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Understanding disruption: Omnichannel marketing when everyone’s a retailer

Apu Gupta

Let’s say you own an apparel brand, and that your brand has its own stores to sell your stuff. You get to control the experience – the design, the music, the layout. Everything. And it’s all tightly scripted to evoke a feeling, promote discovery, and of course, generate sales.

Your gleaming stores are doing their part to form brand awareness and affinity, and so you decide to take your show on the road. Retail. While you gain in sales, some of that control you crave is gone. Your jeans are in the same section as everyone else’s; who knows what music is playing in the background; and you have no idea what the store associate is saying about your products.

Now imagine that every social media site, app, and blogger becomes a retailer of sorts, providing a place where collections of products can be discovered and ultimately purchased. Control? Bury it. Welcome to the new normal – a world in which the point of purchase moves closer to the point of interaction. And a world in which those points of interaction proliferate on channels you don’t own. Think it’s far fetched? It’s already happening.

Historically, brands tightly controlled the experience consumers had around their products.

Now, social sites, shopping apps, and influential bloggers all vie for that attention. At the heart of all these disparate points of interaction is a shared love of images. These images frequently depict your products and those of your competitors. And they wind up on these channels not just because of what you post, but also because of the content consumers choose to share.

Take Pinterest, for example. There are over 50 billion pins on Pinterest, and a big chunk of those represent products from brands like yours. The majority of these pins don’t live on boards built by brands. Instead, they live on boards called 'Jeans', 'Denim', 'My Style', and a whole host of others curated by people who have no affiliation to (but most likely an affinity toward) your brand – as well as your competitors.

Bloggers are hawking your products too, creating posts with pictures of outfits that mix multiple brands across multiple price points. To date, bloggers have used affiliate links to drive readers to the various places where those products can be bought. But given the direction we are headed, one has to wonder how long it will be until consumers can buy what they see directly from these locations too.

Consumers have demonstrated time and again that clicks kill sales; it’s why third-party purchase apps are so attractive to brands. Yet while adding a 'buy' button to an image at the point of interaction reduces friction for the consumer, thus far, it hasn’t been terribly effective. Why? I’d argue that too many marketers are fixated on the transaction, rather than the factors that compel a consumer to transact. After all, there’s a reason brands and traditional retailers invest millions to make their websites information-rich. Images inspire, but rich product details (pricing, availability information, peer reviews, customer photos, etc) sell.

In a world where competing products coexist, and where transactions are being made at the point of interaction, how can you get a leg up on your competitors? To make these points of interaction truly 'shoppable' brands need to view their product photos as more than a pile of pixels. Your pictures need to become proxies for your products. And this change needs to happen now.

First, it’s important to recognize that consumers today are gravitating toward imagery that is far more editorial in style than the traditional product photos that brands and retailers create. In that split second when a consumer encounters a photo of your product alongside a photo of your competitor’s, you’ll want to make sure yours is the image that sticks. Fortunately, you don’t have to rely upon creating these images yourself. Increasingly, your fans, your employees, and your influencers are creating compelling content around your products. Harness it.

Second, your images need to be shoppable. This begins by enriching your product feeds with metadata—all the information that’s needed to make a purchase decision—as well as lots of photos for every product.

Finally, you need to set all of this information free. In essence, you need to be not only a brand or a retailer, but also an API. Make this information accessible to third parties, and allow them to pull in your feeds and display your products to audiences who increasingly learn about your collections through others. While it may seem counterintuitive, doing this will actually allow you to exert more control on these new consumer touch points by enabling you to influence the content as it is shared.

Stopping the march of technology and consumer behavior is a losing proposition. Understanding the disruptions that face industries and learning to embrace them helps you win. By providing consumers with information they need in places they want to consume it, you have an opportunity to influence the consumer experience even if you can’t fully own the customer.

Apu Gupta is chief executive of Curalate

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