How retailers can thrive in a world with Amazon — first in a series

Amazon is on a roll.

Maybe you’ve heard. Not a week goes by, it seems, that some news doesn’t break about the e-commerce pioneer moving to corner a market or launching a new line of business. The financial news is full of stories that include staggering statistics about Amazon’s revenue, or growth, or futuristic patents.

But you know what? Amazon is not inevitable. Amazon can be beaten. Retailers not named Amazon can thrive in a world with Amazon if they focus on the ways they can differentiate themselves from the Seattle heavyweight.

“There is hope,” says Carl Boutet, a retail and customer experience strategist with the Mega Group of Canada. “There is plenty of hope.”

This is the first part of “Thriving in a World with Amazon,” a series of stories that explores where that hope lies. It will look at some of the strategies and tactics underlying some of the other retail success stories in the financial news, stories that sometimes get lost amid all the jaw-dropping coverage of Amazon.

“I don’t think it’s a lost game and everyone should surrender today,” says Harish Abbott, CEO Symphony Commerce, a commerce and fulfillment platform. “Every retailer has the unique promise of the products they carry, the service attached to the products and user experience, including post purchase. Find the niche and what is unique.”

Yory Wurmser, eMarketer’s principal retail analyst, says there are a number of ways retailers can differentiate themselves from Amazon. But in broad strokes, building a better customer experience and harnessing the available trove of customer data to help do that is a good start.

“That’s sort of aspect No. 1, just improving the customer experience,” he says. “That’s in-store and online.”

And that is where data comes in.

“Connected to that is having better customer data,” Wurmser says, “really figuring out what your customer wants, so you can target, based on the person, rather than on the channel or on large segments, to really offer targeted kinds of products.”

Data-driven personalization requires machine-learning and automation

It’s the sort of data-driven personalization that requires harnessing machine-learning and automation, the way Amazon does. But as data-management and analysis has become a must-have in many industries, the tools are certainly available to retailers.

That is not to say wise data use and building a great customer experience are the only keys to success. In fact, there is no one answer. But that’s the good news. Because that means there are many answers, many steps, that retailers can take.

In fact, in posts in this series, we will explore how retailers battling Amazon can set themselves apart by:

  • Remembering the brick-and-mortar store: It literally sets most retailers apart from Amazon, existentially. Not only do physical stores provide the best opportunity for the most intimate personal service, they also give retailers a surprising degree of flexibility and a widely distributed system of warehouses and fulfillment centers.
  • Stocking unique inventory: Amazon can’t sell what it doesn’t have and consumers can’t buy from Amazon what is available only on your site and in your store. Given Amazon’s broad reach, it’s a tall order but some retailers are successfully pulling it off.
  • Providing a unique experience: The physical store is a good start on checking this off the list. But experience doesn’t need to be limited to the brick-and-mortar vibe. There is plenty retailers can do online to distinguish themselves with content, curation, recommendations and providing relevant and personalized search.
  • Offering expertise: Amazon is not big on inspiration or instruction. Smart retailers help consumers figure out what products they need for what they want to do. And they help guide them when it comes to using those products once they have them.
  • Creative delivery and fulfillment options: No doubt Amazon has wowed consumers with Prime delivery and even one-hour delivery in some places. But you still can’t go to an Amazon warehouse and pick up your order or stroll through an Amazon warehouse touching and trying on items before asking someone to ship them to your house. Speed is great, but not everything.

Of course, there is no universal template. Whether a given strategy makes sense for a given retailer has everything to do with what that retailer sells, what its brand identity is, the kinds of relationships it has built with consumers.

Maybe you’re an apparel retailer that wants to be the place for fashion advice and distinctive styles. Maybe you’re an electronics retailer that wants to offer the kind of advice that takes the stress out of gadget purchases. Maybe you just want to be a place that is fun to shop.

