As one satirist put it: There’s nothing new under the sun, but there’s a lot of old stuff we haven’t yet discovered.
Most of us give it little thought, but we really do live in a world of commerce that’s amazingly more convenient than in years past. It wasn’t that long ago that making a purchase involved little more than thumbing through a catalog, then driving down to the store to make a purchase.
Thanks to the Internet, commerce now offers a very different experience.
In today’s marketplace, consumers are increasingly comfortable with multi-channel engagement. For example, an initial product or service introduction may come in an email campaign. This might be followed by further information on a website, in an online chat room, by checking on Facebook, or searching for reviews and feedback. What was once a relatively simplistic transactional event is now transformed into a modern experience with ancient roots.
Some people refer to this phenomenon as experiential commerce. Others call it contextual engagement. But by whatever name, today’s e-commerce requires a refinement of the age-old practice of storytelling.
To get an expert perspective on this technology-storytelling-consumer intersection, I interviewed Glenn Conradt, vice president, Global Marketing and North America at CoreMedia. His company helps clients engage their key audiences, build customer loyalty, and boost revenue and profitability.
Rodger Dean Duncan: Why have so many online retailers, who are so smart with the technical part of things, somehow ignored the importance of storytelling in their customer interactions?
Glenn Conradt: Most e-commerce teams have been primarily focused on the mechanics of online shopping—catalog management, payment processing, pricing, fulfillment, performance, security, etc. They’re engineered around process optimization so appealing to the emotional goals of consumers is often poorly understood, difficult to quantify, and usually neglected. It follows that they have invested heavily in a set of tools and technologies not designed to facilitate storytelling.
Additionally, the marketing team that is trained in telling stories is usually siloed from the e-commerce teams, focused on campaigns and often out of synch with the goals of e-commerce. They’re looking at the longer-term customer relationship and leave the day-to-day business of selling to the e-commerce folks.
Retailers need to find a way to synchronize the activities and goals of these two groups on both a cultural and technological level in order to effectively capitalize on the shift in consumer behavior.
Duncan: Much of storytelling has an element of emotion and inspiration. How can an online retailer use storytelling to help a customer “connect” with something as pedestrian as a lawnmower, a power drill, or a food blender?
Conradt: You or I may think that a power drill is “pedestrian” and uninspiring—but to the person who truly needs that product, it can be a very emotional thing indeed. Ultimately, it’s not the product itself that’s inspiring. It’s what the customer is planning to do with it. That’s the story. I may have no interest in a new blender, but to my neighbor, who has been trying for years to launch a small business making ingredients for healthy smoothies, or my sister-in-law, who’s planning a huge margarita party to welcome her husband home from Afghanistan, this blender might be a lifesaver.
The point is, nobody just wakes up and says “I’m going to buy a lawnmower.” The reason they are interested in a particular product is that they’re trying to solve a problem or they want to improve their lives and they think that this product can help them do that. Companies can do some research. Talk to their customers. Find out about their hopes and fears and goals and desires. Then they’ll know exactly what makes a power drill inspirational to some customers and be able to tell stories about it.
Of course, sometimes a product is inspirational not because of what it does, but because of how it was made. A mass produced hammer from an anonymous factory in China may not be very exciting. But a hand-forged hammer made by a master blacksmith using centuries-old methods and sustainably harvested hard woods may be extremely inspiration to some buyers.
Duncan: What kind of media can be used to help an online retailer implement storytelling in a compelling way?
Conradt: In today’s digital age, it isn’t necessary to spend large amounts of time or money to create impactful, inspirational content. Sincerity will trump glitz any day. In fact, companies that focus too much on the look of a piece of media, but don’t take the time to understand their customers, may end up doing more harm than good.
What makes content truly valuable is when it is relevant, useful, and authentic. Find out what issues concern customers and create content that is relevant to their specific situation. Look at how customers behave on different channels and devices and make sure that content is designed to match those behaviors.
Retailers also need to recognize that they don’t need to create all of the content by themselves. Not only are their affordable online services that can provide them with quality content on a budget, but they can also integrate user generated content from social networks and curate content from other online sources that customers will find interesting and inspiring.
Duncan: Good “upselling” is as old as merchandising itself. What role did storytelling play in upselling in the past, and what role does it play today?
