Content is the complicated key to e-commerce

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Selling has always been about telling a story and content has always been a part of commerce.

After all, how can consumers buy what you’re selling if they don’t know what that is? Shoppers need to understand how a product will make their lives easier, better, more fulfilling, more profitable.

But the focus on content in commerce — particularly in e-commerce — is exploding. Everybody is talking about it. I mean, maybe not at a Simone Biles/Michael Phelps way, but in a way that implies a certain must-have urgency.

As with a lot of things that everybody is talking about, though, it sometimes sounds like everybody is talking about different things. Does content mean copy blocks on category or product pages? Or is it blog posts, fostering community or celebrating a lifestyle? Or is it how-to videos, recipes, customer reviews, buying guides, lookbooks, Instagram photos or videos of skateboarders shredding it?

It turns out, content is all of that. And it is becoming important enough in e-commerce that some are calling 2016 the year of content in e-commerce. There are plenty of signs that retailers are taking a more sophisticated approach to content. Sure, content is a key way to provide search engine optimization. But it also must appeal to the humans that search engines work for when it comes to finding products and information on the web.

Five keys to crushing e-commerce content

  • Know what you want your content to do.
  • Decide how to measure success.
  • Get inside your customer’s head.
  • Look in your content cabinet
  • Get professional help

As with so much in e-commerce, the secret to success is to do it all and to do it all well.

“When a company knows a category very well, a niche or a specialty retail category, they can create content around products, education, and even lifestyle, that differentiates them from Amazon and other companies,” says Brian Beck, senior vice president of strategy at retail consultancy Guidance.

Content is a lot more than snazzy banners

E-commerce is evolving rapidly and competition is intense. While years ago it might have been enough to have some snazzy banners and detailed product descriptions, consumers expect so much more than that today, says Yanna Sigenlaub, vice president of marketing at FitForCommerce.

“People are mobile and the purchase path has all of the sudden become asymmetrical instead of linear,” says Sigenlaub, whose company included a chapter on content in its annual report on retail. It also recently hosted a webinar on the subject. “Retailers and brands, they don’t really know when consumers are touching their brand or when they’re researching or from where they’re researching.”

Consumers are in charge. Rapidly evolving technology has raised their expectations to new levels. In an era when users can type a question into a search box and get an answer in an instant, tap a button on their smartphone and get a ride home, order groceries and have them arrive an hour later or order a Slurpee and have it delivered by drone, a good digital experience isn’t good enough.

Digital retailers need to provide an exceptional experience and that goes well beyond offering the right products at a good price and an easy way to buy them.

“You have a lot of different retailers, all globally, that are selling the same brand, so from a brand perspective they need to position themselves as the experts,” Sigenlaub says. “They might not be able to compete on price, so instead they have to compete on experience and providing the expertise that consumers need to both engage consumers, but also inspire them and ultimately convert them.”

Providing the right content for all those people, at just the right point in their individual shopping processes is a big job — especially when you consider the multitude of different devices and marketing channels that consumers interact with throughout the day. Like many big jobs, the best way to tackle it is to take it a piece at a time.

Expert advice on a winning e-commerce content strategy

No Content sign

I’ve talked to some experts in the field who shared their thoughts about what might make pulling off a content initiative somewhat less overwhelming. Among the key highlights from those conversations:

Start by asking yourself what you want your content to do. Make sure you understand what you are trying to accomplish with content. Do you want to rank higher through search engine optimization? Are you trying to build deeper customer engagement by creating an experience that keeps visitors coming back? Do you want consumers to recognize, understand and appreciate your brand? Are you looking to provide richer content in order to boost the performance of your own site search engine. Or do you want to provide that last strong nudge for someone to buy?

Decide how you’re going to measure your success. Once you decide what you’re trying to do, figure out how you’re going to determine whether you’re actually doing it. Establishing the return on investment on content is notoriously tricky. But, how about measuring the click-through rate from a content page to a product page? Or what about measuring engagement by looking at the time a visitor spends on content or by determining how far into a piece they read or view. Consider whether conversion is higher when shoppers arrive at a product page through a content page — all other things being equal. Or compare conversions on a page to which you’ve added copy blocks with that page’s performance before copy blocks were added.

Get inside your customer’s head. Your customers are your audience. Where do they come from? What different products do they look at during the same session? What products do they buy together? Consider how what you’re selling affects your customers’ behavior. If you’re selling cars, your content strategy might look very different from a retailer selling blue jeans. And while being psychic would be helpful in terms of getting inside your customer’s head, this is a place to make use of data. How do your customers find you, what pages, products and content do they look at as they decide what to buy?

Take a look at what you have in the content cabinet. Sigenlaub calls it a content audit and says most retailers already have a substantial cache of content. “Often, after they do an inventory, they’ll figure out I do have more than I actually thought I had,” she says. Think product descriptions, blog posts, photos, buyer’s guides, product specifications. It is sometimes scattered around the web and the organization. Different teams create or keep content and often they don’t see the ways it can be used across a company. Consider repurposing what you have. And don’t forget about consumer-created content: reviews, Instagram photos, tweets, posts. The raw content is beyond your control, but how you use it is not and it creates tremendous validation.

Go with the pros. If you want fantastic content, turn to people who’ve made it their calling. Some talk about running their content operations like a media organization. So, why not hire someone who’s run a media organization, or at least worked in one. When Sephora moved to up its video game, it hired Matthew Stanley, with Jackass and ESPN credits to his name. Nordstrom hired Britt Olson, a fashion writer, to be its editor and content strategist, overseeing the retailer’s blogs. That doesn’t mean the subject matter experts in your operations shouldn’t be producing content, too, it just means they’ll have the help they need when they do.

Those five general tips are a start. They still leave plenty of ground to cover. In coming blog posts, we’ll explore effective uses of content in commerce and highlight some creative examples out there.

Meanwhile, it’s clear that the mix of content and commerce isn’t just here to stay, but that its importance will certainly grow in the coming years. Retailers that figure it out early will find themselves with an enviable advantage.

No content sign by Chris Delugosz and library books by timetrax23 published under Creative Commons license.

Mike Cassidy is BloomReach’s storyteller. Contact him at mike.cassidy@bloomreach.com; follow him on Twitter at @mikecassidy.