Kasey Lobaugh of Deloitte

Kasey Lobaugh

“You’ve just got to think about it and ask, ‘What is it I really want to be?’ before you come up with an answer,” says Kasey Lobaugh, Deloitte’s chief innovation officer for retail & distribution. “Because the answer, it just is different, depending on who you are as a brand.”

One thing is fairly clear, however: It’s past time to have that conversation and past time come up with an answer.

There is no denying that Amazon is a formidable competitor. A recent USA Today analysis of U.S. Commerce Department data and Amazon financial findings concluded that 30 percent of online retail spending in the United States happens on Amazon. An important note: About half that spending occurs on Amazon’s Marketplace, meaning a third-party presumably captures the bulk of that revenue.

And BloomReach’s own research shows that Amazon is increasingly where consumers turn to begin their product searches online. In an October 2015 poll, conducted by Survata, 44 percent of respondents said they started their product searches on Amazon. By this fall, that figure had grown to 55 percent.

The share of respondents who said they start their searches on a retailer’s site, meanwhile, dropped from 21 percent to 16 percent.

State of Amazon, consumer search statistics

But again, parts of the story were overshadowed by Amazon’s dominance. The headline-grabbing statistic resulted from a question that asked consumers where they start their searches. Retailers might be more interested in where consumers end their searches — as in where they actually buy.

On that note, there is hope, to channel Carl Boutet. The Survata data also showed that 70 percent of consumers comparison shop on another retailer’s site, even when they’ve found a product they want on Amazon. And more than half of those shoppers said they double-check most or every time.

The survey also provides some evidence that retailers who build a better site experience could create a powerful draw for customers who currently turn to Amazon to find products.

Better site experience will keep your customers close

Half of those surveyed said they had left a retailer’s site after being unable to find a product online that the knew the retailer carried. And 41 percent have left a site for Amazon after having a poor site-search experience.

While seeing customers leave is bad news for retailers competing with Amazon, it also indicates that there is room for improvement of the sort that would keep customers on retailers’ sites.

Don’t underestimate site experience. Boutet says it’s definitely an opening for those competing against Amazon.

“You’re going to have some deeper experiences online,” he says. “You are going to have retailers that are working on giving you a richer experience than you’d have on Amazon. They’re doubling down on certain technology.”

Maybe that will involved virtual reality or augmented reality, he says. Home goods seller Wayfair is already introducing an augmented reality feature to help customers see how various pieces of furniture will actually look in their homes.

Maybe the deeper experience will be something else entirely. Maybe it will involved providing superior personalization and pinpoint relevance in search results and recommendations. But there are ways that retailers can forge a closer bond with consumers; ways they can attach a feeling to the act of shopping that is missing in Amazon’s vastness.

“Their branding is very little emotion, other than the wow of getting things quickly,”  Boutet says. “If you think of Warby Parker, these guys that have created a brand that really speaks to a certain segment of the population. Amazon doesn’t have that. They don’t have that kind of branding.”

It’s an opening that gives retailers a chance to zig while Amazon zags. In fact, it’s just one of the slivers of daylight that smart retailers are racing towards in order to set themselves apart from Amazon.

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

Christmas trees at Target

Holiday shopping kicks off in earnest on Veterans Day

It turns out Onyx Friday is giving every indication of being a thing.

You remember Onyx Friday, right? The notion that the digital age and empowered consumers have shredded the concept of Black Friday, contributing to an earlier start to the traditional holiday shopping season?

Key takeaways

  • Digital consumers are changing the holiday season calendar, shopping earlier and on non-traditional days.
  • Retailers need to be ready with relevant offers well before Black Friday.
  • Veterans Day appears to be a day on which shoppers are highly motivated. Retailers should align offers with that mindset.

I wrote last week about how Veterans Day appears to be as good a day as any to mark the beginning of the season, given the high volume of online sales recorded that day and the evidence that online shoppers are highly motivated on Nov. 11.

It’s still early to draw rock-solid conclusions, but a look at a relevant subset of BloomReach retail data for Nov. 11, shows that once again it was a day on which consumers were big on buying, with conversions reaching their high point, so far, for November.

