Shopper marketing used to be about guiding the consumer along the last few steps on the path to purchase. But today that path is more loop than funnel – and shopper marketers are going beyond in-store tactics by embracing digital and mobil to build ongoing bonds with consumers.
Buying clothes used to be so simple. Think back to, say, middle school. You’d notice what the cool kids were wearing, drag your mom to the mall and beg for the same thing (perhaps a polo shirt with an animal-themed logo?).
Up until a few years ago, many shopper experiences were that clear cut—including those unrelated to the hierarchy of schoolyard popularity. The typical path-to-purchase model used to be a funnel that began with awareness, and then moved through the stages of engagement, discovery, investigation and selection. At the end of this linear path was—voila—a purchase.
Fast forward to today and the progress of digital developments has bent that path from linear to circular. With people now exposed to a constant flow of information through various media, they’re unknowingly always on a potential purchase path and have experiences with brands even before they begin their research. Shoppers used to have their first “moment of truth” at the shelf in a bricks-and-mortar physical environment, but the first product interaction they have today could be very different, adds Ben Kennedy, group director, mobile at The Integer Group, a part of the TBWA group that focuses on shopper marketing, promotional and retail. For example, someone could see on Facebook that a friend has enjoyed a particular restaurant or camping tent. One person’s post-purchase review is another person’s pre-purchase research, he says.
“The path to purchase has gone mobile, multimedia and social all at once,” says Kelly McCarten, vice-president of Marketing Core, a Toronto-based full-service agency with shopper marketing expertise.
While the path to purchase changed from linear to cyclical, it still includes three essential, though different, elements: pre-shop, shop and post-shop. With that in mind, we asked shopper marketing pros to weigh in on how retailers and agencies can build that bond with shoppers travelling along the digital path.
With the sea of price comparison, retailer and brand sites, electronic flyers, offer-based sites and product review sites out there (not to mention Facebook and Twitter), consumers have endless ways to evaluate their purchase options and get acquainted with a brand. “In general, they always have their feelers out thinking about the purchase [they’re going to make] and comparing that against other information out there,” says Mike Farrell, SVP of research and strategic insight at Conversion Marketing-Communication, a Toronto-based integrated digital marketing consultancy.
He says it all starts with good database marketing, redefined for the digital age by developing and nurturing an addressable community to create a “loyalty loop.” That can be as simple as collecting people’s email addresses as part of a registration process, getting their permission to send them text messages and connecting with them via social media to start pushing out information about products and activities.
Opportunities to develop prospects are “hugely accelerating in this new digital retail marketing ecosystem,” says Farrell, and are especially important at the pre-shop stage. However, aside from just pushing out information to willing recipients, building a loyalty loop in the digital era means looking at comment sections on other sites and Twitter feeds. In Farrell’s view, the most important aspect of social media is embracing the referrals and recommendations that consumers share when they’ve had a good experience with a product. The world may have gone digital, but the old-fashioned strength of referrals hasn’t waned. “Referral by friends and family is still the most important when people make decisions,” says Farrell. In fact, a recent Nielsen global study shows that 92% of consumers trust recommendations from people they know, which is more than they trust any other form of advertising. And 70% of consumers still trust opinions of other consumers posted online. Even positive reviews from strangers can resonate with consumers more than a company bragging about its own products.
One way to use consumer feedback is to create a microsite and populate it with positive reviews collected from consumer review sites. It will help drive people to that site when they search, for example, “cameras Toronto.”
“This is about humans communicating with humans,” says Farrell. “If you can get someone to say, ‘Eff yeah, I loved getting that product at a deal at Shoppers’ or ‘I stood in line at H&M for the new Viktor & Rolf line’ and pop that up on their Facebook page, you’re velocitizing your communication.”
Search engine optimization is, of course, also a key part of the pre-shop stage and involves more than just tagging. “Consumers are researching what’s relevant to them in their terms,” says McCarten. They don’t generally type in a brand name, but instead perhaps a phrase like “healthy heart solutions.” The key is to have your brand be optimized first by offering a relevant recipe or product, she says.
Rico DiGiovanni, president and partner at Spider Marketing, a Toronto-based boutique shopper marketing agency, adds that most of the programs his agency works on have a paid search component built into them to drive awareness towards the program. He ballparks the investment costs of that in the roughly $20,000 to $50,000 range. “When it comes to the investments, it’s a smaller investment, but a pretty big impact,” he says.
Mobile is also a good platform through which to send consumers alerts with member discounts and limited-time offers at participating stores. But the end goal, says Farrell, is still generally to drive people into your store. “Online [purchasing] continues to grow, but bricks and mortar is where it’s at,” he says.
McCarten agrees, noting that 80% of consumers in Canada conduct research online prior to purchase, but only a third of them will actually purchase online. The other 66% still want to go in-store to make their purchases, she says.
Once they get there, retailers risk a scenario that’s developed from the increased power that shoppers have as mobile penetration climbs. People may visit a retailer’s store—say an electronics retailer—and try out the plasma screen TVs. Before speaking with a shop assistant, they’ll use their phone to read reviews and blogs about that type of TV and do some price comparisons on sites like eBay and Amazon. If they find the same product cheaper on their phone, they’ll purchase it that way and leave the physical store without the retailer even knowing they were there. “The higher consideration of the product, the more this is happening,” says Kennedy.
