Shifting to a content-driven commerce focus is a daunting challenge.
Whether you are a media company adding commerce to your site or a retail site wanting to add richer editorial, there are very different skillsets required to sell product versus those needed for writing and curating content. How do you successfully blend these skillsets — much less these seemingly disparate websites — into a single, cohesive whole?
It ain’t easy, but it’s worth it.
From Media to Commerce
Adding commerce to a media site is tricky. On the one hand, product recommendations can add a new dimension of value to both you and your readers. Just like advertising, though, (and maybe more so), you run the risk of corrupting a brand that your readers have come to trust.
If you are making the step into content-driven commerce, you must be willing to promote products on your site. Sounds like a no-brainer, right? But integrity is one of the things that readers value from media sites. And if they feel like they are being pushed toward a bad product (or even an unrelated product), they will likely revolt.
Now, the promotions don’t have to be in your face, “everything must go”, car-sales promotions. In fact, those are the exact promotions that will spark revolution. But you must be willing to add tasteful product descriptions and honest reviews and recommendations. This means putting your trusted brand behind a product that you like — and, more importantly, one that you think your readers will like.
Not selling out
There is a fine line between promoting product and selling out. Sometimes it’s easy to find. Don’t like a product? Think a product is cheaply made? Don’t recommend it no matter how sweet that affiliate commission looks.
But what about a product you love versus one that you like? The one you love, right? But what if that second product has a much better affiliate program?
It’s tricky. But you can probably find a way to promote both. The Wirecutter (and their sister site, The SweetHome) approach to product reviews is a great example of this. They write in-depth product reviews for different categories of gadgets. Each review has a recommended product along with explanations of why they did and didn’t like some of the other options they reviewed. Each product is a link to Amazon (and other stores) and every link has their affiliate code.
It’s a smart, if intense, solution that allows them to promote a lot of different products without selling out. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Readers trust the site more because they go into so much detail about so many options.
From Commerce to Media
Now, if you are going in the opposite direction (adding content to your commerce site), then you’ll experience a range of other issues that can be even more challenging. In many respects, they run counter to much of the marketing culture that permeates most retail shops — unless those shops have come to value content-marketing and storytelling as a way to increase online sales.
Editorial content is a whole new world. Marketing content goes through a series of edits and reviews. It’s often bland and boring. Intentionally so. You need to put the best foot forward of every product you sell — no matter how much that description might gloss over hard truths.
With a content-driven commerce approach, though, using your marketing-style for your editorial content will sabotage your efforts. You need something with a voice and style that captures people’s attention and engages them on a personal level. Something that product descriptions almost never do.
Willingness to curate
Once you start producing content, you need to start curating it. What products are going to make it onto your top 10 list? Which set of widgets are you going to include in your how-to article? You know those items you promote are going to get more views and more clicks — even a bump in brand perception — that other products won’t.
After you’ve written the piece, then you need to decide what content you’re going to promote on the homepage and throughout the site. Another tough decision. This one, though, fits closely inline with your sales planning process — which sale are promoting and when.
Treating content as a first-class citizen
Another aspect of content-driven commerce that may seem anathema to many commerce sites: treat your content like a first-class citizen. Specifically: give it equal weight on your homepage, which means treating it the same as you would a sale or other promotion. The challenge for many is that this feels like you are losing sales. But you’re trading a bump in short-term sales for long-term engagement.
There are many companies that have seemingly embraced content-driven commerce as a strategy. Big brands like Home Depot, Lowes, and Brooks Brothers are producing some amazing content. A quick glance at their homepages, though, and the only hint at this content is behind a single link. Everything on these pages is focused on the latest sale and other product promotions. This may be a strategic decision or a technological limitation. Regardless, these websites have yet to really embrace content as a cornerstone to their brand.
Admittedly, there are many ways to enter a website—from Google to social media. But what a company includes on their homepage speaks volumes about what a brand values.
Does your audience see you as an expert on the product you sell (Crutchfield)? Or just as a fancy storefront (Best Buy). In either case, gaining and maintaining the trust of your audience is critical — and, depending on your current relationship with your customers, may be an uphill slog.
Are you willing to write a bad review of a product? Are you willing to pull a product if there are no redeeming qualities? Are you willing to write content that doesn’t directly sell the product?
Imagine if Best Buy started producing content that actually helped their audience better understand and use the technology they were selling. As it is, the store (and by extension, website) has limited audience engagement and does nothing to pull anyone to their site — other than offer product promotions and discounts.
One of the fundamental requirements to succeeding with any kind of content-driven strategy is audience trust. You need to build trust with your audience and you can’t do that if they feel like you are selling them anything and everything.
The move to content-driven commerce
Making the decision to integrate content and commerce has its challenges. The exact challenges you face will really depend on the culture of your organization as well as the abilities and mindset of your staff. But if you’re willing to make the necessary changes to engage your audience and build their trust, you can make the transition.
If you’re moving from a media site into commerce, they key will be maintaining your readers' trust and your own integrity. If you’re moving in the opposite direction, the challenge will be gaining the reader’s trust, which means making some pretty big organizational and cultural changes.
In both cases, though, you’ll find the move well worth the effort.