November digital conversions

Of course, we’ll have a much better idea of how Nov. 11 stacks up later in the month, after we’ve lived through Thanksgiving, which has become a big shopping day, the traditional Black Friday and Cyber Monday. But I hate waiting, and so I thought I’d share what we have from last week’s shopping activity.

And like last year, Nov. 11, 2016, featured motivated online shoppers. My colleagues and I reached that conclusion by creating a way to determine whether specific days were “browse days,” on which consumers appeared to window shop, or “buy days,” on which consumers made a purchase with relatively less shopping around.

Veterans Day was clearly a buy day. On average, in the first days of November, consumers looked at 43 products for each conversion or purchase. On Nov. 11, they looked at 32 products for every purchase.

Browse vs. buy days chart

That said, it’s significant that Nov. 11 wasn’t the biggest buy day in early November. That distinction goes to November 6, a Sunday, when shoppers viewed 31 products before making a purchase. Nov. 6, however, was a day of much lower conversions overall than Nov. 11.

Again, this is really a preliminary look at consumers’ habits as we move into the holiday shopping season. We have a long way to go and therefore a long wait before we can draw solid conclusions.

Stay tuned.

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

Santas crossing the street

Black Friday, move over; Onyx Friday reigns

target-christmas-trees

Forget about Black Friday. It’s toast.

At least in the day-after-Thanksgiving and busting-down-the-doors sense. It’s no longer the biggest shopping day of the year and the idea of focusing on one day of in-store shopping is as decrepit as the notion of single-channel shopping itself.

There is a new Black Friday (of course there is) and it’s not so much a day, but a state of mind. Consumers shop when they want, where they care to and on the devices they prefer to use. And naturally, retailers are responding.

Amazon started its Black Friday sales days ago. Walmart’s online Black Friday is up and running. Target’s, too. Santas in Florida, Arizona, and no doubt elsewhere, are already sitting in malls that have kicked off the now nearly-three-months-long holiday season.

And why not? A survey conducted for BloomReach by Survata shows that 42 percent of shoppers start their holiday shopping by Labor Day weekend. More than six in 10 say they’ll start by Black Friday at the latest. Adobe says nearly a third of consumers started their holiday shopping before November this year, an increase of 5 percent from last year.

But I’m a traditionalist and even if I rarely set foot in a store on Black Friday, I like having the milestone, the marker, that says the holiday shopping season has begun. And so, I’m declaring a new symbolic kickoff. Call it Onyx Friday, a multichannel, mega-start to holiday shopping. The day? November 11.

Yes, today.

It’s not an arbitrary choice. I have data. In fact, BloomReach data shows that Nov. 11 last year matched Thanksgiving and came within striking distance of Black Friday in online buying. And I have what’s known as thick data — or anecdotal evidence —  to back it up. Call the data/anecdotal evidence combo the sign of a tipping point: Nov. 11 is now a day of voluminous online shopping and holiday hullabaloo in malls that says, when it comes to holiday shopping, we’re all in.

Santas crossing a San Francisco street

First, consider the Santa invasions. A quick internet search finds that shopping centers in Sacramento, Calif., Novi, Michigan, and Concord, Calif., will kick off Santa-mania today. Yes, the jolly old elf will be taking his throne 11 days after Halloween to start the yule madness.

“Actually, it’s three or four days later than we normally open it,” says Kim Trupiano, marketing and partnership director of Sunvalley Shopping Center in Concord, Calif.

She says that the mall’s marketers wanted to wait to kick into the holiday spirit this year until the distraction of the presidential election had passed. But Nov. 11 made sense for other reasons, too.

“Friday not only happens to be a great day to kick things off, but it’s a federal holiday,” she says, referring to Veterans Day. “A lot of city offices are closed and the kids are out of school. And we wanted to stay away from the election because we know people are going to be so consumed by that.”

