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Selling the Story: The Commerce-Content Connection

The Mad Men era of the 1960s introduced the concept of storytelling to Madison Avenue and the brands they were pitching. Now storytelling is being integrated into the science of selling online, turning the classic catalogue-cart-checkout model into something closer to a magazine but with the added capabilities of personalization, segmentation and recommendation engines.

The ecommerce experience is making a transition from the familiar paradigm of search-compare-select to something closer to “shopping the story.” The implications for marketers and ecommerce professionals are profound and are driving a new demand for e-commerce and digital marketing tools not foreseen in the first wave of ecommerce experiences.

The commerce-content connection is an extension of an ongoing trend that has seen digital marketing communications move away from impression-based, undifferentiated messaging (e.g. Buy Now!) to “content marketing.” This is a richer model that relies on the power of strong copywriting, photos, video and the power of user reviews to take commerce beyond price and specifications to an experience developed with a strong customer experience at its core.

The shift to content marketing has put a burden on organizations to recruit and nurture the talent capable of producing a rich customer experience and the tools with which to deliver it. Attempts to accomplish this in the past were expensive, inflexible affairs outsourced to an agency and then filled with frustration as they were static and incapable of being dynamically managed.

That era of expensive “microsite” production came into question as digitally savvy talent began to infiltrate marketing departments, giving in-house content and media capabilities formerly outsourced from an advertising or public relations agency. Where a brand would routinely spend $250,000 for a specific microsite, they quickly learned they could create and host their own sites to support special segments, campaigns or product introductions inexpensively but most importantly: with full future control over the content and its social responsiveness to customer interactions and comments.

Story-based commerce has its roots in several notable printed examples. Think back to the J. Peterman catalogue of the 1980s – parodied in Seinfeld – but an effective model that used stylish sketches of reproduction sweaters, hats, and trench coats accompanied with fictional scenarios, where the narrator – ostensibly the intrepid “J. Peterman” – spun the tale of how the hat was bought in a gas station on Route 1 in Marathon on the way to Key West for a weekend of drunken billfishing with Ernest Hemingway aboard his boat the Pilar. The hat was almost secondary to the story.

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Go forward to the late 1990s and the world of fashion publishing saw the launch of a magazine devoted to shopping: Lucky. Today, some digital ecommerce brands such as the fashion powerhouse Gilt are launching their own print products, recognizing the power of a story driven customer experience in winning buyer loyalty and engagement. In luxury goods and fashion, the trend is towards embedding the catalogue inside of an article-like experience. Educating and entertaining while subtly making the product available for purchase. No longer is it sufficient to show a grid of sixteen pairs of khakis on a single page -- now the pants are sold in an article recounting the garment’s origins in the British Army during the Raj and how the military fabric entered civilian fashion.

Amazon – the trailblazer in nearly all things ecommerce related – was the first to marry content to commerce with its pioneering addition of customer reviews to its product pages. Suddenly the terse information associated with a product (the “SKU essentials” of price, weight, dimensions, and a line or two of descriptive text) was enhanced by an appended list of user-generated content praising or condemning the product.

The impact of customer reviews on purchase decisions has been consistently found in research to be a major driver of add-to-cart actions, with the obvious insight being that customers trust other customers more than the claims of a marketing copywriter. Marketers have long valued third-party testimonials over their own hyperbole, and the harnessing of customer content into reviews is here to stay, emerging in some cases as a form of entertainment unto itself -- witness the infamous Three Wolves t-shirt and sugar-free Gummi bear reviews on Amazon.

Enriching an ecommerce catalogue with better words, sounds, and pictures isn’t an easy nor is it a trivial process, particularly for legacy online stores that have loaded products into their systems by importing spreadsheets. ecommerce platforms are notoriously difficult to implement and manage -- their integration with back end inventory and fulfillment systems isn’t trivial, nor is the security of their transaction processing service and the protection of customer financial information.

Keeping an ecommerce platform running at a high level of responsive performance is a matter of serious financial consequences. Amazon once famously estimated every 1000 milliseconds of latency cost them 1% in sales. Security breaches can be disastrous to customer trust and can carry severe financial penalties. Small wonder most ecommerce professionals are stuck in the plumbing of their “store” and not overly concerned with the layer where the customer is meeting them -- the so-called “glass” where the words, sounds and pictures can mean the difference between an add-to-cart or a click away to a competitor.

Moving to a content-driven model, where there is more control over page templates, compelling designs and more of an article approach to the text means adopting a different mindset as well as gaining the skills required to publish rather than manage an online store. The first wave of ecommerce operators used to look to monolithic commerce platforms of the past that emphasized order management, transaction processing, and customer security. The new wave of ecommerce executive now sees the platform as plumbing and is being challenged to produce more and is increasingly putting their money into solutions that attract new customers, help increase conversion, reduce bounce rate, shopping cart abandonment, and convert browsers into loyal repeat buyers.

As digital demand and lead generation shift from its traditional reliance on display advertising, email marketing (and other “spammy” models that are declining in effectiveness) great hopes are pinned on content marketing and native advertising to build a brand’s reputation, integrate its thought leadership and brand persona into the media and entertainment that surrounds it and by doing so, improve the message’s discoverability through search, and build a relationship with customers at a more substantial point in the customer’s decision journey.

“Selling the story” is about taking products out of catalogues and integrating them into the brand story. To shift the shopping experience out of the online “store” and into a more substantive, entertaining and informative experience. Getting there is a massive challenge for marketers and ecommerce professionals, but the way is being paved by some smart innovators who are bringing the process internal to their teams and not outsourcing it to agencies.

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