Rather than compete with advancing mobile technologies, retailers should incorporate them into the shopping experience. Kennedy is a fan of how Best Buy (not an Integer client, by the way) has a mobile destination and an app that allows shoppers to browse the store “and get deeper information than you would via the likes of Amazon and eBay.” Users can also check if the item they want is available in-store or online, track products that are on sale and use the geo-locator to find the closest store and get directions using the app.
Launched in August 2010, the Best Buy iPhone app has had more than 350,000 downloads so far, says Best Buy Canada director of marketing Aliya Kara. (The retailer also recently launched an Android app that’s available on Google Play.)
Digital technologies can also help provide a more personalized shopping experience. Take the way Indigo suggests specific books to members of its Plum Rewards loyalty program through direct email, online and—in helping enhance the in-store part of the purchase path—in-store kiosks. These personalized recommendations are driven in part by members’ previous purchases and preferences they’ve selected in their account profile. While browsing a Chapters or Indigo store, members can insert their rewards membership card into a kiosk to access their recommendations.
Another bricks and mortar tool of note is in-store digital media, which is getting more penetration and DiGiovanni predicts will become more important in the future. He cites a promotional program Spider Marketing did for client GlaxoSmithKline that educated shoppers on how Tums and Gaviscon suppress stomach acid which ran on Walmart’s EK3 in-store media network.
The catch with in-store digital media is that cost can be restrictive compared to buying shelf media. Plus, it’s a challenge to get the right ROI to sustain screens. “As long as you’re going to take up incremental space on the floor… you obviously have to drive a lot of volume, and the [ROI] has to be extremely high,” says McCarten.
So you’ve managed to get loads of people to follow your brand online, connect with them in-store, keep the dialogue going once they’ve left—all great accomplishments. But then things turn from sweet to sour when unflattering comments about your products or company surface online. DiGiovanni’s advice? React honestly and openly. “It might be ‘Hey, I don’t know why that hasn’t performed for you—let me find out,’ and then ensure you follow up,” he says. In other words, customer service no longer finishes when the customer walks out your door. “I think you’re applauded for taking one on the chin. I think the net effect is [consumers think] ‘Okay, these are real people here talking, not some big corporation,’” says DiGiovanni.
Best Buy’s Kara says any questions the retailer gets via its social channels are always followed with a response from its content team. Technical questions get a reply in the form of a video of a “Geek Agent” answering the question.
The retailer also has an online community forum on its site called “Plug In” where customers can converse, review products and give tips. The forum exemplifies the post-shop element of the new digital path to purchase cycle, which is all about sharing and conversing.
To tap into that, Spider Marketing has extensively used a network of bloggers over the past couple of years to educate shoppers. They are primarily mommy bloggers since the agency works with many brands that cater to women with children, says DiGiovanni. For example, Spider Marketing currently has a program out for Green Works, a line of Clorox cleaning products. Thirty mommy bloggers across the country were sent a package of the products and asked to try them and share their impressions with their readers. (The bloggers disclose that they received something in return for their participation.) “The goal is to educate the bloggers’ followers that [these products are] environmentally friendly, but they actually work,” he says. The projected impressions for the Green Works mommy bloggers program are between 500,000 and 600,000, says DiGiovanni.
As for mobile, Kennedy says SMS is a great way to continue a dialogue with shoppers. “It’s very often overlooked, but you’re getting into an inbox, you’re leveraging a channel that is read and acknowledged far greater than the email channel these days,” he says. “SMS is merely a vehicle; within a text message you can hyperlink to promotional pages, rich content, websites, mobile sites, you can opt people into exclusive clubs where, based on tenure, they get offers before they hit the streets.”
That sort of exclusivity, along with other types of non-monetary value—such as experience, content and connection—will help retailers and agencies build lasting relationships with shoppers through digital and mobile outreach—whether the shoppers are looking for a cool new polo shirt or not.
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New Rules of the Road
The path to purchase is no longer a linear journey. Ben Kennedy breaks down the way The Integer Group, a shopper marketing agency that’s part of TBWA, views today’s continuum and brackets it into four main categories. All four exist under a broad “share” category.
Connecting with shoppers for the first time means brands have to engage through tools like mobile media, mobile search, blogs, and QR codes or SMS on traditional media. “Drive them to a destination built with the user experience and device in mind,” says Kennedy, group director, mobile at The Integer Group.
Previously the bricks and mortar store, today this could mean a retailer website, a mobile site, an app, a price-comparison site or an auction-type site. Driving consideration is about providing shoppers with a customized destination that’s built for any device the shopper may connect with since that will dictate their ability to explore.
Once they’re on your destination and engaged, it’s time to convince them to purchase. “You have to show the right value to the right people,” says Kennedy. “Do that by understanding their mindset.” For example, Kennedy says if someone shopping in a physical store goes onto its mobile site it’s a lean-forward experience since they’re on the go; the value there is different from what someone sitting at home with their tablet needs from a mobile destination.
Convince tactics will ideally lead to this stage. If you can convince someone to opt-in, whether by giving you their mobile number or email address, you have another way to expand the dialogue afterwards.