Associating no-holds-barred shopping with Veterans Day, a solemn day on which we honor our military veterans, is no doubt disconcerting for some. But Trupiano, whose husband is a Gulf War veteran, says the shopping center incorporates recognition for veterans into the day through discounts and the like.

“It’s a big family day. The kids are off. The parents may be off,” she says. “I think it’s going to be a win-win that day.”

It’s also a great day for many to kickoff online shopping, according to BloomReach data. Last year, we declared Veterans Day the new Black Friday based on data that showed that the day not only had a high number of online orders, but also a high number of shoppers intent on buying.

In fact, data from a subset of BloomReach customers indicated that the number of online purchases on Veterans Day last year was virtually the same as those on Thanksgiving Day, another day emerging as a heavy shopping day. And online orders on Veterans Day 2015 fell only 15 percent short of the number on Black Friday.

Nearly as important as the number of online orders was the way shoppers behaved on Veterans Day. Last year, my BloomReach colleagues and I designed a proxy for consumer intent. The idea was to see how focused shoppers were on actually buying on a given day, as opposed to browsing.

We looked at the ratio of the number of products viewed to the number of purchases. The thinking: The fewer products a shopper looked at before buying, the more focused that shopper was on buying an item on that particular shopping excursion.

browse-vs-buy-holiday

The red line in the graphic above represents the average number of products consumers looked at in November 2015 before placing an order — or converting, to use the industry term. The blue line represents the number of products viewed on a given day. Dips below the red line represent high-intent-to-buy days. Those above? Low-intent-to-buy.

You can see that Veteran’s Day, Nov. 11, is far and away the day with highest intent to buy.

As I said last year: It’s still a little early to declare this new Black Friday a trend based on data. And Nov. 11 also happens to be Singles Day, a huge shopping day in China. The effect on U.S. retailers is hard to discern.

All that aside, based on the data, plus anecdotal evidence, it’s hard to argue that the holiday shopping season is not creeping earlier and earlier.

No doubt, says Sunvalley’s Trupiano. And for a very good reason, she adds, thinking back to the early days of stores opening up on Thanksgiving Day.

“I think if we had gotten any sense that that first Thanksgiving opening was a bust, we might not have done it the next year,” she says. “The last thing you want to do is have all the lights on and have the center open, if people aren’t going to be here. It was so robust that first Thanksgiving. We were like, ‘I guess this was a good idea.’”

So, happy Onyx Friday.

Photos by Mike Cassidy

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

What the demise of Mel Cotton’s teaches us about customer experience

tent in the snow

OK, so it’s not exactly an unfamiliar story: a 70-year-old single-store retailer closes down to make way for a so-called better-and-higher use of the chunk of urban property it’s been located on for decades.

But as I read in my hometown newspaper about the demise of Mel Cotton’s Sporting Goods on West San Carlos Street in San Jose, Calif., I couldn’t help but spot a lesson in the tale.

Teachable moment and all that.

First, a little bit about Mel Cotton’s, which Sal Pizarro of the Mercury News described as a 25,000-square-foot emporium stocking tents, camping gear, ski equipment, fishing gear, hunting needs — you know, sporting goods.

The place is an institution. There was a real Mel Cotton, the guy who founded the store in 1946 and died in 2008. It’s been the kind of place that generations of the same family would visit. It’s been a hot spot for Scouts, boys and girls who were learning to live by their wits in the woods.

It is a place that stocks more than products. The sales people roaming the aisles are experts and more than willing to share the expertise that they have. Yeah, this is the lesson part.

Mel Cotton’s success didn’t come from the fact that it could sell you the same tent, camping lantern and sleeping bag that you could buy on Amazon, maybe for less. No, Mel Cotton’s success came from the fact that it could also supply the confidence you’d need to use your tent, camping lantern and sleeping bag.

Mel Cotton’s provides a memorable customer experience. It gives people a reason to go there — and to go back when it’s time for a new sleeping bag, or maybe a cooler or cook stove.

