The Role of Content in Omnichannel Retailing

There’s a lot of talk about omnichannel in online retail, in the form of both hand-wringing and hand-rubbing. Retailers, brands and solution providers have a lot of work to do in gaining some control over this complex and dynamic phenomenon, but risk and opportunity always come as a pair.

Early movers like John Lewis have already started to see the benefits of a proactive omnichannel strategy and Retail Info Systems News found that retailers estimate they’re missing out on 6.5% of revenue due to a lack of omnichannel planning[1]. So, while investment and innovation may be tentative and exploratory at the moment, it’s paying dividends to the pioneers, and teaching the entire industry some valuable lessons at the same time.

Content, content, everywhere

There’s much to discuss regarding innovations in omnichannel, but we want to focus on the specifics of content.

Content forms part of the omnichannel picture alongside logistics, technology, brand strategy and analytics but it is, arguably, the blood that pumps through these various veins. New channels are channels for content – the technology facilitates its distribution, the strategy informs its creation and the analytics measure its reception.

So how does the emergence of omnichannel alter the role of content?

Of course, content needs to be created for all channels but the challenge lies in more than just that. Ultimately, omnichannel – like any retail/marketing phenomenon – is about a changing relationship between customer and company. Since all good marketers know that companies respond to consumers’ needs, the real crux of the omnichannel (r)evolution is the new mode of two-way communication between businesses and consumers in the era of digital marketing.

The proliferation of channels wouldn’t be such a big deal if consumers weren’t using them all, and telling everyone about it.

Consequently, content needs to:

  • meet higher demands from more sophisticated consumers
  • respond flexibly to unprecedented amounts of feedback
  • work in a multitude of fine-grained contexts
  • and reach global audiences with sensitivity to local needs.

Not only that, but the complex omnichannel scaffolding that meets these challenges needs to appear seamless – near-invisible – to allow flawless channel-hopping. No wonder Internet Retailing found that channel proliferation is a ‘major preoccupation’ for 61% of multi-channel retailers and that maintaining a ‘consistent voice across channels’ is also a concern for 50%[2].

 Shopper navigation: control and agency

 To understand how content has to work in an omnichannel environment, we need to understand how consumers work in it too.

Omnichannel is partially so complex because it requires a complete identity overhaul for businesses in the face of huge changes to consumer behaviour:

  • As a retailer, you are no longer a destination in a linear customer journey, but a node in a complex network of actions.
  • As a brand, your identity is now only partially under your control – social networks, forums, reviews and other user-generated content all contribute to your brand image, without your oversight.
  • Traditional loyalty to a brand or store is ultimately undermined by a multiplication of consumer options.

Consequently, the consumer has much more power in the omnichannel environment, having the tools to resist empty sales patter with research; a wealth of alternative options at their fingertips; and a louder voice thanks to online outlets. Consumers move freely, and quickly, through this omnichannel environment, seeking information, deals and personalised experiences.

Omnichannel is more fluid and unstructured than traditional retail environments and this gives the consumer more freedom, control and agency; having the ability to feed back into the system and make open-ended choices allows greater room for more nuanced and free decision-making.

Companies have to learn to work with, not against, this new consumer agency by facilitating free movement between different sources of information rather than attempting to create a traditional content funnel. The knowledge-hungry shopper goes where the content is, so you have to make sure you’ve created it, curated it, or can point them to it. In short: be useful.

Content connects the channels

So, thanks to powerful consumers, no matter what omnichannel strategy you adopt, you’re going to have to produce more, and better, content – especially product information.

For retailers, it’s all about optimising the product page for multiple platforms and bringing digital content in-store, while brands need to keep hold of consumers through a complex chain of online/offline behaviours with consistent, compelling messaging.

Online/offline merging goes both ways so websites, mobile platforms and in-store digital technology need to be powered by equally compelling content; as Contents Magazine highlights, consumers are bringing their online expectations offline: ‘content-craving, community-consulting, deal-demanding, bullshit-detecting’.[3] Picky consumers now want to know more about the products they buy, wherever they’re shopping.

As IGD put it, retailers ‘seek to create immersive informational environments’[4] across channels that not only mutually reinforce the individual purchasing decision, but encourage navigation and information sharing to keep the consumer moving through an omnichannel network in a structured way. John Lewis, for example, created virtual environments in some of their flagship stores, allowing consumers to access online product information by scanning QR codes and even superimposing clothing on images of themselves through virtual mirrors – all this functionality needs to be powered by really great content, or it falls flat.

This means moving beyond static, structured content like basic product details, specifications and textual data. Video, interactive images, 360 models, user-generated content and rich product descriptions are the tools of omnichannel eCommerce, and they need to be created, managed and distributed with a single view of both the brand and the customer in mind.

Coping with the thirst for content: outsource, crowdsource

Achieving this level of comprehensive, coordinated, real-time content is difficult – John Lewis decided not to roll out some of these omnichannel measures because sourcing the content from suppliers was too problematic – and it’s virtually impossible with outmoded, fragmented approaches to content creation and management. In the omnichannel universe, ‘one-size-fits-all’ product information doesn’t cut it anymore; and yet, in the grocery sector in particular, we still see retailers with static websites populated by ‘lowest common denominator’ information, and brands having to make do with using on-pack data in online stores or textual content culled from dusty spreadsheets.

Another statistic from the Internet Retailing survey shows that less than 5% of surveyed retailers were confident that their ‘tools and systems’ could maintain a ‘single view of the customer’ or a ‘single view of the brand’[5] across channels. This suggests that companies throughout the industry are feeling overwhelmed by the need to take hold of their multiple channels and shake up their online presence, let alone implement some of the radical measures John Lewis have employed. This is particularly true in the grocery sector, where online, whilst growing, is still somewhat marginal thanks to the strength of the traditional supermarket.

The complexity of organising omnichannel content means both retailers and brands can benefit from sourcing content, content platforms and content management from third parties. With flexible, scalable eCommerce technology in place (like hybris, for instance), retailers can get great content from multiple providers (like us at Brandbank!), other sites and even their customers to create a fluid, dynamic and responsive site that meets the needs of nomadic, curious consumers.

Starting with a ‘kernel’ of structured, reliable core product information at the centre of an omnichannel play, means that layer upon layer of rich unstructured content can be added, building the fully ‘immersive informational environments’ omnichannel demands.

Content as commodity

In summary, omnichannel is happening because consumers are changing. The technology they use, the attitudes they hold and the expectations they bring to a store are in a state of revolution. Retailers and brands need to adapt to the greater power and agency that consumers have through clever content; it’s not only the primary means of communication between shoppers and businesses, but also the commodity that consumers seek in an information-rich world.

To meet the demands of omnichannel eCommerce, retailers need to invest in scalable, flexible platforms and populate them with rich, immersive, personalised content. Equally, brands need to develop omnichannel strategies so they can deliver targeted, context-sensitive content across all channels.

To cope with the scale and complexity of the content problem, retailers and brands can outsource and crowdsource (cloud-hosting, content creators, user-generation) and embrace the open-network mentality that omnichannel embodies.

Online sales are growing, mobile is growing (particularly in the UK) and the consumer’s thirst for information is growing too. Knowledge is power, and consumers want both – it’s time to start sharing.

James Hassall, 2014