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Style and Substance: Using editorial content to drive online sales

Editorial content helps etailers succeed online, but those creating it need to make sure it is a sales tool and not a distraction.

The recent high-profile website relaunches of Marks & Spencer and Harvey Nichols, with their focus on editorial content, reflect the way consumers are now shopping online. It also sends a clear message to the industry that if you don’t have an editorial voice, in many cases you have no voice at all.

“Shopping is all about emotion,” says Helen Kaye, head of editorial at private Sales etailer SecretSales and previously head of editorial at flash Sales site Cocosa. “You don’t buy a designer handbag because you need it, you buy it because you want it. And content helps create that emotional pull.

“Customers expect more than just a transactional shopping experience, they want to be entertained, inspired and engaged. Products that we feature in editorial content, whether in banners, blog posts or newsletters, tend to sell out.”

The trend is evident in the £150m relaunch of Marksandspencer.com. M&S is the third-largest etailer after Next and Shop Direct, and the February relaunch put a greater emphasis on editorial content through a magazine approach to merchandising. The site took four years to develop, during which it moved from platform provider Amazon and underwent two years of testing to examine customer feedback.

The result displays product as total looks and breaks it down into trend, or gives occasion or personalised recommendations. Imagery is now 50% larger with a maxi-zoom feature, as well as a catwalk and 360-degree view option.

The other big relaunch this year came in April from Harvey Nichols, again with a focus on editorial. The redesign has product interspersed with trend, brand focus stories and options such as ‘editor’s pick’, all displayed in what looks like a series of polaroids on pinboards similar to those on social media platform Pinterest.

“We’ve put a huge emphasis on integrating content with product to increase customer engagement and online trade,” says Sandrine Deveaux, the department store’s multichannel director.

She says the site’s content includes advice on seasonal trends, buyers’ picks and suggestions on how to complete a look, which she says gives the customer “confidence when shopping and mirrors the excellent service they receive in store”. Customers can also live chat with dedicated style advisers if they require additional support. Deveaux adds: “Melding content and commerce and giving a voice to the consumer to share content through social media has been key for us with this launch.”

However, content is not just about words.Charlotte Foot, operations director at photography studio Hungry Tiger, which works with M&S and Harvey Nichols, says she has seen a shift towards more creative shoots for websites: “There is more emphasis on model photography and supportive rich content, so creative shoots for the banners on websites are really important.”

Kaye says retailers are now able to provide their customers with a concise edit, and to push certain brands or products to the fore that otherwise might get lost: “You have hundreds of products and a customer will never be able to go through them all, so it is a way of editing them down and making them timely and topical to strike home with the consumer.”

Data insight plays a significant role in determining which content has the greatest effect, Deveaux says: “Through analytics and customer research, we have learnt that customer engagement will increase if content is displayed in a contextual manner and not edited in a single destination - for example, in a magazine.”

Kaye says data insight is a crucial advantage online and content strategies should be formed around this: “We know how [customers] shop, where they live, and what they love. So we can piece together who they are, but also what type of content they want more of. So you can edit your strategy based on demand.”

Sophie Coley, creative strategist at digital agency Propellernet, agrees: “The personalisation trend is important - customers will always respond to that. We worked with M&S in 2011 to create a maternity bra guide that fed the customer back a personalised timeline of when they needed to go and get bra fittings during their pregnancy. That kind of thing provides a lot more value.”

However, there is a danger that retail websites can become over-editorialised. Deveaux explains: “As we are merging content with product, it will be challenging for us to separate both. The all-new Harveynichols.com experience is based on contextual commerce, where content and customer engagement are key.”

Retailers also need to take a multichannel approach to their content strategies, with many of them already doing so. M&S, for example, has trained store staff to use the site, with 1,500 iPad-assisted sellers on hand to help customers nationally. More recently, on May 1 the business launched a media campaign to encourage customers in store to visit the site and use options such as click-and-collect.

Jenny Dyson, creative director at content agency Pencil, agrees: “We did a campaign with Jack Wills called ‘A proper British summer’. We used that phrase as a tagline on windows and did a print piece that was mailed out to people and given out in store. You have a content hub that is your essence and everything radiates out of that.”

Harvey Nichols is also focusing on integrating content across channels. “The content has to be produced with multichannel in mind - and hence will need to be translated and adjusted through different medias, to ensure the user experience is aligned and consistent. The aim is to deliver a content strategy that will work from the shop floor, to windows, to the website, to emails to social,” says Deveaux.

Coley says retailers’ content strategies should also consider how Google rankings can be improved: “The real sweet spot is when you can get something that appeals to both Google and customers. The ultimate aim is that you get something that drives conversion, but will also drive recommendation with links and social shares.”

Looking ahead, Kaye says the trend towards editorialised websites will grow, but as it does retailers will need to work out how to differentiate themselves: “For me there are two things: first, personalisation is key. Second, make sure you have a distinct brand personality. That will keep customers coming back.”

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