Where sales associates are like family

Pizarro talked to customer Al Sousa, a San Jose guy who was at Mel Cotton’s buying kayaks (which you can indeed buy on Amazon). Sousa talked about how sad the closing was. His dad used to bring him to Mel Cotton’s for camping, hunting and fishing stuff. It’s a memory.

But what will he miss the most about the old place? The knowledge that the store associates have — and their personal touch, Pizarro wrote.

“The people here have always been like family to the customers,” Sousa told Pizarro.

Family. That’s the kind of customer experience that’s hard to beat.

And, OK, I was a beneficiary of the Mel Cotton’s experience, which is maybe why this particular closing caught my eye. When my wife and I were ready for our first camping trip — and not entirely sure it wouldn’t be our last — we turned to Mel Cotton’s to rent equipment, including some equipment that we didn’t know we needed. And we did need it. Kind of hard to see at night in the woods without a lantern, for instance.

When we came through our first trip unscathed, we went back to Mel Cotton’s to invest in some equipment of our own. As the sales guy patiently took me through the world of sleeping bags, I wondered why a camper in California would want a sleeping bag that kept you warm down to zero degrees.

Months later, as the autumn snowfall dusted our tent at the White Wolf campground above the Yosemite Valley, I was glad, snug and warm in my sleeping bag, that the sales guy was there to explain it.

You might argue that providing a great customer experience wasn’t enough to save Mel Cotton’s, but you’d be wrong. The store’s news release announcing the closure said the store remained profitable, according to the Mercury.

Why the store experience is important online

You might argue that with commerce moving online, the Mel Cotton’s model is obsolete. Not to pick on you, but you’d be wrong again. Not only are in-store experiences going to be a big reason brick-and-mortar stores survive, but the same customer experience principles apply online.

Sure, you have to deliver the experience differently — by offering rich written and video content, by delivering relevant and personalized recommendations, by maintaining site performance and by simplifying checkout and delivering on service, including delivering on time.

In the video below, IBM’s Patricia V. Waldron talks with BloomReach about some of the steps retailers can take to provide a memorable experience.

And so, I’ll cop to being a bit of a soft sentimentalist when it comes to the passing of a community institution. But the story of Mel Cotton’s is not a story only about looking back.

For 70 years, the retailer was definitely on to something. And what it was on to, it turns out, is the way of the future.

Photo of the tent in the snow by Kikuko Nakayama published under Creative Commons license

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

 

Digital retail’s vanguard embraces actionable data

Merchandising at the downtown San Jose Muji store

The coming crop of digital retail professionals is more data-driven than ever.

It stands to reason. Retail — and digital retail in particular — is moving ahead at breakneck speed. Marketing software and e-commerce platforms have been evolving and proliferating to the point that some already in the business today feel overwhelmed by the choices.

But when it comes to data and the tools to wrangle it, those headed for retail careers say, “Bring it.”

“I would say that 100 percent of our students understand the importance of analytics,” says Sanjukta Pookulangara, an associate professor at the University of North Texas’ College of Merchandising, Hospitality & Tourism. “They do understand that data is a critical piece in this puzzle, because that helps them make better decisions.”

The University of North Texas, in Denton, is not a bad place to start when examining the mindset of the next generation of site merchandisers and digital retailers moving into key industry positions. The school is unusual in the depth of its focus on digital retailing and its students are regularly honored for their work by the National Retail Federation.

Moreover, the work being done by UNT students and instructors provides a vivid illustration of how quickly retail fields are evolving. While data and figuring out what the data says have always been important in retail, the digital revolution has supercharged their importance.

“I think what the consumer is demanding is changing dramatically, along with the technology that is being offered,” says Portia Griffin, a dual-major senior studying merchandising and digital retailing. “They even tell us in class, ‘By the time you graduate, most of this information won’t be relevant anymore.’”

Site merchandising changes by the minute — or so it seems

Portia Griffin

Portia Griffin

That is not to say the lessons learned will not be valuable, just that the specific tools, and even some methods, will be out of date by the time students land their first jobs after graduation.

