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Adapting to the Death of Content

Every retailer has content. Looking for consumer electronics? Check out CNET or ZDnet. How about recipes? Williams-Sonoma and Martha Stewart both publish recipes online. Not only does every retailer have content; it is becoming increasingly identical. Looking for music reviews? Amazon.com now supplements its own editorials with content from Roughguides.com, and CDNow offers reviews from VH1 and CMJ.

Content is no longer an effective differentiator for retailers. And even when it is, that content alone will not guarantee that browsers will stay to buy.

Enter contextual selling. Some successful retailers are doing much more with their content than just throwing it up for browsing. They are beginning to leverage content as a persuasion tool to drive sales. The trick is not just posting the content; it is making your content work for you, in your context.

Gloss.com (a division of Estée Lauder) and Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia both use their content to create a context that helps turn browsers into buyers. These marketers start by understanding the intentions of their customers and use this information to provide them with the products and services they desire. This strategic blending of products and services within the context of desired content is known as contextual selling. Gloss.com and Martha Stewart use content not to merely inform but to create the desire to sell products.

Mimic reality. Approach a skin care product counter in any major department store and you most likely will be greeted by salespeople who have received special training in understanding how the product line affects skin care. While their job is to ultimately sell products, they do not start pitching the latest product until they first learn a little bit about you. Even when they do start pitching, they will offer you a skin care solution long before they discuss product details. Counter consultants have long been successful in retaining customers for this very reason – they are not just hitting up their clients with products and product details; they are actually creating a perceived need, a context, for them.

Online, editors at Gloss.com have been able to successfully approximate the offline contextual sale. By preparing a few select articles addressing tools, tips and trends, they are able to match relevant products to all the consumers eager to learn about specific skin care solutions. Similar to the traditional counter experience, customers are first presented with details on the benefits of the solutions. For instance, an article on combination skin discusses at length the benefits of alpha hydroxy acid. Only once this context has been established will the customer be presented with the Estée Lauder Equalizer product for a convincing final sale. The context that works for bricks-and-mortar now also works online.

Mind the gap. The Gloss.com example is so simple that most retailers probably do this without even having explicitly considered contextual selling. Creating a proper context to enable this kind of a sale requires a bridge over the traditional chasm between content and product – this opportunity will not arise unless organizations begin to consider all of their online assets, both content and product, as opportunities to create and exploit specific contexts.

Content or product. Well, which is it? Some companies are tentative about removing the walls between disparate content/product real estate because they are afraid that the lack of definition may confuse and offend customers. They might believe that to maintain their brand voice or provide objectivity the content and commerce should be separated. Meanwhile, retailers, like Martha Stewart, are meshing product with content and reaping the rewards.

Step into the home of one of the flocks of viewers who watch “Martha Stewart Living” weekday mornings, and you will find furiously scribbled notes desperate to catch recipe details and product assessments. Or you will hear transcript requests being phoned in. If you listen really closely, you will also hear the questions: “Where can I get that baster?” “How do I get that stain out?” And today, you will also hear the sound of viewers clicking their mice to navigate to the “Tune In” area on marthastewart.com.

When browsers visit Martha’s Web site they find the recipes, how-tos and projects that they are looking for. They also get a little bit more. Take, for example, a recent “Cookie of the Month” feature for chocolate kiss cookies that aired on “Martha’s Kitchen.” Viewers following up on the cookie recipe after the show also got a product recommendation for a Silpat Baking Mat so that their cookies would not stick. In addition, they were able to hyperlink to the “Chocolate Ganache” frosting needed for the cookie, and that recipe, in turn, came accompanied with mixing bowls and measuring cups. While browsers were enthusiastically collecting recipe details, they were also able to purchase useful items they needed to complete exciting home projects.

Context, not content, is king. Content is rarely an effective differentiator for retailers. Even when it is, content alone will not guarantee that browsers will stay to buy. If you are a retailer, there are some very compelling reasons to rethink your content offering and whether you are really using it to generate revenue.

Are your content assets driving sales, or are you just hosting poster space? You should begin to prepare Web strategies that integrate content with products to support purchases. In the best case, perhaps you can find new ways to create compelling merchandising, and to establish long-term value propositions with customers. At the very least, you can cut creation and maintenance costs by eliminating the volumes of content that do not bring you anything but browsers.

In either case, retail has always been about presenting the right customer with the right product, at the right price and the right time. By carefully placing content in the right context, online retailers can create that right time – and reap the benefits.

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