Recently I went to the mall to pick up some boots. Two steps into a store, a cheery, middle-aged woman shoved an iPad at me. “Would you like to enhance your in-store experience by testing our new automated personal shopping assistant?” I was already holding three shopping bags, two winter coats, one overtired four-year-old, and a half-eaten lollipop. We were late for dinner, and my daughter was near her limit. But I had to do it. I took the iPad and said, “Sure. Let’s see what you have on there.”

I spent the next 15 minutes with the iPad (all while my daughter squealed, “Lemme see! Lemme see! Does it have Paaaaaac-Man!?”). I completed a lengthy questionnaire which led to a few recommended products and a couple of videos of outdoorsy models romping through a meadow. It wasn’t a great experience, but it was a valiant attempt. Retail content ain’t as easy as it used to be.

During the last year or so, retailers have slammed headfirst into the future of customer communications. Tried-and-true tricks are not working anymore, and there’s no single, clear path forward. Other industries aren’t far behind. Luckily some retail trends are emerging that most businesses can learn from. And, lucky for us, content is at the epicenter of all of them.

Why should you care about retail?

While there’s no proof, I’d guess the first content strategists were either retailers, clerics, or politicians (high fives to you, Aristotle). All three groups know the fundamental rule of a successful content strategy: the strategy serves the organization, but the content serves the user.

The retail industry has always been good at balancing business and user needs. They pioneered techniques such as market research, market segmentation, and choice modelling—all ways for businesses to learn about their target consumers. Then, they used that knowledge to create an impressive suite of content tools: enticing the consumer with brand campaigns, creating urgency with newspaper ads, increasing “basket size” with persuasive in-store signage and product placement, etc. How many times have you gone to Target for toilet paper and come out $200 poorer? Or, ran to the store to get something that’s 50% off, “while quantities last”?

The internet rattled retail a bit. I distinctly remember sitting in the Chief Marketing Officers office at a major retailer’s headquarters (circa 1997ish) and listening to him say, “People will never actually buy clothes on the internet. They need to feel the fabric. They need to try things on.” But, within a year or two Amazon perfected the trifecta of product descriptions, user reviews, and personalized recommendations—and a new normal was established. Retail again took the lead on user research and online segmentation, and this time they realized a few disconcerting characteristics about online consumers: they can compare prices and products easily; they aren’t fooled by product placement tactics; and they share experiences—good or bad—with the “community.” But the economy was good and online sales rose steadily. So, c’est la vie.

Like a lot of organizations, most retailers kept online and traditional media in different departments. It wasn’t perfect, but it was good enough. It’s the way things had always been, and anyway, in-store customers and online customers act differently, right?

The rise of the omni-channel business

But while retailers were busy churning out their last few seasonal collections, a shift occurred: consumers in all retail settings started acting like online consumers. That’s right folks, people are bringing their online content-craving, community-consulting, deal-demanding, bullshit-detecting behaviors to a store near you.

For years, pundits have been predicting the advent of omni-channel marketing—where customers want to glide between communication channels (such as websites, print materials, in-store interactions, etc.) with the greatest of ease. Obviously, that time is now. And, the business/user balance is seriously out of whack.

How did this happen? It’s easy to point to mobile devices—smart phones and tablets—as the change makers. They’re definitely causing a ruckus. But there’s more at play:

  • The recession made consumers more careful about how they spend their money and retailers more desperate—so savvy shoppers now expect a deal every time. (“No discount? No worries, I’ve got a Groupon for your competitor.”)
  • An anti-business sentiment (think Occupy Wall Street) made people skeptical of large retail organizations. (“No Wal-Mart in my neighborhood! They kill the mom-and-pop stores!”)
  • Social and environmental concerns have made consumers seek products and organizations that reflect their values. (“I know Whole Foods is expensive, but the food is all natural.”)

In short, online culture has become the mainstream culture. Which means the customers want content—lots of it, new kinds of it, across dozens of communications channels, accessible at all times—before they even consider buying a product. Yipes.

What should you do about it?

So how can retailers—and businesses of all kinds—use content to meet the demands of an online-influenced user? Here are a few ways to get started:

1. Feed the need: facilitate the customer’s research

In online culture, people want a lot of information before they make a decision. In the retail world, studies show that 74 percent of people conduct online research before making an in-store purchase. So, make it easy. Be as helpful as possible. If they’re shopping by price, give ’em a competitive comparison (Flo over at progressive.com will be so proud). If they have a gluten allergy, give them an app that lets them know if your muffins pass muster.

You won’t always be cheaper than the competitor or fulfill the customer’s product need, but you will gain the customer’s trust—which will make them more likely to support your business in the future. In Edelman’s 2011 Trust Barometer study, almost two-thirds of people said “transparent and honest business practices” were most important to a company’s reputation.

Of course, creating all of this helpful content is not easy. You’ll have to do a significant amount of research to know what your customers want to know—not to mention collecting all of the information you need to answer their questions. It’s not cheap and it’s time-consuming, but it’s worth it.

Jack Abraham of eBay Local says, “More transparency by retailers will provide more choice for consumers. Shoppers feel more comfortable making a purchase when they feel they have all the information they crave.”