For instance, the class of 2012, the year Griffin, 22, started her undergraduate studies, would have been amazed then by the analytics tools available today.

Griffin, herself, has seen the evolution, given that a big part of UNT’s curriculum involves hands-on projects, including building an online store and analyzing sales and consumer habits. (Full disclosure: Among the new breed of tools that Griffin has explored is BloomReach’s Compass product.)

“All the different types of data collection is amazing,” she says. “It’s exciting for me to look at. I was just amazed at what you could pull.”

Lindsey Tanoff, who expects to finish her merchandising masters program in the spring, says the pace of retail change is definitely impressive. When she started her undergraduate studies in 2007, she didn’t sense the kind of emphasis that is placed on data in 2016, though she says that might be attributed to her own interests at the time.

“Retail definitely changes very quickly. And it’s not even retail, it’s the consumer who changes so quickly,” says Tanoff, 28, who went to work in retail before returning for her masters.

And sure, some of the change in merchandise that a store offers is a function of changing seasons or fashion trends, but there is more to it than that. To remain relevant, retailers must find ways to understand their customers and anticipate their desires.

“The merchandise is also changing with the consumer shopping habits,” Tanoff added. “In retail, everyone has to change because the consumer changes.”

No doubt, changing shopping habits and evolving technology make for an exciting field. Tanoff, who teaches an undergraduate course at UNT on consumers in a global market, says professors and instructors frequently talk about ways to keep their work current.

One site merchandising constant: actionable data

Lindsey Tanoff, University of North Texas merchandising masters student

Lindsey Tanoff

“It always seems like they’re saying they’re doing new research and new curriculum for the next semester,” she says, “because something changed, or there is some kind of new platform that needs to be talked about.”

Data, however, appears to be here to stay.

Both Griffin and Tanoff have digital retailing on their list of potential jobs after graduation. And both say they expect to have access to voluminous data and the tools to make quick sense out of what the data is telling them about their customers.

“You can’t have a successful retailer, a successful fashion company, without the data to either drive sales or help in the creation of new designs, new styles, new lines,” Tanoff says.

Sure, Griffin says, there is a need for merchandisers to rely on their intuition and experience when it comes to representing and respecting their brands. But that is not enough. There is a need to marry intuition with data.

“I really like data, but I’ve always had to be the gut-feeling person. I’ve never actually had the data to back up my gut feelings,” says Griffin, who’s worked for retailers through high school and college. “I really like numbers. They make me feel better.”

In some ways, it’s a view that encapsulates contemporary site merchandising.

“Analytics has always been important to merchandising,” says associate professor Pookulangara. “The only difference now is it’s much more sophisticated.”

And while the end goals are time-honored, the methods for achieving them require a more sophisticated set of skills.

“It’s still a store,” Pookulangara says of a digital commerce site. “You still have to make a profit. You still have to know your ROI. So it’s extremely important that they need to understand analytics, both in terms of site analytics, as well as web analytics.”

It seems that those who are looking to digital retail as a career are on board with the need to step up the industry’s analytics game. The fun part will be watching just how far they take it.

Photo of Muji store by Mike Cassidy. Photos of Portia Griffin and Lindsey Tanoff courtesy of Griffin and Tanoff respectively.

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

Video: Don’t underwhelm digital shoppers with a lousy customer experience

Everybody knows that delivering a memorable customer experience has gotten a lot harder in the era of the alway-on, mobile consumer.

Customers move from device to device, creating a customer journey that looks more like a plate of spaghetti than a straight path to purchase.

Dan Chester, vice president of retail sales at Foresee, a customer experience analytics company, says every contact between a customer and a retailer needs to be measured and assessed. Chester took time out from his schedule at the Shop.org Retail’s Digital Summit to talk to us about the danger of “underwhelming” your customers.

This is the third of our three-part video series on customer experience, but there are more videos on more subjects still to come.

