Keeping Content in Context

First-time visitors to the Website of teen apparel cataloger Alloy can be forgiven for confusing it with sites for magazines such as Seventeen and Elle Girl. After all, the 1 million 12- to 18-year-olds who visit every month can check their horoscope, read the latest gossip on Britney and Gwen (if you need to know their last names, you’re not Alloy’s audience), take a quiz, dish about guys, and even rate the latest fashions in a section called “Dig or Dis.”

Oh, and if they wish, they can shop, too.

While selling clothing is Alloy’s main business (one that generates $165 million annually, roughly 40% of that online), its ability to inform and entertain users is clearly the engine that drives those sales.

“The company premise is to replicate a young-adult retail environment,” says Matt Diamond, cofounder/CEO of the New York-based company. “In the case of teenage girls, that’s going to the mall — talking to friends, dishing at the food court, and shopping. We’re giving them a social reason to come back.”

If ever there were a cyber-textbook example of how to use nonselling editorial — feature articles, “how to” guides, product reviews, recipes, games, and the like — as a selling tool, Alloy might well be it. The site attracts a focused, niche clientele, and its content establishes a sense of community among its customers, builds brand loyalty, generates word of mouth, and thanks to daily updates, produces heavy traffic — so much, in fact, that advertisements now fully support the editorial staff.

But just because offering a plethora of nonselling content works for Alloy doesn’t mean it will work for you. Unless you’re selling $30 dresses and $12 tanks to teenage girls, you’re better off coming up with an editorial blueprint that fits your budget, your audience, and the image you want to promote.

And in some cases, that may mean omitting nonselling content altogether. “It’s difficult to do well,” says Charlene Gervais, president of Chicago Catalog Group, a Chicago-based catalog agency. “For most of my clients it’s simply too resource-intensive.” After all, you need staffers to research, write, and edit the content — not to mention update it at least monthly. And if you opt to repurpose content from other sources, such as syndicators or magazines, you still need to pay fees.

Eyes on the bottom line

Not only can producing editorial be costly and require an ongoing commitment to update content frequently, but for many marketers it’s of limited use. Mainstream apparel marketers — Lands’ End and J. Crew, for instance — have little need for editorial, since these sites attract primarily adults shopping for speed, convenience, and a known product.

Nor does nonselling copy always pay off for most commodities (digital cameras, printer supplies) that are readily available in stores and online. “You can give all the information in the world, but if people are price-sensitive and can just go to DealTime [an online comparison-shopping site] to find the lowest price, it probably won’t help sales,” says Robin Lebo, president of Lebo Direct, a direct marketing and Internet consultancy in Charlottesville, VA.

Then again, CDNow, a New York-based online marketer of music and videos, has managed to make nonselling content pay off, even though many of the 500,000 items it sells are readily available elsewhere. According to John Bitzer, the senior director of editorial and copy, users who click on CDNow’s editorial content place orders that are on average 37% larger than those who don’t.

Bitzer oversees a full “magazine” staff that produces no-holds-barred reviews, interviews with pop stars, and suggested CDs for every genre, among other offerings. A daily e-mail provides music news and includes a link to the Website, which receives a whopping 900,000 daily hits.

“I’ve seen a lot of competitors come and go,” Bitzer says. “Our point of differentiation is our deep editorial coverage. People check us out for research purposes, then make an impulse purchase or come back later.”

While some marketers of commodities may see differentiation that goes beyond pricing and product selection as important, it’s crucial for companies that attract an upscale demographic and sell luxury, leisure-time, or lifestyle-oriented products.

Patagonia is one such company. The Ventura, CA-based manufacturer/marketer of outdoor sporting apparel views content as “critical to understanding our corporate DNA,” says director of e-commerce Craig Wilson. “Some compete on price or quality. We compete on values.”

Founded by world-class climber Yvon Chouinard, Patagonia targets not only lovers of the outdoors but also those committed to preserving it. Hence, the site is packed with stories about the efforts by Patagonia — and eco-conscious individuals — to keep the environment safe for hiking, surfing, skiing, and kayaking. “We’re telling customers that our company is just as committed to the outdoors as they are, which makes them feel good about what they’re wearing,” Wilson says.

Even the product copy goes well beyond the usual specs. While users can read all about Patagonia’s proprietary Regulator fabric technology (said to be twice as breathable at half of the weight of comparable textiles), they can also enjoy a lengthy first-hand audio report from veteran climber Mark Wilford about how well it worked during a recent ascent in India. This extensive editorial coverage builds credibility, an important factor for a premium brand that sells fleece pullovers for around $100.

Similarly, Charlottesville, VA-based Crutchfield can’t easily distinguish between image-enhancing editorial and sales-promotional copy. A cataloger of car stereos, home entertainment systems, and other consumer electronics, Crutchfield needs to reassure shoppers that buying such high-ticket items from a direct marketer is the right decision. So Crutchfield’s site includes buying guides by category, installation tips, a glossary of terms, even a database listing every system that will fit a given car’s make and model. This warehouse of information is expensive to produce, but it establishes a level of trust and a reputation for expertise that is integral to the brand’s success.

“It’s the nature of what we sell,” says Dr. Alan Rimm-Kaufman, Crutchfield’s vice president of marketing. “If you’re going to sell $2,000 digital TVs, you need to establish credibility. If we sold clothing or food, it wouldn’t be necessary to be such a resource.”