Conradt: Storytelling has always been a part of positive retail experiences. In traditional retail environments, a good sales person crafts his or her pitch to the specific needs of a customer and includes goods and services that complete or complement the product. Storytelling helps close the deal, encourages upsell, and can make the customer feel good in the process. Similarly product placement has always been based on an understanding of how different products relate to each other and to specific customer requirements.
The first generation of e-commerce tools focused primarily on transactional capabilities and basic product optimization. They could do a good job of displaying related products and incorporating customer viewers, but lacked the human element that made in-store merchandising so effective. Algorithms are no replacement for human understanding.
New software tools are now allowing savvy retailers to take the best of these in-store merchandising practices, digitize them and increase their reach by taking advantage of online network effects. One example is the idea of a digital fitting room that allows shoppers to merge photos of themselves with products images to see how a product will look before they click the “buy” button.
Retailers also have the ability to collect data on customer shopping habits so that they can understand them better—allowing them to serve up more relevant content and products.
Duncan: The Internet has brought democracy to retailing. What advice do you have for a small business to make its offerings rise above the marketplace noise?
Conradt: Clearly, small businesses are not going to be able to compete on price alone. Even larger retailers are feeling increasing pressure from the new breed of online-only discount brands. It’s still possible, however, for a small businesses to succeed, as there can be a great benefit in being small, unique, and personal. They have the opportunity to capitalize on this to build stories around their products and brand. Then you can take advantage of social networks to spread the word.
The key is to demonstrate the care and individual personality that goes into the creation of your product – then to communicate it through active, two-way participation in social networks.
Duncan: What are the best practices you’ve seen with home-based online businesses—for example, people selling quilts and other handicraft items?
Conradt: The most successful home-based businesses are those that tell the story behind the products in a way that inspires a new segment of potential customers that may have felt ignored by traditional brands.
Juniper Ridge is a company that went from selling soap and incense at San Francisco farmers markets to become a globally recognized niche fragrance brand in a little over a decade. Their focus on naturally harvested, wild ingredients allowed them to attract people who did not identify with the glitz and “luxury” style of established fragrance brands.
Another key is to leverage the power of key influencers like bloggers or journalists. Accessing folk who have a huge number of social followers helps to amplify the message. Once the word has started to spread, the impact can be further amplified through the use of rich media like video or through interactive campaigns such as contests or in-person workshops.
Duncan: Millions of people are involved in multi-level marketing. How can they use storytelling to advantage?
Conradt: In some ways, multi-level marketing is a natural match for a story-driven approach to selling. The salespeople in a multi-level retail network typically interact with people they already know. Since they have traditionally depended upon referrals and word-of-mouth to expand their market, the structure and dynamics of this system already resembles a kind of offline social network.
Since sellers are often recruited from the customer base, most of the sales people have first hand experience with the product and are involved in the same social circles as their customers. This makes them ideally suited to sell the product based on stories and emotional connection – provided the product actually does the things it claims to do.
If the MLM salesperson can speak honestly about their own product experiences to a like-minded peer, then this model is the perfect fit. If they can’t, then any story they tell will ring hollow. And in this age where online consumers are increasingly empowered and independent, there is little tolerance for brand promises that don’t hold up in real life.
Duncan: What is the organizational impact?
Conradt: Shifting approaches—from transactional to unified and story-driven—is not something that can happen overnight. Retailers and their marketing teams can reduce the risk by taking an evolutionary approach while laying a sustainable foundation for future growth.
Retailers will, by necessity, need to act more like publishers. It will not be enough to simply have quality products at reasonable prices. To stay competitive, they will need to invest more in content creation and curating. To keep this content fresh for returning customers it will need to be updated on a regular basis. The result is that e-commerce web sites may begin to resemble media web sites, with large amounts of content and a reduced time-to-web.
Duncan: How does storytelling impact other customer channels?
Conradt: Media-rich, storytelling experiences are not designed to be delivered only on a retailer’s website. They are not passive one-way narratives that sit on their home page and never change. They are dynamic experiences that are constantly evolving. The retail storytelling experience is a dialog between the retailer and its customers. The customer experience will need to change depending on shopping history, device, season, time of day, and more. And it will involve not just digital channels (web, mobile apps, kiosks) but also non-digital interactions in the store, at home, or around town.
To transform customer experiences, companies need to think differently about how they approach technology. The use of dynamic content based on the context of the customer will need to be addressed to provide the personalization needed for smoothing channel progression and eliminating the confusion and friction that cause abandoned carts.
This interview by Dr. Duncan was also published by Forbes where he is a regular contributor.
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