Don’t risk customers clicking away!
Use imagery and influencers, livestreams and storytelling to persuade them to press the buy button instead.
Shoppable content has become a mainstream proposition and should be central to most digital strategies. For proof, look no further than Instagram. In a little more than a decade since it was founded, the image-sharing and video-sharing network, used by more than 850m people globally1, has evolved into a destination where users routinely buy directly from the posts and livestreams of brands and influencers – heading straight to checkout without leaving the app.
Over the same years, Instagram’s demographic base has evolved so that close to a third of its users are aged 35 or older2. Instagram is no longer, as it once was, the preserve of the young. Even the most GenZ of platforms, TikTok, is reaching older demographics than its image suggests, with 40% of its users in the US aged 25 or older in 2019.3
In 2020, this trend, the widespread consumer adoption of new kinds of social networks and richer digital experiences, collided with the COVID-19 pandemic. Consumers in lockdown and spending more time online soon became bored of catalogue-style shopping rooted in the desktop era. Instead, they keep seeking more engaging, exciting and immersive experiences, often via mobile.
Content is king
So how should brands and retailers approach reaching customers through shoppable content? To begin at the strategic level, while there’s always a strong case for experimentation and fast iteration within such a dynamic environment as digital, there’s also a risk of rushing in and wasting investment.
This is a recurring theme in the history of e-commerce. Consider the rollout of retail apps towards the end of the last decade. Too often, the functionality of these apps didn’t correspond to how shoppers wanted to use them. The inevitable result was that consumers used these apps infrequently if at all. Further back still, the idea that retailers should focus on offering compelling digital content has been around since at least the advent of broadband. Often, retailers that adopted this approach were disappointed with the results, perhaps because too much of the early content, even where there was an audio-visual element, was somehow flat and uninspired.
This was because their strategies and content followed something close to a traditional broadcast or publishing/editorial model – pushed out by the retailer to an audience. In contrast, a well-run department store, for example, is inherently dynamic and theatrical. Shoppable content, when executed with flair, can capture that same excitement.
To extend this idea even more, think of a successful influencer as a sales assistant. This is someone who has an in-depth knowledge both of the products being recommended and of their customers.
Seen in this light, brands and retailers need to build from the idea that shoppable content represents a collision of e-commerce and traditional retail that can potentially capture the best of both worlds.
Right here, right now
Having made the strategic case for shoppable content, what specific types of content should businesses invest in? Inevitably, the kinds of shoppable content most appropriate for different brands and retailers will vary.
At its most straightforward, perhaps for those dealing with older and more conservative demographics, shoppable content can be a matter of a text link taking a customer from some editorial about an item to a page where it’s on sale, an approach with its roots in content marketing.
In this context, Marks & Spencer turned to content marketing as part of its online offering at the beginning of the last decade. Although there have been hiccups along the way4, it still uses the technique extensively. The important caveat is that M&S now guides customers seamlessly from editorial to checkout.
Other brands work on developing a presence where shoppable content is tailored specifically to the strengths of different social networks. Ritual Cosmetics5, for example, displays its wares on Instagram against sumptuously staged backdrops designed to convey a sense of luxury. This is both appropriate to Ritual’s brand and makes the most of Instagram’s visual vocabulary.
Those aiming at younger demographics in particular already need to consider going much further still. That’s because a collision of video, livestreaming, especially by influencers, and social media/social commerce is driving change. This is a key trend that will gather pace through 2021.
To get a glimpse of the future, look to China. Here, livestreaming is integral to the market. It’s estimated that 560m Chinese people, or around 39% of the population, were viewing livestreams by early 20206. These are consumers heading for online destinations such as Tabao Live, a kind of cross between a virtual mall and an infotainment shopping channel7. The value of sales from livestreams in China has already reached $60 billion8.
Against this backdrop, the recent introduction of a livestream live translation service by Aliexpress9 – which supports simultaneous translation from Chinese to English, Russian, Spanish and French, and from English to Russian, Spanish and French – is a bet on the idea that livestreaming will become equally as popular around the world.
To judge by a raft of initiatives last year, major North American players agree with this assessment. In October 2020, for example, Pinterest announced a new suite of merchant tools, including video for collections, to help brands and retailers reach customers over the festive season10. Also in 2020, that most internationally minded of retailers, Amazon, launched livestreaming via Amazon Live11.
What’s most interesting about these initiatives is that they are not from companies targeting only younger consumers. Older customers are beginning to find their ways to shoppable content, and Pinterest and Amazon are catering for this burgeoning market.
The examples of shoppable content we’ve cited here come primarily from the retail and technology sectors, but brands cannot afford to be left behind. To return to the idea of retail as theatre, shoppable content offers brands a new opportunity to be the director of a performance, to build relationships directly with influencers, and to find out at first hand what kinds of approaches and products connect with customers. Moreover, even brands focusing on older demographics need to cater for these customers.
Yet these developments increase the complexity of multichannel operations and brands need to prepare for this. This is not just because offering shoppable content effectively creates a new channel, but also because it potentially leads to peaks of demand when, for instance, an influencer pushes a product – and that’s before we get to the complexities around an international livestreaming event generating orders from around the world.
To make the most of these opportunities and to avoid wasted investment, brands need a strategic approach here that goes beyond customer-facing initiatives. They need to be able to manage and store digital assets such as video and images and distribute these across multiple touchpoints. They need to have tight control over both product information and inventory planning. In a dynamic and fast-moving market, they need to make the most of opportunities as they present themselves, often at short notice.
For those that achieve this, the rewards are potentially huge, if only because they will be going with the grain of consumer behavior.