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

Shop.org lobby

Shop.org quick take: Retail transformation at JCPenney

JCPenney has been on quite a ride — from Ron Johnson, of Apple store fame, setting a new course that proved disastrous, to a recent turnaround strategy that appears to be bearing fruit.

Mike Amend knows the story well. He’s JCPenney’s executive vice president for omnichannel and he shared his insights at the Shop.org Retail’s Digital Summit in Dallas. We’ve boiled his main points down into a bite-sized presentation.

 

Garden Answer builds content to drive digital commerce

laura-leboutillier-garden-answer

One of the confounding things about producing effective content to drive e-commerce sales is the way that something that looks so simple can be so incredibly difficult.

You’ve got products. They’ve got names. You’ve got stories about why somebody would want to buy your products with names. What’s so hard about that?

And then along comes Garden Answer — a Facebook page, a YouTube channel, a franchise, really — that is crushing it when it comes to producing videos that build a community around gardening and around the products gardeners need to buy in order to do their thing.

More on content and commerce on the BloomReach blog

And who’s behind this e-commerce content juggernaut? That would be Laura and Aaron LeBoutillier, an eastern Oregon couple that was goofing around, making gardening how-to videos for fun, when one of the country’s leading flower brands discovered them on YouTube.

“We never dreamed, you know, that it could turn into something like that,” says Laura, who is the star of the operation’s videos. “It wasn’t really a plan.”

Never dreamed it could turn into something like what, you ask?

The LeBoutilliers now have a contract to produce gardening videos for Proven Winners, a leading supplier of plants for wholesale growers and therefore garden supply stores. Aaron works behind the camera and Laura is the on-camera talent, explaining how to perform garden magic in a series of fast-action Facebook videos and longer, normal speed YouTube videos.

The couple’s Facebook page, where many of the videos live, is closing in on a million likes. The Garden Answer page has had 88 million views this year alone, Aaron says. On the YouTube side, the couple has 78,000 subscribers and has racked up about 6 million views in 2016, he adds.

And, like so many things, it looks easy from afar. It started out as fun, after all. Get a camera. Shoot some video. Bingo. But turning a hobby into a business is a grind.

“Hard work and consistency,” Aaron says, explaining what raised Garden Answer’s profile. “We were doing one to two videos a week for over a year before we saw any money come in at all.”

That hard work is paying off now. It’s also yielded some lessons that others struggling with getting content right might adopt. In this, the second of an occasional series on the role of content in commerce, we’ll take a look at some of those lessons and some of the strategy behind Garden Answer’s partnership with Proven Winners.

Garden Answer’s five keys to effective content

  • Don’t try: In other words, not all content is made to sell. Some is to educate and engage.
  • Know your audience: Don’t just know your customers; know where they are in their purchasing process.
  • Keep it real: You can’t fake authenticity. Don’t try to be too cute.
  • Produce consistently: Don’t go for long stretches without posting. It’s a conversation. Avoid dead air.
  • Learn from others: Keep your eyes and ears open. Keep track of content you like. Why does it work? How can you learn from it?

Don’t try: Not as in, “Don’t try to produce high-quality video.” Don’t try, as in, “Don’t try to sell.” The couple is not required to use Proven Winners products in their videos, though they often do. They retain editorial control of their work. Sometimes there are direct links to product pages, sometimes not.

That’s important to the LeBoutilliers, who are more interested in showing people how to build a fairy garden or repurpose a laundry basket as a strawberry planter than they are in being a pitchman or pitchwoman.

“The cool thing about them,” Laura says of Proven Winners, “There was no, ‘How can we sell stuff better? How can we get the word out about our products better? They asked us, “How can we enable you to help inspire people to want to garden.”

It’s all about the goal of the content. Garden Answer videos are meant to raise brand awareness, says Jeanine Standard, Proven Winners’ media coordinator, and to do one other important thing. Proven Winners’ research shows that one reason consumers shy away from gardening is the fear that they will kill a living thing. Plants do die, after all.

