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GUEST COMMENT Merchandising vs content marketing

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Merchandising is a critical part of influencing purchase decisions during the customer journey. In store, window displays, gondola ends, demo products and a whole lot more besides have all been designed to entice the customer into a shop and to buy products. Online, merchandising can be more difficult to define. Where do product descriptions or website design start and digital merchandising begin for example? Where does content creation come in, and content marketing – or is it the same thing?

Natural bedfellows

The products that show up in a search, their order, special offers, how they’re presented, reviews, banners, links to relevant blogs and more all have an impact on how the customer progresses (or otherwise) with their journey with a brand. All of these ‘merchandising levers’ rely on content though, whether it’s user-generated or created by the brand. Words/images/video can be used to create a brand identity, describe products, encourage additional purchases and more.

Fashion retail has embraced the content/merchandising mash-up. The online clothes retailer Boden has its own blog which has ‘stories’ around a variety of relevant subjects – London fashion week, Mother’s day shoots, fashion bloggers talking about their favourite clothes. Everyone is wearing the products, and of course there are links to buy all of them. Other retailers offer ‘event incentives’ to encourage the user to browse, such as ‘Workwear’ or ‘Beach holiday’ that meet the customer’s interests, motivate them to shop.

Instinctively you wouldn’t have thought this content/merchandising approach would work so well in the FMCG sector. It’s relatively easy to engage people interested in fashion in clothes. Everyone has to eat food but the weekly shop (or more frequent now) can be seen as a chore. It’s also more difficult to get shoppers to have emotional ties with a jar of sauce or packet of spaghetti.

Supermarkets however have worked hard to add content to their sites above and beyond online grocery shopping. Tesco offers recipes and meal planners as you’d expect, as well as articles on subjects ranging from good and bad fats to lamb farming.

The worlds collide

The blurred lines between digital merchandising and content marketing are evident in job titles on linkedIn. The responsibilities of Digital merchandising managers tend to be for sales numbers. This often includes using analytics to identify sales trends in order to drive conversions online, using key merchandising areas such as the homepage, category & list pages, carousels and banners, and up/cross sell product information. In some cases it can also include bug-tracking – obviously important for customer experience – and sales.

However, the new kid on the block seems to be the ‘Online content and merchandising manager’. He or she is usually responsible for managing content – production and analysis. This will involve everything from functional content (navigation, product pages), to engaging rich content (event information, microsites, blogs etc), that inspires the consumer audience. It incorporates campaigns and promotions on top of that, depending on the individual role. It goes wider still to coordinate copywriting and all that entails – from ensuring brand consistency, quality checks, relevancy etc. Overall it seems more focused on managing and optimizing content on the website.

The amalgamated job makes sense as it’s difficult to separate out the the layout and content; the offers and accompanying images/words/video. All of these factors added up help the customer on their journey with a brand at any given point. However, it’s a big responsibility and probably requires some organisations to break out of their traditional working silos of sales, trade marketing (online), merchandising (in-store) and content production.

Making it work

Simply put, if you want to optimise your content in a retail environment, it has to be combined with digital merchandising, and they need to work together. Great content will be enhanced by merchandising levers such as recommended products, reviews and promotions etc. Those in turn won’t work to their full potential without great content to support them.

Analytics will help you assess what’s working and not, and to make adjustments to the ‘lever’ or the content. The key is to understand what your target customer is looking for and then provide relevant content that is valuable and timely. For example, emailing a customer who’s bought a high-spec running watch with marathon training plans in the run-up to an event can tap into their goals and lifestyle in a way a simple product announcement will not.

Personalisation takes creating relevant content one step further, whether that’s product recommendations catered to the individual shopper or bespoke labels for products (as in the Share a Coke campaign). That resulted in over 730,000 bottles being personalised via the ecommerce store and masses of user-generated content.

It’s not all an instant win though – it’s about building a relationship with the customer. Perhaps that’s the difference between content marketing and digital merchandising, and why they work so well together?

Steve Sponder is managing director of content marketing agency Headstream

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