Meanwhile, Smith & Hawken’s nonselling content establishes the cataloger/retailer as an authority in gardening and outdoor furniture. Its Garden Guru section features how-to articles on everything from pruning hedges to feeding birds, answers to common horticultural questions, and seasonally appropriate updates and tips.

But senior vice president of marketing Lisa Bayne notes that the Novato, CA-based company is careful to keep shopping front and center on the home page and not to overwhelm users with content. “Too much content isn’t good for the retailer or the consumer,” she says. “Our prime business is selling gardening products, not providing editorial.”

Indeed, despite what Mae West may have claimed, too much of a good thing isn’t wonderful — at least not when it comes to Web-based editorial. Overkill isn’t only distracting; it could even turn off customers who want to research a topic quickly. Lebo says she’s visited travel sites that, instead of staying on the message of selling a dream vacation, “get you so knee-deep into articles you forget why you’re there.”

From screensavers to repeat sales

Plow & Hearth, a cataloger of products for “country living,” has already learned that lesson. “We were more aggressive at first [when posting editorial content], and then we pulled back a bit,” says vice president of creative services Jean O. Geismann. “Most people want to navigate a site quickly, so less is often more.”

“Our strategy is not to be an end-destination content site but to provide supporting materials to our brand,” adds Jennifer McCray, senior Web development manager for the Madison, VA-based company.

The articles in the site’s e-zine, Country Life Online, address a variety of home decorating, gardening, and wood-burning topics. Without mentioning specific products by name or SKU number, many of the articles suggest items that would simplify the task at hand. “Keep Your Plants Happy & Healthy,” for instance, discusses the essential elements of a watering kit. And what do you know — many of those items are for sale on the Plow & Hearth Website (although the article doesn’t mention the fact once).

Then again, even though Plow & Hearth doesn’t sell food products, it has an exhaustive list of country recipes, from herbed parmesan pork chops to peach cobbler. The goal is straightforward: grow the business by establishing a relationship with customers.

“We’re sending the message ‘We’re you’re friends, not just merchants,’” Geismann says. “Editorial copy is our opportunity to put a voice behind the product. It’s a value-added element.”

Data-log research confirms that customers respond to Plow & Hearth’s editorial content. So does direct consumer feedback. When the company began deleting old screensavers and recipes from its archives, McCray says, “people asked us to bring the old ones back.”

Do screensavers depicting country scenes and recipes that connote a rural lifestyle truly translate into sales? Yes, says Geismann, though the bottom-line impact is impossible to measure. McCray notes that the how-to content helps people make better buying decisions, which in turn reduces returns and boosts customer satisfaction (and, it would follow, repeat business). She adds that the cost of creating content is manageable for Plow & Hearth, especially since, it’s a one-time cost for material “you can use forever.”

As these examples prove, if you’re thinking about pumping up your Website’s editorial content, it’s vital to understand your customer base and what type of information they may be seeking. Lebo suggests sending an A/B-split e-mail, one product-driven and one “chatty,” to see how customers respond to the soft, nonselling approach. Once you do add content to your site, keep the copy brief and accessible, and always inform customers when you post new features.

Above all, never let editorial efforts distract from the task at hand. Even content-rich Alloy stays true to one abiding principle: Never get in the way of a sale.

“We make shopping as easy as possible,” says Diamond. “No matter how much our editorial helps create a community feel for our market, we realize we’re not a magazine. We’re still a catalog first.”

New York-based writer David Sparrow has been published in The New York Times, Popular Science, and Parents, among other publications.


Dos and Don’ts

Thinking of adding editorial content to your Website? Consider these guidelines:

  • Do start out on a modest scale that reflects the size and resources of your company. “If I were doing it over today, I’d begin with a smaller editorial staff and build as we got successful,” says John Bitzer, senior director of editorial and copy for online music and video marketer CDNow. “Remember, you’re a business first, a content provider second.”

  • Don’t confuse customers who simply want to buy. “The home page should look like a store,” says consultant Robin Lebo. “It should have a clear place for people to bypass the features and just go shopping.”

  • Do make sure the content is relevant to your customer base. While the Alloy Website has a seemingly bottomless well of nonselling content for its audience of teenage girls, the Website of skateboard products cataloger CCS, also owned by Alloy, has virtually none. “Boys just want to buy skateboards, not chat,” says Alloy cofounder/CEO Matt Diamond.

  • Don’t approach content as a magazine or a newspaper would. Most people don’t enjoy reading lengthy articles online. Tips, FAQs, message boards, and value-added services (recipes, horoscopes) are far more likely to win them over and spur impulse purchases. “Don’t overload users with information,” says Jennifer McCray, senior Web development manager for cataloger Plow & Hearth. “Keep it short and sweet.”

  • Do promote new content by sending e-mails to your customers. Include links to new articles, features, and polls (as well as to new and featured products) to get the word out and generate traffic.

  • Don’t use content that is unlikely to either build the brand’s image or promote the products (and corresponding lifestyle) you sell. “If it feels like a natural flow, the content makes sense,” says McCray. “Otherwise, don’t force it.”

  • Do read Web reports and logs regularly to assess clickstream behavior, and adjust the volume and type of content accordingly. “If people aren’t reading an article or visiting an area, drop it,” says Lebo.

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