Forbes recently ran an article Storytelling: A Brave New World Of Commerce, highlighting the benefits of storytelling for online retailers and brands selling direct, and the reasons why most fail to leverage it.
In today’s marketplace, consumers are increasingly comfortable with multi-channel engagement. For example, an initial product or service introduction may come in an email campaign. This might be followed by further information on a website, in an online chat room, by checking on Facebook, or searching for reviews and feedback.
Some people refer to this phenomenon as experiential commerce. Others call it contextual engagement. But by whatever name, today’s e-commerce requires a refinement of the age-old practice of storytelling.
The reality is, too often the ecommerce storefront is completely siloed from the stories told through email, social marketing, mobile marketing and physical experiences. Product page content must fit neatly into templates, which have hardly changed since the "online catalog" became the ecommerce standard in the late '90s.
When product images go here, descriptions go there, reviews go below, the cart button must be above the fold...the customer consumes content piece-meal. Even with colorful and creative product descriptions and video, it's tough to tell a great story within a catalog template.
Product pages that tell a story
One of my favorite exceptions is Betabrand. Its product pages do several things exceptionally well when it comes to storytelling.
From the "Disco Bowling Shirt" to the "Vagisoft Hoodie," product titles are part of the overall story behind each product. Many have a "what's that?" factor that begins to tell the story from the category page.
Rather than adhere to the "picture on the left, buying options on the right, description down below" convention, Betabrand showcases the product with a compelling gallery of images. No need to zoom, they're large enough.
Creative image context
The images themselves tell a story. Sure, there are pictures of the product itself, but many of the shots show the product in-use. Not just on a "model," but on "citizen models," often the designer his or herself. Products are shot in the real (and sometimes surreal) world.
Product descriptions tell a story - literally
What is the "Woodies" collection?
Jared Graf grew up surrounded by lush foliage in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, just one of the many sources of inspiration for his latest Woodies garments. Allow him to explain:
Woodies garments are the rustic, utilitarian pieces in your wardrobe — a counterbalance to the ephemeral, largely virtual world we live in today. Each garment features beautiful wooden buttons, a detail that connects all Woodies products to one another. If you've been in a cafe, bar, or retail shop built in the last five years, you'll know that wood has been dominating architecture and interior design for some time now.
By surrounding ourselves with a natural, slow-growth material like wood, we're choosing durability over disposability in the spaces we live and work in. You can see this emphasis on quality construction and handicraft in the resurgence of folks working with their hands, learning “old” trades, and simply getting outdoors to go camping, surfing, hiking, and so on. Amid the cacophony of tweets, status updates, and email notifications, Woodies stand strong as a sartorial extension of an acoustic lifestyle.
Oh! And a video to complement the story.
Product details reinforce the story
The pocket is not just a pocket in a bowling shirt. It's a nacho friendly pocket. English Ash Buttons in the baseball-inspired raglan button-down shirt are "an homage to the wood traditionally used to make baseball bats."
Images are connected to feature/benefits
One of the pitfalls of the traditional product page design is feature/benefit copy is distal to product images. Customers have a harder time connecting the dots.
You may have noticed in the long-screenshot at the beginning of the article, that images are injected into the feature/benefit copy (like a blog post!)
Some of Betabrand's product images include text that includes a value proposition, a very underutilized tactic.
"Model citizen" pictures are submitted by customers. Customers who upload photos are awarded a 20% discount for 24 hours.
Not all pages are laid out the same
Each product's content is arranged to tell its own story. Some products have video, some don't. Some have elaborate back-stories, some don't. Merchandisers are free to craft the content that best guides the customer through the product experience.
Sure, it's easy for Betabrand to tell great stories. They have a unique product, and can get away with being a bit edgy.
But what if you're selling something as utilitarian as a power drill? You can still tell great stories. If you don't believe me, check out this Forbes interview with Glenn Conradt. It's about understanding your customers and their motivations, why they're buying what you're selling, and crafting the story around that.
And the advantage for any ecommerce business, big or small, to embrace a storytelling approach is to stay competitive...even against Amazon.
Retailers will, by necessity, need to act more like publishers. It will not be enough to simply have quality products at reasonable prices. To stay competitive, they will need to invest more in content creation and curating. To keep this content fresh for returning customers it will need to be updated on a regular basis. The result is that e-commerce web sites may begin to resemble media web sites, with large amounts of content and a reduced time-to-web.
This is why CMS-driven commerce is gaining traction. It enables marketers to break out of the restrictive catalog mould, and let content do the selling.
It's not 1998. We have the technology to tell stories with rich content that's more like a real-world, physical store experience than a flat catalog. So why are we continuing to use the paper catalog metaphor online? Next-gen ecommerce experiences require next-gen tools that enable product merchandising and guided selling that resembles the real world.
The first generation of e-commerce tools focused primarily on transactional capabilities and basic product optimization. They could do a good job of displaying related products and incorporating customer viewers, but lacked the human element that made in-store merchandising so effective...New software tools are now allowing savvy retailers to take the best of these in-store merchandising practices, digitize them and increase their reach by taking advantage of online network effects.
If you're at Shop.org Annual Summit next week, please join me and Kevin Lindsay from Adobe for Breaking Bag: Reinventing the Customer Experience at Every Touchpoint on Tuesday, September 30 from 11:45-12:15 in the Expo Hall. We'll be discussing storytelling across the Web, mobile and retail environments, and the technology that can help you do it.