There’s a simple message for most retailers that has become common in advertising discourse over the last few year: stop talking about yourselves so much. And while I tend to agree with this point of view, what does it necessarily mean? I think it’s less about the frequency of the message and more about the nature of it. We are no longer pushing goods, we are engaging in a dialog.
Bricks and mortar retailers are at an interesting crossroads. In-store sales driven purely by price considerations are losing ground as experiential designs gain ground. And these retailers have a marvelous opportunity to learn from their fellow online team members (often forgotten in the silos that define so many businesses) and their online competitors. Just as online retailers have struggled to generate repeat sales, so too have brick and mortar spaces. But the online world has already learned an important lesson – focusing on an added value approach rather than pushing the brand will lead to greater sales and greater loyalty.
Step one is to recognize a very difficult proposition. Namely, companies are no longer in the business of pushing goods, they’re in the business of creating fans and attracting devotees. That means shifting the experience from a transaction to a dialog that puts your brand squarely in the lives of people. If you gain permission to be part of a consumer’s daily life, you become a fixture, a player on their life stage. You gain permission by sharing. You don’t gain that permission if you spend your energy yelling about yourself. Well, obviously. But how do you do it? Increasingly, social media analysis is a large part of the equation. Indeed, this is often the starting point for a campaign because it has the greatest reach and provides a more realistic view of how the world understands and shares your brand. Online retailers were quick to embrace this idea on two levels.
First, they have generally found a way to offer an unexpected value add, such as the Zappo’s shipping and return policies. There is a clear benefit that goes beyond the economic return in that it also is a wonderful experience – tracking, cost savings and decidedly happy people. Second, is the point of social engagement and capital. Returning to the Zappo’s example, they have made the customer experience very public, displaying not only praise but the ugly side as well. Rather than resulting in people dropping the company, they have seen their social media presence (and their sales) grow, as people come to see them as genuine, down to earth and open. The people who use them become ambassadors for the brand and increase their own sense of self-worth in the process.
I am by no means suggesting that social media is the answer, but I am suggesting that social engagement by companies and brands have become an expectation for consumers, just as we expect a company to have an ecommerce presence. The difference is that while ecommerce can provide an ocean of analytics (in the purely statistical sense), they rarely get at the subtle richness of online conversations. This means going beyond collecting numbers and sentiments and digging into the underlying connections between what is written, what is shared, and how personal identity shapes how a brand is discussed, interpreted and used. Not only does such an approach allow you to map out voiced perceptions about a brand, it allows you to identify primary influencers and how it is they gain that status. Once you understand that, you can begin mapping out a plan for how you will approach your existing market as well as find new points of entry. And that’s a pretty compelling thing.