As brands and retailers, we entice consumers with beautiful words and images that make our culture and core values resonate. This we call Content. As one of the 4Cs of next-generation social commerce—along with Commerce, Community and Context—it's a big part of how we sell products. There are selling points too, qualities and features that differentiate our products from the herd. Text, images and rich media—all of it—is Content.
In increasing numbers, we brands are becoming producers, curators and publishers of content. Often, it's to support product. It can be direct, as when fashion sites put together looks to provide contextual relevance for an item—or simply a wealth of product details. Or, it can be pure lifestyle branding, independent of product, to buoy up the brand—promoting its culture, values, point of view and community. The term branded content many in the industry use to mean gratuitously entertaining collateral; but really, in effective marketing, all content is branded. Content is the currency of branding. It's how we make our dreams compelling to others.
Now, in the age of social media, it's a two-way street. We produce content for our consumers—and our customers produce content for and about us, which we can curate, amplify and broadcast, if we so choose. It's a beautiful dance, powered by digital technology.
We remember how it was back in the early stages of the ecommerce evolution. Many major retailers initially saw their online channels as a way to reach customers out there in the hinterlands—same as they had their catalog business. These folks were necessarily removed from the real experience of the brand, which lived in fashion mags and the exciting NYC flagship—stuff of pure fantasy—making it all the more exciting because it was to some extent inaccessible. Dressing up your site back then to look like a million bucks wasn't really the point. After all, designer outlet stores were doing just fine. A bland, templated website was good enough for value-conscious, convenience shoppers. At the very least, it proved itself capable of generating positive ROI. But this situation was not to last long.
Guardians of the brand had looked askance, discounting the web as a clunky nerd thing. When they finally awakened to its true potential, they were typically aghast. "Our website rots," is something one got used to hearing from the marketing and creative types at the time—off the record, of course. As the web got more popular, everyone—not just geographically remote customers—were checking out your brand online, and they were judging you by what they saw. They were even Googling you personally. The stewards of the brand didn't even try to hide their embarrassment. What these early ecommerce sites typically represented was 180-degrees at odds with what these soldiers of the brand had been working so hard to promote in other channels. They were in pain.
Their initial answer was Flash. HTML menus and confining grids just didn't say luxury. Beautiful animations, they were confident, made the experience far more emotional. And for a time, those Flash-mastered sites appeared to us all as truly class acts. However, several extremely important downsides soon became apparent. First, the consumer was annoyed. In survey after survey, a clear consensus emerged: "Stop trying so hard to seduce me, I just want to buy something." Secondly, the search engines were not impressed. Unable to read Flash sites, they sank them in them in their rankings. Additionally, third-party off-site content—read: bloggers—couldn't link to the relevant pages, further diminishing the natural digital footprint of the brand. So the scions of best practice recanted. Flash was not the answer we had hoped for.
What really started to matter was blogs. As their influence has increased, many brands have even taken up the challenge of developing their own to communicate a uniquely branded point of view and expertise. Expert content has been the cornerstone of authority marketing for a long time. Something was all knew deep down was that, even if people weren't reading it, they were happy it was there. But influential blogs they do read. In certain areas, like fashion where subjectivity reigns and consumer electronics for which there is such a dizzying glut of technical information, experts and curators of content can present a cogent and unified vision that is compelling to many shoppers. They read to learn, in the hopes of becoming prosumer, in-the-know experts of the brand. And so we use blogs to lure in the customer.
But it is not all just lovely words and education. On our blogs, we highlight certain trends or items, while linking to specific merchandise offerings, in the hopes of driving traffic. Additionally, there is SEO. Consistently hammering away at certain key subjects goes a long way towards raising our ranking, putting us on the map for many who might otherwise never know we exist. In other words, driving traffic to us and ultimately our products makes all content ultimately part of a larger strategy—i.e. pull in traffic. Years ago, it was often sufficient to build an amazing site. Word would get around. Consumers would find you. But, no longer. All fantasies of virally snowballing momentum aside, the "build it and they will come" mentality has given way to the realization that with so many campaigns competing for consumer attention, those unsupported with a committed marketing outreach effort will not likely succeed.
As the influence of the expert waned, there came to fill the void a new kind of celebrity content that went way beyond mere product endorsement. Retailers have been using celebrities' personal appearances for years as a draw to get consumers in-store, while they promote their latest album or film. More and more, however, we were asking for their point of view on style and product. Suddenly it was experts who were becoming the new experts—even if, ultimately, it was only on themselves. Still, consumers were very interested to know what they wore, how they lived, what they liked. Long a staple of glossy magazines, retailers eventually caught on—eg. J-Lo's top five picks of the season.
The advent of User-Generated Content took us all by storm. In a vibrant twist, consumers themselves are now by far the largest producers of Content. Everyone's a star. No one anticipated the degree to which so many people were hungry for an audience and the lengths they were willing to go to get one. I hope you agree—it's exciting to live in the midst of a huge popular creativity movement, with affordable consumer-grade technologies that can make anyone look like a pro (sort of).
