The search-to-store experience

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Search is the most powerful way to drive traffic to sites - outshining e-mail, banners, and other forms of online advertising. Search is also an effective means to drive foot traffic to brick-and-mortar stores.

Many customers start with a search engine to conduct research online for products purchased in-store. A recent report from Accenture suggests 69 percent of customers compare product prices online before making an in-store purchase.

But providing an online store locator isn't enough to connect the two channels. The key is to create a natural progression for customers. Enable customers entering the buying funnel at a search engine to effortlessly switch channels and complete the transaction in a brick-and-mortar store.

So what does a smooth transition include? Consider the following for a frictionless search-to-store experience:

Make anticipated connections between channels
Investing in a search engine marketing campaign to help sell blue widgets? Have a blue widget display near the front entrance of the store. When the customer who began his or her search online walks through the door, there's an instant "there it is" connection.

Contextualize messaging
As the customer moves through the search channel (from search, to price per click ad or organic listing, to landing page) the messaging should mature with the progression. Don't repeat the same thing at each step; go a level deeper. The landing page should include not only a picture of the product, but also a full product description with directions to the nearest store - and a printable coupon.

Uniform branding
While it's important for product messaging to evolve throughout the user experience, it's equally important overall that brand messaging remains consistent across channels. Print ads should match the Web site. Messaging carried out on a search engine - via PPC ad copy or meta descriptions in organic listings - must match the big-picture message. Brand message continuity is key to unifing channels in the eyes of the customer.

Connect other business areas
If branding is uniform and connected consistently, the customer won't feel lost. Using different doorways will feel natural. Allow online purchases to be returned in-store; recognize loyalty points and promotions across channels. Make channel switching comfortable.

The steps to a successful search-to-store experience are not complex, though it does require focus, communication and alignment. Remember, a business may operate across several channels, but its customer sees only one company. Each experience fuels brand perceptions. A smooth experience will ensure those perceptions are positive.

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