“Gardening is an emotional thing,” she says. “For people who want to nurture, people who want to put a plant in the ground, they want to take care of it. They want to feed it. It’s very much like parenting and just a heck of a lot easier.”

Laura LeBoutillier’s videos demonstrate that these projects can work. And they provide would-be gardeners with valuable information, which in turn builds their confidence.

screen-shot-2016-10-06-at-3-37-02-pm

Know your audience: This is different from know your customer. You need to know the audience you are trying to reach with a particular form or piece of content. Is it an exploring audience? An audience looking for those with similar interests? A price, features and quality comparing audience? A buying audience?

Your customers and potential customers will likely be in all of these audiences at some point while they’re shopping. But no one is in all places at all times.

Aaron LeBoutillier sees Garden Answers’ Proven Winners audience as a group that is curious and passionate about gardening, attributes that Laura LeBoutillier shares. That makes the couple’s social media pages especially meaningful for Proven Winners. It’s niche information for a niche market.

“That’s why I think companies are going with influencers, these YouTube channels or Facebook channels,” Aaron says. “Their audience are people who are interested in that particular thing. It’s more valuable for Proven Winners to make a video with us than to make a commercial during the Super Bowl, because, who gardens and then watches the Super Bowl?”

It could be quite a few people garden before the Super Bowl, Aaron’s point being, among those who watch how-to garden videos there is no doubt an extremely high percentage of people who garden. And the Garden Answer videos do not cost $5 million for a 30-second spot.

Keep it real: If you’re in the business of selling stuff, well, you want to sell stuff. But keep the long view. Don’t be constantly selling in all your content. Of course there is a place for selling and for providing the key information a buyer needs to pull the trigger on a purchase.

But the Garden Answer variety of content is meant to attract customers and engage them with your brand. It’s about community building, loyalty, demonstrating your expertise — or even sometimes explaining what you don’t know.

Laura LeBoutillier says some of her projects don’t work as planned and when they don’t, she says so — on video. Other times, a project or planting plan she thought would gorgeous, just isn’t. Or at least it’s not to her liking.

“I’ll own it, if I make a mistake,” she says. “Or we’ll update a project and say, ‘Hey, this didn’t work.’”

One note: It’s really hard to fake authenticity. That’s why they call it authenticity. And, Standard says, the LeBoutilliers have it.

“They’re just like the nicest people,” she says. “They’re friendly. They’re gracious. They’re appreciative. She’s just kind of American as apple pie.”

Produce consistently: If you want to build an audience, you need to constantly provide fresh content. The LeBoutilliers don’t work exclusively for Proven Winners and they don’t exclusively post videos. They have a few other clients and they post photographs. They have Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest accounts.

“You have got to be consistent,” Laura says. “You can’t have weeks go by where you don’t post. And right now we’re posting once or twice a day.”

Yes, it takes discipline and there will be discouraging days. Stick with it. Be patient.

“There is no silver bullet,” she says. “You have no idea what is going to take off or what isn’t. It’s funny.”

Learn from others: Study the craft. Browse YouTube and sift through Facebook, watching videos and figuring out what works and what doesn’t. Try and fail. Keep track of what resonates and determine the common denominators.

“Aaron is a huge YouTube video watcher,” Laura says. “He watches a lot and then you find people who do interesting things that you find fun to watch and then you kind of try to adapt it to what you’re doing.”

So, that’s the Garden Answer playbook. Easy right?

Of course it’s not easy. Few worthwhile things are. And that seems especially true for producing the right content. And not just producing the right content, but producing the right content for all the different stages of a consumer’s buying process — and then delivering it to the right person at the right time.

The one sure thing is that the importance of content in commerce is not going away. In fact, given the current emphasis on content, it’s far more likely that more and more digital retailers will become more adept at adding content to the arsenal of tools they use to attract and delight consumers.

And as content strategies evolve, no one will want to be left behind.

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