Bringing Content Marketing In Store: The Retail Space as Experience Venue.

Five guidelines for retailers.

Andrew Kessler
March 3, 2014

The in-store identity crisis.

For the past two decades, retailers have attempted to reproduce the physical shopping experience online. They have designed branding, customer service, product selection and availability to reflect the experience of shopping at a brick-and-mortar store. 

But the success of e-commerce has forced retailers into an identity crisis: What is the role of the store? How can they continue to unlock value from the physical experience? What can it do for a customer that online can’t? And finally, what customer expectations have they created online that they must now also meet and exceed in the physical world?

As customers increasingly expect authentic, value-driven messages from a digital brand presence, retailers can use this as a point of departure for the next evolution in the brick-and-mortar experience. Instead of merely attaching mobile technology to retail locations, the industry must adapt proven content marketing techniques to attract and engage in an offline setting. Retailers shouldn’t look past their storefronts in the evolution of the shopping experience, but rather recognize how the power of the physical location—with its potential for integrated sales moments—can be combined with those content marketing techniques.

Bringing content marketing to the big box and boutique.

Today, when retailers think about bridging the online and offline experience, they are typically focused on steering users back online from the physical setting. Too often, integrating digital into the physical world means simply bringing smartphone capabilities and social media triggers such as “Find us on Yelp” stickers into the store experience.

Yet it’s shortsighted to focus only on brand identity or simple social cues. Brick-and-mortar retailers are facing intense competition from online-only companies such as Amazon, particularly as these companies begin to experiment with same-day delivery. Simply adding a few digital elements to the in-store experience isn’t going to truly combat the threat pure-play online retailers represent.

Retailers have found that simply offering a comparable selection of goods online to their competitors isn’t enough to stand out in the crowd. One of the ways retailers have distinguished themselves is by building robust online experiences that include rich content, essentially becoming publishers themselves.

Offering editorial tips, curated shopping lists and expert recommendations, and hosted “hangouts” are just a few of the ways retailers have bolstered their digital presence. 

Brand managers need to think not only like marketers but also like editors to create genuinely engaging content. The payoff for compelling content is a stronger relationship with customers. As more customers increasingly expect brands to relate to them in an authentic tone and with a stream of relevant, personalized messages, it’s time for retailers to meet those expectations in the storefront as well as online.

Beyond "The Entertainment Economy."

Retailers such as REI, Sur La Table, and Dick’s Sporting Goods have long understood the value of creating memorable lifestyle experiences in the retail space. In order to compete in the new environment, retailers must transition from a showroom model to an experience venue.

Over a decade ago, author Michael Wolf dubbed this phenomenon the “Entertainment Economy” and predicted that all retailers, from banks to supermarkets to apparel, would need to embrace the “hedonomics” of entertainment-hungry consumers—but he failed to foresee two major changes to event marketing. 

First, there is a connection between the in-store entertainment experience and the immersive content marketing of an online retail presence. Promotions are replaced by events, and conversations in social media are driven into the physical world. 

Second, while retailers have been spending more and more on the physical design of their stores to entertain customers, they are ignoring the rise of “Meetup culture,” which supports lean and flexible real world events, embraces the rise of DIY lifestyles, and uses data to optimize quickly.

Five guidelines for getting it right.

Togather has identified five guidelines that help bring the best practices of digital content marketing back to the physical store:

  • Contribute to the stream of conversation. Digital content marketers extract insights from their social media initiatives and analyze how customers talk about their brand to each other and to the brand directly. Understanding how a brand’s products may be incorporated into new lifestyle trends is one of the ways marketers should be bringing social media content into the physical experience. While social media is often about the ephemeral, retailers can pick up a familiar online conversation with followers in-store, with the added benefit that it is happening in a purchase environment.
  • Create interactive moments face to face. Companies like Zappos and JetBlue have set the standard for superior online customer service, as both brick and mortar and pure-play retailers aim to meet the same level of service for their customers. Today, retailers provide live chat, shopping advisors, quick replies via email, Facebook, or Twitter and more to create a great shopping experience. They post product videos on Vine and suggest shoes that go with the skirt a customer put into her shopping cart. With so much effort put into elevating customer service online, shouldn’t the in-store experience reflect the same customer values? Brands have the opportunity to aggregate the content and insight they have developed for online and put that back into the hands of their salespeople, to create even more seamless experiences. A helpful experience with a staff member has potential to create an emotional connection and turn a browsing experience into a purchase.
  • Connect "inspiration" to purchase. One of the opportunities afforded retailers today is the ability to use digital to help customers create wish lists and swap tips on using their products. Through the online tutorial, brands have also found a powerful way to own the messages that help customers learn and aspire to use their products more efficiently. Smart brands have figured out to capitalize on this trend in online video, with YouTube videos on everything from how to create the perfect smoky eye to how to replace a wheel rim on a bike. As a natural next step, the storefront provides an opportunity to use lifestyle-focused tutorials, workshops and demos that connect inspirational content to specific products and retailers.
  • Host events, not promotions. The reason content marketing works online is its utility to consumers. It forgoes the “hard sell” in favor of catering to the needs of the customer. It also changes how promotions are designed. Rather than focusing purely on discounts, retailers should incorporate the conversations, the concierge services and the tutorial approach into their promotional strategy. While coupons certainly have their place, a sale that is tied to an in-store experience, such as teaching customers how to use a new line of products, is even more powerful. An events team shouldn’t just consist of retail employees—it should also include the digital marketing staff. This applies even to the digital generation — in a study performed by the Event Marketing Institute, consumers who had a good experience at a brand event were 94% more likely to buy a product as a result of the event.
  • Make "social" truly social. Just as shares are one of the more sought-after metrics in digital media to extend the reach of a brand’s content, retailers should strive to also understand the “BFF metric.” One way to know in-store content efforts are working is by measuring how many customers are bringing friends to engage in personal, relevant experiences. A shared social experience will drive word of mouth and create an emotional connection between the shoppers and the “host” retailer. For brands that have worked with Togather, customers who come in for specific store activities are not only willing to shop. Nearly nine out of ten (85 percent) will bring at least one friend.

Ultimately, the ideal mix of in-store events combines social experiences, expert staff and natural, organic experiences that attract and convert customers.

Closing the loop.

The in-store experience needs to live up to the expectations set by personalized content in the digital experience. It also needs to feed back into digital efforts, closing the loop between online and offline. Consumers live in both environments, so enhancing marketing messages, up- and cross-selling, and creating dedicated communities online and off is critical to success. 

Just as analytics tools to help measure and optimize online content marketing have been introduced and improved over the past decade there are also tools that provide similar functions for offline events. These enterprise tools help plan, promote, manage RSVPs, target the right customers and some importantly measure new customers and sales. Marketers need simple-to-use tools for low-cost, high-impact events that attract the right consumers.

Retailers today are striving to move away from overdependence on couponing to drive foot traffic. Instead, as they look to events that draw customers in, the best practices in content marketing should be tested and optimized much quicker than before. That means creating new metrics through peer referrals and post-event surveys, understanding which events resonate with customers, and calculating the return on investment for event marketing.

Many retailers have unlocked the power of content marketing and social media as budgets shift from paid media towards owned and earned media. But not enough retailers are taking advantage of the storefront as a distribution channel for owned media. In order to thrive in the digital age, retailers should evolve the storefront into a venue for a steady stream of native content.

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