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Who’s your brand’s Editor-in-Chief?

David C. Edelman, Global co-leader, Digital Marketing and Sales, McKinsey & Company

If you’re a retailer and you’re not generating a non-stop flow of customized, interactive content, the writing’s on the wall: Publish or perish. Publishing has become an essential tool for keeping customers close as they pursue their decision journeys on the way to purchase. Just look around. Macy’s mBlog offers “news, reviews, magic and more,”  Target’s got an online style monthly, and L.L.Bean promotes “Share Your Story” where customers emote about its products. Merchandizing that was once limited to the store window, shelves, print ads or catalogs can now be micropersonalized and published across every conceivable channel.

Here are four publishing approaches retailers are trying:

The Mass Publisher
Mass publisher retailers create content of broad interest to their customers. They ask, “If we were a cable TV channel or a mass market magazine, what would our content, tone, and the experience we offered be? What would be the on-demand shows or feature articles that get viewed and shared virally? What topics could we own?” Sears is heading in this direction with cooking and fashion programming streamed from a live studio next to one of its stores onto YouTube, Facebook, and other social sites. Macy’s mBlog posts articles on fashion, cooking, homewares and other topics that have copious links to product pages. Target’s “On the Dot” online magazine similarly teems with links to featured products.

The Problem Solver
Most marketing aims to make consumers aware of a solution or an aspiration they had not considered. But increasingly marketers are seeking to help consumers who are already in a market solve a problem. As these customers search for answers, retailers can intersect with them by publishing text or video content, interactive tools, or gateways to one-to-one help. Home Depot churns out a continuous stream of do-it-yourself help videos that it distributes through YouTube, Facebook, and its own website. Thomas Pink’s Pink TV runs fashion-show type videos oriented to different “wardrobe occasions,” such as formal, corporate, and casual, with how-to advice on getting the tie knot or color coordination just right. Viewers can click to further explore and purchase the goods described.

Pink TV’s gift section offers curated ensembles to help customers pick items for “the arty dresser” or “the media type.” Williams-Sonoma’s interactive tools walk viewers through the right wines to pair with each course of a Thanksgiving meal, based on recipes they choose. Land’s End cues up opportunities to click-to-chat when it senses consumers lingering for a while on a page or clicking around quickly — suggesting that they can’t find what they want.

The Social Engager
Facebook and other social media are not merely vehicles for running promotions and gathering friends or followers. They are a place where people engage with your brand to get a stream of deals, participate in contests, see sneak previews, or receive other regular communications. Delivering on that promise requires creating a robust programming schedule to feed the channel, having people available (with appropriate protocols) to respond to customer posts, and designing experiences that encourage followers to get others involved. Through its social media presence, L.L.Bean not only posts daily markdowns, but also a steady stream of stories from customers who share how they have used L.L.Bean products “to enjoy the outdoors.” The company encourages this sharing because it showcases customer loyalty, spreads new ideas about how to use Bean products, and provides customer insight.

The Personal Concierge
Sophisticated retailers create personalized content to help move each customer through a decision journey from considering a brand to evaluating, buying, experiencing, advocating and, ultimately bonding. For traditional direct marketers, the Customer Relationship Management aspect of this may at first sound familiar, but the multi-channel digital world brings new twists to the game. The immediacy of interactive channels requires software-based rules that can rapidly evaluate an interaction, looking at where a customer has come from, what she’s looking at, what others like her have bought, and other data in order to assemble and present a customized response.

Certainly Amazon.com is the master of this, following up on vacated shopping carts with targeted offers, asking you to rate an item you bought, and sending you offers for accessories to match a major purchase. As more retailers follow Amazon’s lead they are finding that the magic requires not only sharp information analytics, but also the right language tone, timing, process management, and strategy to deliver each customer to the best next step.

Whether publishing on a mass, segmented, social, or personal basis, today’s retailers — and the banks, insurers, airlines, and other direct sellers like them — are rapidly recognizing the importance of content to their brands. They are building content supply chains that are guided by insights into customer behavior and replenished by customer-generated content. It’s a new publishing model, and one that retailers may be heading towards even faster than traditional media companies.

So, the time seems right to ask: “What is your publishing strategy and who is your brand’s Editor-in-Chief? ”

 For more articles like this one, download the Harvard Business Center Review report: The Future of Retail

 *Reprinted with permission from Harvard Business Review Insight Center.

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