Why Shopper Marketing NEEDS Content Strategy

I have been thinking a lot recently about the intersection of shopper marketing and content strategy. For the uninitiated, shopper marketing focuses on the actual conversion as opposed to top- or mid-funnel activity like awareness or arguably engagement. 

While not necessarily confined to in-store, retail activity, most agencies that specialize in shopper marketing focus on POS (point of sale). On many shopper marketing agency sites, you will see a lot about packaging, signage, displays, etc. Some work with or have bolted on a PR component to make further hay out of any special event. But I find few agencies that embrace a rigorous strategic component BEFORE diving into the in-store marketing. Of the top 10 search results that include "shopper marketing," only one ("shopper marketing research") contains an element of messaging or strategy. (Not definitive evidence, I realize, but illustrative at least.)

Content strategy can add a lot to shopper marketing; likewise, content strategists can also learn a lot from shopper marketers. I will get more into why shopper marketing agencies need to embrace content strategy later, but let's take a look at how user behavior has changed in the last decade as it will likely point toward how agencies must evolve to meet demand.

We Sure Don't Shop Like We Used To

I cringe at these citations, but bare with me. The wikipedia entry for shopper marketing cites several stats, including:

  • 70% of brand selections are made at stores (GMA Online, 2007)
  • 68% of buying decisions are unplanned (MediaBuyerPlanner, 2006)

These stats describe a free-wheeling retail experience which is unfamiliar to me, at least. Now, let's look at some more recent figures from The Zero Moment of Truth.

  • Consumers are viewing much more content online before making a purchase decision. In 2010, consumers consulted 5.7 pieces of content online before making a purchase. That number almost double in a year. In 2011, the average was 10.4 pieces of content. You can bet that the number of pieces is only increasing.
  • Consumers are spending more time with that online content. In 2010, 9% of a consumer's research time was spent online, pre-POS. In just a year, that almost doubled to 17% of research time in 2011. Again, bet on that figure only increasing.

So, if consumers are investigating pre-purchase more and more, why would many shopper agencies cede that territory to focus on POS? Short answer: they shouldn't. Enter content strategy.

Content Strategy <3 Education

Awareness and engagement are easy answers to the pre-purchase conundrum, but they are also vague. In my opinion, educational content is where shopper agencies should develop their offerings and content strategy is perfectly positioned to define educational content: what already exists, what consumers want to know, the type of content they prefer, channel of choice, content cadence, etc. (Educational content definitely hits awareness and can also hit upon engagement too, of course.)

Paco Underhill, author of Why We Buy, had this to say on the topic (emphasis mine):

"If you have no real basis for comparing one product to another, the normal instinct is to buy what's cheaper. But if a store sets itself up to educate shoppers, even just a little, a certain number of them will spend more than what is absolutely necessary." (Updated version, page 190)

I was recently working with a big-name brand who offers home appliance repairs, digging into their content and investigating what leads up to this brand getting a call to fix a dishwasher, air conditioner, etc. After performing a content audit and mapping out the user journey, we were able to discern exactly where this brand was supporting the consumer through the funnel with educational content and where they were lacking. (This exercise alone will have a huge impact - they will spend their money more wisely producing exactly the content their consumers need with fewer editorial revisions and served up in multiple channels. This efficiency will save them thousands, if not millions.)

But, when combined with secondary research, we learned that a big problem was that a lot of these customers did not know how to be repair customers. They didn't fix things themselves, but a lot didn't regularly call for repairs either. We needed to illustrate what a repair service call looked like in order to put them at ease. Our job, through content, was to make them better repairs consumers. Truly fascinating!

Content Strategy In Action With Shopper Marketing

There are many ways content strategy adds value to shopper marketing efforts. Here are a few ideas:

  1. Use digital (educational) content to drive to in-store sales. Online orders only count for 11.6% of total retail dollars, but digital can still drive sales into stores. Content strategy can help define customer pain points and determine topics that will help snag the conversion - online or in-store.
  2. Use content to help make decisions (or up-sell) while in-store. With 80% of shoppers using their smartphone while in the store, digital couponing while in-store is occurring more and more. Content wrapped around those coupons help the in-store consumer make purchase decisions and provide the opportunity for retailers to up-sell. Content pre- and post-purchase - based on various data sources - would also be a powerful addition.
  3. Use content to convince and persuade through signage. This poster from the CDC and displayed in Walgreens is a great example of a seemingly innocuous decision that can be changed through educational content.
  4. Use content to way-find or ease the shopping experience. Ideas like a mobile concierge (page 5) would be popular to guide consumers to items they want (whether they are familiar with those items or not) or give location help while in-store. Content strategists could help advise what in-store problems people are expressing online as well as recommend other relevant products to promote.
  5. Use content to create a unique experience in-store. Kate Spade, in partnership with eBay, and others are playing around with digital selection experiences. A content strategist could determine not only user needs at the POS, but also assess criterion consumers use to make decisions to create a decision-making experience that is fun and playful. (TV shopping alone would never be the same.)

The Other Side Of The Coin

Naturally, integration between content strategy and shopper marketing could yield these and many more positive results for clients. I'm able to focus more on the content strategy side of things because that's the world I know. That said, content strategy could certainly learn from shopper marketing practices as well.

One element I would urge content strategists to learn from shopper marketers is that the buyer isn't necessarily the consumer. (Think about beer purchases and consumptions.) Content strategists spend a lot of time thinking about consumers and their needs, but they often don't pay as much attention to behavioral patterns and differences that may emerge. Or content strategists focus only on digital and sometimes ignore anything that falls outside of the digital realm. We can certainly learn those lessons from our friend specializing in shopper marketing.

Comments?

So, what do you think? Please feel free to poke holes in this argument. I look forward to all constructive criticism in hopes of presenting a more clear understanding of how these disciplines can learn from each other.