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Will curated social content bring about the next era of online retail?

Traditionally, retailers relied on advertising and direct response to succeed. To make more money, retailers simply let more people know about their stores and products.

That’s changed in the past few years, and the old formula doesn’t work quite as easily. Now “content marketing” and “social shopping” are the buzzwords on everyone’s lips. Customers don’t want to be sold to anymore. They want the freedom to explore and discover, and feel entertained while they browse for a new coat, shirt or pair of shoes. To generate sales and new customers, retailers have had to re-focus on either creating content or getting others to create it for them.

In a way, retailers were the originators of curated content through appeals to fantasy like the holiday windows along New York City’s 5th Avenue. These annual spectacles draw crowds and invite shoppers to engage in the consumer experience in a way that transcends buying and selling. Another early example of curated content is the J. Peterman catalog, which offers evocative stories to accompany each item and draw readers in. And as more shoppers moved online, the possibilities offered by new technology transformed the shopping experience. Retailers increased the immersive appeal of their online stores and marketing, spending big bucks on creating content for stores, emails or interactive ‘create a look’ dressing rooms.

One website, however, changed the formula for online content creation by turning the responsibility for actually writing the material over to its customers. The content for Amazon was its game-changing product reviews, now in the hundreds of millions. Customers came to read this invaluable “content” and stayed on the site thanks to the appeal of low pricing and convenient one-click buying.

This formula proved quite successful for Amazon and many retailers now find it difficult if not impossible to compete directly using the same business model. In fact the online shopping market has only become more prohibitive for retailers. For example, direct-response methods of gaining new sales, such as search ads, have become progressively more expensive, making it difficult for retailers to continue using them.

But American retailers are nothing if not resourceful. In order to compete, they are going back to their content creation roots and utilizing old methods on social media. We’re seeing what I call a “retail reawakening” when it comes to content marketing, ditching outdated tactics and engaging new ways to create content that gives context to their products. They also carefully measure content marketing in the same way they measure traditional marketing efforts, namely tracking how content can drive revenue, not just traffic.

 

A New World

Retailers are now faced with three distinct challenges. First, the bar has been raised when it comes to content marketing. Shoppers want to be engaged and entertained as they shop. And they want to see exactly how a product will fit into or change their lifestyle, how a product will benefit them. 

Another problem is that brands have muddied the content marketing waters. Consumers are now wary of the hard sell disguised as beneficial information: “5 Tips for Staying Cool at the Beach: Coke sunglasses, Coke shorts, Coke T-shirt, Coke umbrella, Coke cooler.” Fail.

The third problem is the competing demands on consumers’ attention and pocketbooks. Brands, publishers and social media are all in the mix and can offer an almost limitless array of content and integrated product placement. Magazines like Lucky have adopted community-first approach to curated content, letting their fans show how they wear the latest trends when out and about, and appealing to customers by involving them in the process. While all these trends make the shopping experience enjoyable for consumers, they make retailers’ work harder.

 

Reawakening

So how are retailers overcoming the challenge of producing ever greater amounts of quality content on a budget? They are using their own editorial teams, but also having content generated by merchants, customers and other online creators. 

Take the recent Target back-to-school campaign for example. The retailer partnered with bloggers to create a reality-themed digital campaign. Shoppers could purchase items found throughout each episode of the online series, but this is secondary. It remains to be seen how successful this campaign is, but it’s a step up from last year’s uStyler campaign and a creative new approach in what was a very competitive back-to-school shopping season.

There is an inherent honesty in retail’s new approach to content. In a sense, the retailer is saying to the consumer, “We think this is a good look, we hope you’ll agree and if you do, here’s where you can find it.” It’s the online antithesis of the overly zealous in-store salesperson. This also diversifies the products included, so the curated looks, and the shopping experience as a whole, are more objective.

Many retailers are beginning to take social shopping inspiration from upstarts like Pinterest or Net-a-Porter. Stores like eBay and Rakuten are curating editorial through shoppable magazines of products by leveraging their sellers and established bloggers. NastyGal is showcasing the best of their fans to showcase their own style look. The retailer acts as a facilitator, providing shoppers with access to buy the products featured. Some are even experimenting with sharing a bit of the proceeds to those contributing.

The hard results are still to be seen from these new approaches to creating content. In the coming year more data will emerge on how successful content aligned to products has been in directly driving sales. And many are anxiously waiting to see if it’s social content that ushers in the next era of retail.

Matthew Myers is CEO and co-founder of Tidal Labs. He has a degree in marketing from the Wharton School and has more than 12 years of experience as a tech entrepreneur. Most recently he served as founder and CTO for 30elm.

 

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