Make Product Content Consistent

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It has been a little less than a decade since e-commerce began. Initial results reveal that the e-tail "revolution" turned out to be a minor skirmish in the ongoing battle to reach consumers in innovative and effective ways.

We now know that the Internet is just one of a number of channels, albeit a powerful one, with advantages and disadvantages just like direct mail and physical locations.

Most retailers recognize that they must provide consumers with the ability to buy in the way they prefer. This means almost all real players are multichannel in some respect, combining physical stores, paper catalogs, call centers and Web sites. The last category, Web sites, represents the first wave in the emergence of electronic channels. Kiosks, mobile phones and digital television are promising new avenues for marketers to reach out to consumers.

For physical channels, marketers had more than a hundred years of retailing history to draw upon to refine their approaches. The rapid growth of electronic channels is recent, and many companies are finding it difficult to integrate them with their traditional operations and strategies.

By far, the biggest problem for multichannel retailers is providing accurate, detailed and rich product information to consumers consistently throughout all online and offline channels.

This is fueled by customers' demands that their experience in electronic channels meet and, in many ways, exceed their experience in physical channels. In the absence of the ability to touch and feel a product or consult a salesperson, consumers must receive enough accurate and timely information to help them judge a product's merits.

For instance, consumers visit Web sites every day to buy products they saw promoted in another channel, only to find that they are unavailable online or that the pricing is different. When they do find the products, the information and content supporting them are vague or nonexistent.

Much of this problem stems from the rapid evolution of e-commerce. Retailers across the board focused on implementing fancy Web sites, e-commerce transaction platforms and customer relationship management systems while the product content to support those efforts was relegated to the background.

Why are so many companies dropping the ball when it comes to product content? Because managing product content for multiple electronic channels is difficult, particularly for companies with hundreds of thousands of products.

For instance, product content is spread throughout a business in a variety of formats. Different departments may hold ownership over marketing copy while images are stored outside the company with a reproduction house.

Taking into account both the technical demands and the marketing subtleties of different channels, the content that is appropriate for a Web site is different from that for digital television, kiosks and wireless phones.

The content associated with most products is dynamic, changing on a weekly or even daily basis. Pricing is the most obvious example, but there are others. There may be 10 images and marketing descriptions associated with just one product, for seasonal purposes or limited promotions.

Many direct retailers take six months just to issue a paper catalog. Most electronic channels are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, meaning that information must be updated in real time, all the time.

These hurdles result in retailers including only a limited number of products from their overall product portfolio with only the most basic product content to support the sale. The aftermath of this approach is reduced sales, customer frustration and damage to the brand.

The last result may be the most detrimental in terms of long-term effect. A Boston Consulting Group study found that online and offline brands cannot be separated in the minds of consumers. In a group of Internet shoppers surveyed, more than 60 percent said that if they are dissatisfied with a retailer's Web site, they are less likely to buy from that company's stores. Six percent of consumers who had a failed e-commerce experience not only stopped buying online but also refused to go back to the offline stores.

It's also logical to assume that consumers dissatisfied with any other electronic channel, such as a mobile phone, would reach the same conclusions about the retailer's overall brand.

In short, a bad electronic experience related to insufficient or incorrect product content can be as damaging to a company's reputation with the consumer as a rude salesperson.

The solution is for retailers to rethink their approach to managing their most valuable digital asset: the content and information that represents their real-world products. It is clear that they must treat product content as a fundamental part of the IT infrastructure.

Beyond more effective management and improved customer service, this approach enables marketers to create and control campaigns that are consistent throughout all channels, leveraging the best of all worlds.

Belittled at the beginning of the e-commerce era as "dinosaurs," traditional retailers now constitute a major force in electronic retailing through leveraging their brands and real-world presences. Electronic channels are integral parts of established brands. More and more customers expect the flexibility to buy and browse where and when they want. Make sure the product content is there so you don't disappoint them.

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