As an online magazine Essential Retail is clearly a fan of content. But in recent years, as more magazines and newspapers have printed their final issues, different online resources for news and features have emerged, and some retailers are realising the benefits of reaching out to customers through editorially-led content.

And as more time is spent online – latest figures state teens are spending 4.8 hours per day online, well and truly overtaking TV at a measly 2.1 hours a day – content is increasingly becoming an important way to keep customers engaged.

Senior director of global merchandising at Expedia, Dan Reed, describes to Essential Retail how the online travel retailer uses content as a way to understand its customers' intent to travel.

"This allows us to have a conversation with a traveller top of funnel and drive discovery through to booking. Content, and how customers engage with that content, allows us to have an implicit, two-way conversation where – through data – we serve the most relevant content to each individual," he tells Essential Retail.

Director of retail services at eCommera, Annabel Thorburn, says good content can peak the interest of shoppers while reinforcing the retailer's brand. "It’s a way to break away from the transactional nature of retail to truly engage with your customers on a different level," she explains, pointing to retailers like Jaeger who are trying to stand out in a crowded market by using content to connect with customers by sharing the brand's heritage.

"This kind of strategy particularly suits clothing retailers who need to be able to differentiate their brand enough to draw audiences away from Amazon or other commodity marketplaces," she adds, pointing to Net-a-Porter who started the trend with its physical magazine launch in 2014. "Fashion is all about creating an image, so quality content here can really help reinforce and even redefine a customer's purchasing decisions."

Credibility

Being an authoritative voice in your sector is more important than ever. And as we come to the end of a tumultuous year of Brexit, Trump, et al, Facebook is now being blamed for not ensuring quality control of the stories that are shared on its platform. During the US presidential election, a number of fabricated news stories circulated on the social media website, which the industry is saying could have misled potential voters.

A number of retailers, including Expedia, as well as Net-a-Porter, Asos and Feel Unique, are hiring editorially-trained writers to develop authoritative content for their eCommerce websites.

Feel Unique's founder, Aaron Chatterley, told Essential Retail earlier this year his ex-beauty journalists, from the likes of Harper's Bazaar and InStyle, are given a certain amount of free reign.

"Once you get too commercial with editorial, it quickly becomes obvious to the customer that it's a promotional piece rather than genuine thoughts and feelings of a credible beauty journalist."

He says the e-tailer treats the editorial team like a typical magazine – called The Lounge – in order to maintain a level of impartiality over the beauty products they were writing about.

"If they lose that impartiality, they lose their credibility and lose value to the business," he adds, warning retailers who embark on true editorial customer engagement that it is difficult to quantify its commercial impact.

Reed from Expedia, agrees content is notoriously difficult to monetise, but the company encourages a test and learn culture across the business, which means Expedia takes a scientific approach to new ventures – like editorial content – ensuring it collects as much data as possible to understand its value and ROI .

Reed explains the editorial content strategy at Expedia: "The initial plan is to hire writers for all English-speaking countries, as well as key markets in Germany, Italy and France. It is important for our editorial voices to be authentic, as these local experts will help guide our strategy market-by-market. We want to establish a trustworthy/credible relationship with customers by being transparent with content sources."

He adds: "For our content strategy, we'll see how our customers engage with us and how much it gets shared. Ultimately, if the content we've put out there is accurate, fresh and relevant, and people are sharing it, over a period of time travellers will see us as an authoritative source."

Shareable content

Expedia journalists create features such as 'How To Feel Ridiculously Christmassy', 'How To Get An Airline Upgrade' and '8 Royal Residences You Can Actually Stay In'. The titles ensure the content is shareable, while the list-style content provides inspiration to travellers looking to book their next jet-away.

Anusha Couttigane, fashion and jewellery analyst at Kantar Retail, says retailers need to start thinking about the importance of video in their content strategies. "Video is where the content world is going," she says, pointing to online publications like Buzzfeed and its investment in video through food videos like Tasty. "And tools like Facebook Live are becoming more important and partnering with vloggers, who have built up a subscription basis so quickly and probably have bigger audiences than brands, is very useful."

Unilever's All Things Hair is one example of this. The FMCG group's branded YouTube channel has hundreds of thousands of subscribers and littered with famous faces, like vlogger sensation, Zoella, using Unilever products in her hairstyle tutorial videos.

But retailers don't have to partner with the latest overpriced teenage YouTube sensation to test-drive video, Couttigane points to the Sainsbury's-Huffington Post UK combination which has created a website called Homemade, which incorporates a mixture of features and video, endorsed by celebrity chefs, including Dan Doherty of Duck & Waffle fame.

"The digital world made retailers so competitive, but frenemies are joining forces, like Argos and eBay," she explains. "But disparate entities like Sainsbury's and Huffington Post are even partnering now, and the platform run by the Huffington Post may be a tenuous link to Sainsbury's, but it will, in theory, generate more traffic for the grocer."

 

User generated content

Retailers can look to hire journalists or partner with millennial influencers and famous vloggers to create compelling content, but another way to get creative is to turn to your readers. User-generated content (USG) has been one of the big trends of 2016.

Expedia acquired travel photo-sharing app, Trover, half way through the year and is beginning to integrate the product into the Expedia platform, so customers can share photos of their travels.

"We are in the beginning stages of integrating the Trover brand into shopping and discovery experiences. We are also starting to understand how to leverage this content to enhance in trip experiences," explains Reed. "We have also started to acquire top tips content from real travellers with real experiences to enhance the shopping experience."

Oasis is also an advocate of content, with a dedicated social hub on its new website, called ‘#Oasisfashion’, which is where customers can go to engage with all social content, as well as long-form features.

But when it comes to USG, Oasis has integrated Olapic's technology to create a social style gallery, called ‘Oasis My Way’, which aggregates images consumers have uploaded with the hashtag: ‘#OasisFashion’. The Olapic portal automatically contacts the person who uploaded the content to ask permission to use it on Oasis-Stores.com, while filtering out inappropriate images.

The Olapic widget is also embedded onto the relevant product pages, and the retailer's director of digital, Briony Garbett, said earlier this year that she believes the social element is equally as important as the model image.

“Anything with an Olapic image has a 4.5% conversion rate, compared to 2.5-3% on the rest of the site,” she says. “The interaction is generating commercial value.”

So whether you launch an online magazine, pay some famous YouTubers to big-up your brand, or encourage your customers to share snaps and tips on social media, this is a trend retailers need to get on board with, because as Couttigane says: "This is a trend that's going to get bigger."