2. Show off your do-gooding with good content

Customer research is not just about price and product specs. There’s mounting evidence that people want to support businesses that share their values. A survey conducted by Do Well Do Good, LLC says 88% of consumers think that companies should try to accomplish their business goals while trying to improve society and the environment.

Consumers put their money where their mouths are, too. They’ll pay extra for products or services that align with their beliefs, such as fair trade coffee or LEED-certified products. And, they’ll boycott businesses they don’t like (just ask Rush Limbaugh’s sponsors). A 2010 study published in Texas A&M-Corpus Christi’s SAM Advanced Management Journal found a “statistically significant positive relationship” between companies that do good and those that do well.

As a result, retailers are going to have to get more comfortable creating content that answers questions about formerly taboo topics, such as: how are products made? Are employees treated ethically? Are green materials used? What’s the profit margin on a product? What politicians does the company support? Are there women or minorities in leadership positions?

Content strategies need to make room for this kind of content—finding a time and place to show it appropriately—whether do-gooding is the whole story (Seventh Generation) or slightly more conspicuous (Starbucks’ “responsibility” tab ).

3. Be totally “flawsome”

All this transparency can be a little uncomfortable. After all, isn’t it common sense that content should always portray the business in the best possible light? Not anymore. Today’s savvy content users don’t want perfection, they want the truth. For example, in retail:

  • Of consumers, 68% trust reviews more when they see both good and bad scores, while 30% suspect censorship or faked reviews if there aren’t any negative comments or reviews.
  • Shoppers who go out of their way to read bad reviews convert 67% more than the average consumer[1].

The smartypantses at trendwatching.com call this being “flawsome.” They say, “In 2012 consumers won’t expect brands to be flawless; they will even embrace brands that are FLAWSOME…Brands that are honest about their flaws, that show some empathy, generosity, humility, flexibility, maturity, humor, and dare we say it, some character and humanity.”

If you make a mistake, apologize for it. If you haven’t seen Johnson & Johnson’s apology video for discontinuing o.b. tampons, check it out. And check out the reaction it got.

Your company is going to make mistakes. So, put a content workflow in place to make amends with consumers quickly. And, when apologies are necessary, don’t just issue a crummy old press release. Put some muscle into your content. When was the last time a regular ad campaign got you this kind of loyalty?

(NOTE: Since this article was written, the trendwatching.com team has come out with their April 2012 Trend Briefing which touches on many of the concepts in this article and includes dozens of excellent “flawsome” content examples.)

4. Become an omni-channel team

An omni-channel approach requires that the content on all of the channels is coordinated, connected, and consistent. The path of a single purchase might look like this:

  • Do research on the web
  • Go to store number one to see the product in person, pick up a brochure
  • Double-check the price comparison on your phone
  • Buy the product from another store’s website (it was cheaper)
  • Exchange the product at the store number two’s bricks-and-mortar location (it was damaged)
  • Talk about the whole experience on Facebook or Twitter

And, accommodating that channel surfing isn’t easy. Seamless content requires seamless internal teams—everyone who works on content at your organization needs to work together. Yes, that means that the web team and traditional marketing need to merge or at least snuggle up real close. Sayonara, internal channel siloes.

5. Alright already, go mobile

Mobile content is a critical piece of any multi-channel content strategy. It acts as the glue, keeping the web and the store content connected. According to Colliers International’s U.S. Retail Highlights: 2012 Outlook report, mobile commerce increased 90% from 2010 to 2011. And, they expect it to increase by nearly 40% again (up to $10 billion) in 2012. So, yeah, you need to start working that mobile content yesterday.

Now, mobile content doesn’t necessarily mean creating a fancy app. Depending on the content you have, an optimized version of your website will work just as well. For example, nobody wants to download an app just to get your store hours and locations—they can get that from your website.

If you’re going to create an app, make it a unique part of the customer experience, offering content they can’t get anywhere else. Maybe it helps the consumer locate a product in a large store or find out if a fabulous dress is available in the right size. These exclusively mobile conveniences can help your brand become the consumers’ brand of choice.

6. Communicate to your employees, too

Creating a lot of excellent content for your customers is important. But, what about content for the people who serve your customers? With all this information about your products, corporate responsibility initiatives, and flawsome mistakes in the public eye, your employees need to be in the loop.

Make sure your employees, particularly your customer-service personnel, know as much or more about your organization than your customers do. Institute a corporate education program to support your new content initiatives. (Yes, you understood me correctly: create some content about your content. Seriously, it works.)

Start experimenting now

Let’s face it, we’re in uncharted territory. In this new reality where online behaviors reign, there’s still a lot to be learned. But one thing is sure, the time for waiting and watching is over. Customers are expecting you to act, and the risk of doing nothing is worse than the risk of failing. (Remember, customers like to see a flaw here and there.)

Start experimenting. As the old adage says, “Today’s mistakes are tomorrow’s innovations.” Whether or not you’re a retailer, the time to invest in some new content initiatives is now.

P.S. If you happen to be a retailer who targets busy moms—forget about the models traipsing through meadows. Put some Pac-Man on that iPad. I bet in-store sales would skyrocket.

References

  1. Reevoo.com, January 2012