Unfortunately, much of it isn't so terribly inspired—and some of it is jokester or downright hostile. This latter component of the mix, of course, terrifies many brands, discouraging them from opening themselves up to a social media that would give anyone the opportunity to publicly broadcast a negative statement—let alone engaging in ambitious and active campaigns.
But the worries were for naught. Brand communities have proven their natural corrective capacity—inciting fans to vociferously jump to the defense of the brands they love. If things are as they should be, negative comments get lost in the sheer profusion of more positive contributions. And, people just sort of expect that there will always be jerks. Moreover, correctly handled, a negative comment can be transformed into an opportunity to make compelling appeasements to win the hearts of all—"We're happy to take care of that for you, Mr. Smith. Please accept our apologies." It's also our chance to listen and learn.
Yes, a free-for-all, to some extent, it remains. But it doesn't have to be just one big mess. With the aid of design professionals, brands can gracefully weave together the vast profusion of UGC, creating concepts and frames to gracefully unify it all. And then, there is the sort—best things (most liked?) first, that is, and the garbage way at the end, many pages down. It's there, but no one really sees it. We've adapted by learning to amplify the best stuff and let the rest just quietly disappear. Current UGC best-practice strategies enormously empower the brand, allowing us to hero the consumer sentiments and expressions that really resonate for us. It can be an informal call-out on the wall, or featuring it in a campaign that stretches all the way across your digital footprint. Not incidentally, the like button has been very natural aid in bubbling the most exciting UGC up to the top. By filtering and sorting with moderation technologies, we can also make sure only the appropriate stuff gets seen, making it failsafe to publish it all openly, even on the front of our store or website, where thousands may see it.
Consumers, our potential customers among them, are demanding the right to get involved with every aspect of what we do. Content is how they mean to do it. Clearly, we've been growing over the years. Whereas the early web was a no-nonsense information delivery system, it has in the last decade been steadily morphing into sophisticated entertainment. One reason is the evolution of Content. Lately, faster upload times for the mainstream consumer have led to a buzzing proliferation of rich content including product shots in teeming multitude and video.
The question is, where to put it all? It has long been a challenge for brands to organize, sort and deliver content in a way that is effectively integrated with the ecommerce shopping experience, so as to be both unobtrusive and relevant. After all, we don't want all that branding to get in the way of shopping. And we don't want to silo it off on its own down a side corridor either, where the only ones who will see and read it are kids doing their homework. Nor do we want to use our content links to draw the consumer away from the point of purchase. Best it is instead to integrate that content, smoothly knitting it throughout the shopping experience.
That consumer experience is not all in our hands. There are more and more places to publish nowadays, from affiliate sites to Facebook and Twitter. We're putting our content out there now to where the consumers are, in the hopes that we can lure and link them back to our shop. This combined with the increasing influence of third-party editorial and customer postings on the Social Network is changing the landscape. As noted in our recent blog entry, customers are no longer coming exclusively through the homepage as the main gateway, but often instead going straight to the item level page, where they are apt to miss Content that is not tightly woven into this primary layer.
There needs to be a balance. Stuff it all on the item-level page, and it's just so much clutter. Page real estate is valuable, especially for luxury and fashion retailers, for whom white space is a priceless branding statement. But for all— More elegant integration with dynamic content is not only desirable. At this stage in the game, it is imperative.
This necessitates savvy design and strategy. It may mean limiting content to what is contextually relevant to each customer on a very personalized basis, which I'll explore in a later post. Or we could in the end become even more assiduous producers, curators and publishers, finding innovative ways to get the purchase button unobtrusively into our continuous streams of content. Likely, the isolated item level page and our siloed content will soon merge to become one rich and seamless whole. It is all part of a larger trend of businesses learning how to make life buyable. Walk through your day. See something you like. Point and click. Learn more, or just buy it.
Next in this five-part series on the 4Cs of next-generation commerce, we discuss the impact of Community. Click here to read the previous posts.
 So powerful is the online impact of a keen editorial vision that not a few blogs now draw awesomely huge followings. One recent trend: Some are now even transforming into retail brands with their own merchandise offerings.
 For a while recently it seemed like no one really cared at all what the stuffy experts had to say (they seem of late to have cleaned up their rep), but stars are beautiful people consumers can easily identify with.
 It also needs to be consistent across all channels. Many are still custom-processing individual assets to fit into all the different templates. At first, the task seems daunting, stretching current staff to their limit. But fortunately, a new generation of technology platforms have risen to the challenge with the built-in efficiency of unified, multi-channel-integrated Content Management Systems for simple one-time uploads.
dotbox CEO Ashley Heather is one of the pioneers at the intersection of ecommerce, social interaction and location-aware services. His companies include Musikube and Entertainment Media Works, which brought us StarStyle, StyleLogue and Plinking—in 2004, among the first Social Commerce websites. In his native London, he was the lead digital consultant at Impact Plus and an executive at Ford Motor Company. He is a frequent speaker at media industry events, including iBreakfast, CTIA Wireless, The Digital Coast Roundtable, MoMeMo, Social Media Week and is an Associate Member of IADAS. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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