes.
This desire for instant gratification with zero friction is driving an increased need for marketers to offer location-based and context-specific content that makes it easier for customers to find, compare, and select the best product for their needs – no matter where or when they decide to shop.
As Casandra says, “As commerce becomes more and more contextual, the number of places shoppers can check out – such as within a blog post via a ‘buy button’ – is increasing. Content is an excellent tool for taking advantage of this shift, and retailers are particularly primed for this opportunity because consumers are more likely to buy retail products the moment they discover them.”
Retail brands can deliver a satisfying discovery-driven experience by leveraging interactive tools and technologies in their content. For example, facial recognition technology and augmented reality overlays make it possible for marketers to offer virtual dressing rooms that enable consumers to “try before they buy” for products like clothing or cosmetics. These versatile techniques also can be used to build a bridge between the online and in-store experience: For example, the Sephora Virtual Artist tool lets users upload a selfie and virtually try on a new lipstick or eye shadow color. If they like what they see, they can buy it directly through the company’s app or save the selection for when they visit one of its retail stores.
Interact, but don’t intrude
According to the Deloitte report, customers more often seek personalized brand interactions and engagements. Retailers can supply that by applying the right consumer insights in the right place and at the right time. “Market campaigns and trade promotions likely need to be highly relevant, in-moment, and in alignment with a customer’s current life cycle,” according to Deloitte.
Of course, this requires a robust set of behavioral insights, which is why Casandra is a strong proponent of tracking and measuring every piece of customer data your content can help you generate. “You never know which data will provide great insights down the road. The more you can accurately measure performance, the easier it will be to iterate and scale your content marketing in a positive way,” she says.
Yet, retailers also need to be careful not to get too familiar with the consumers whose behaviors they track, lest they become labeled as annoying intruders in the audience’s social conversations or worse – an unwelcome invader of their privacy.
Marketers can strike a good balance in this respect with artificial intelligence tools like mobile or online virtual agents and chatbots. These services typically do not require consumers to divulge personally identifiable information, yet still give them access to on-demand advice that directly addresses their questions or concerns. And because AI tools like these are always “on the clock,” they can deliver a more immediate response, and serve more customers at the same time than many human customer service teams can handle via other channels like social media messaging, email, and web-based inquiries.
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Selling your brand benefits through content
To inspire retail brands to take greater advantage of the benefits of content marketing, here are a few of my favorite content examples from businesses both large and small:
Not only does the Hop Grenade Taproom & Bottle Shop in Concord, Calif., create a ton of craft beer-centric content for its website, it also built a broadcast studio on its premises. It records live-streaming radio, podcasts, and videos featuring professional and home brewers from around the globe. Operating under the name The Brewing Network, this multimedia resource regularly produces as many as eight shows on various beer-related topics, quenching its audience’s thirst for craft brews and how-to insight alike, while driving increased traffic to its restaurant and retail operation.
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Meal kit delivery services have become a booming segment of the growing subscription commerce industry. They are hot commodities, indeed; but with so many similar services on the market, it’s also difficult for these retailers to distinguish themselves from their competition. U.K. retailer HelloFresh is rising to this challenge with its Flavour Generator. This interactive content tool lets consumers select the flavors and ingredients they are in the mood for and then sends them meal ideas along with easy-to-follow recipes to prepare on their own – whether or not they choose to order the HelloFresh meal kit version.
For retail brands, getting employees to “drink your Kool-Aid” can be an invaluable source of evangelism for products and your content marketing initiatives. The workforce engages in what’s happening with your business when they have a personal stake in the brand’s content. Walmart accomplishes this in spades with its Walmart World internal publication. To create this content, Walmart’s marketing team puts out a monthly request for story ideas from employees. An associate-team expert panel then surfaces additional topics, suggests on-the-job tips to share, and gathers sources, quotes, and other feedback to help ensure that the articles have as wide an appeal – and readership – as possible.
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Lowe’s At Home With Copper
Lowe’s created its At Home with Copper content campaign as a companion to its Creative Ideas spring 2016 edition. The print magazine includes beautiful imagery on using the copper-pipe products available at Lowe’s to produce on-trend décor, while full project material lists, assembly instructions, video tutorials, and how-to tips were shared on Lowe’s website, its mobile app, and in its e-newsletters to subscribers. Through this immersive, 360-degree content experience, Lowe’s provided consumers with compelling reasons to spend their home improvement money at its stores, project ideas to inspire them to action, and the tools and confidence to complete the job successfully.
John Varvatos’ shoppable videos
When menswear brand John Varvatos debuted its spring 2016 collection, a traditional look book wasn’t enough. The collection was accompanied by a “shoppable” video powered by Cinematique, a platform that enables “touchable” video. As customers watched the video, they could click or tap on the items worn by the models. When the video ended, everything clicked or tapped appeared in a tab to the right. Customers could view product information, click a buy-now button and be sent to the item on the John Varvatos website. The immediacy of campaigns like this helps turn consumer interest into sales at the moment of discovery, striking while the iron is hot, so to speak.
John Lewis’s Buster the Boxer
U.K. department store John Lewis has become legendary for its annual holiday videos, and its most recent entrée didn’t disappoint. Though the heartwarming story of multiple species of animals peacefully co-exploring a shared passion certainly resonated with the audience, it was John Lewis’s efforts to extend the story in multiple ways – in-store, online, and in real life – that really delivered joy. And to top off the company’s video gift to its fans, the company pledged to donate 10% of sales of a related series of toys to The Wildlife Trusts to help protect and restore the U.K.’s wildlife and natural habitats.
Plan your tactics under a unified purpose
Regardless of the content types, channels, and technological features your brand chooses, Casandra emphasizes the need for retail and e-commerce marketers to stay focused on the big picture – i.e., how all your content efforts tie together, and how they align with your enterprise’s other efforts to drive business success.
“Creating a single piece of content, like a Facebook video, is great; but what’s better is fitting that content into a broader, more cohesive digital strategy,” she says.
Want more insights, ideas, and examples on how your retail brand can leverage content marketing to its best advantage? Register to attend the Retail and E-Commerce Lab at Content Marketing World 2017.
Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute