I love marketing. I find it to be a fascinating intersection of creativity and business savvy, and it has been an area where creative people have worked and thrived.
However, as Bob Dylan sang, ‘the times, they are a-changing.' Digital channels now require and provide vast volumes of information. To optimize the efficiency of the marketing efforts, marketing organizations are required to collect a lot of data about the customer behavior and how they interact with the marketing content. Marketers also need more content to be produced and disseminated to an increasing number channels.
It is difficult to create, manage, analyze, and optimize huge amounts of content manually. It can’t be done using creativity alone. Even the best analytics tools and content management systems cannot help an organization to make the right decisions at the speed of digital—at least not manually. Not only does Web and eCommerce personalization require super-fast number crunching to present the right message in real time, but also significant amounts of granular product information are needed to put the product story together.
Not even with an army of super creative marketers would it be possible to do this manually. Customers require relevant results in real time. It also becomes increasingly difficult to manually produce all the content that is needed to put the right message together for your individual customers, at all touchpoints, for all stages in the buying journey. When you add the requisite analysis and optimization it to the mix, you will find that a new breed of solutions is needed.
Enter Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) to save the day.
How can AI and ML help?
AI can be used to make split-second decisions. Combined with ML, AI can learn how to make better decisions over time. AI can also adapt to changes in buying behavior long before any human has had time to put a report together, analyze it, test a new idea, and iterate until it works. Most of us interact with AI- and ML-powered behavioral recommendation engines every time we shop at Amazon and many other retailers’ sites. AI controls product recommendations, provides optimized guided navigation, and adds inspirational suggestions, all based on customers’ behavioral patterns and buying habits.
This development changes the role of the marketer. AI and ML will take care of most of the merchandising—automatically and in real-time. But a behavioral merchandizing engine needs fuel, a lot of it. This fuel comes in the form of large volumes of high-quality, granular product information. In addition, to be efficient, AI also requires the right content to create a relevant, personalized and compelling product story.
How does the marketing department know if they produce the right content in the right volume? The answer is: by getting feedback on how the content performs in all their channels and then crunching the numbers. Creating too much content adds unnecessary cost, and creating the wrong content might be even more expensive as it is detrimental to sales. Thus, optimizing content production to produce just enough of the right content is crucial to be successful.
Again, AI and ML come to the rescue. Not only can these solutions control what content that the marketing department produces, but also it can create it as well. For example, companies like Automated Insights provide AI/ML-based services that can write product descriptions automatically based on product specification and categorization data.
Get ready now!
AI and ML will not replace marketers anytime soon, but they will dramatically change what marketers do and how they work. These technologies are already a critical component of online merchandising, and are spreading to all other areas of marketing. Companies need to invest in solutions that can help them move at the speed of digital, but also introduce new roles and ways of organizing the marketing department because AI and ML are going to play a significant role in marketing going forward.
The other evening, as I was heading home from my mountain bike ride, I felt a little nip of fall in the air. Granted, I live in a mountain town and with the sun rapidly sinking behind a hill, the air was cooling off.
However, that sense of fall reminded me that soon our kids will be heading back to school. Indeed, many districts start as early as the first week of August and many schools are in full swing before September hits.
What does this mean? Back-to-School sales! We are getting flyers in the mail already and many stores have their signs and displays front and center.
Did you know that Back-to-School retail sales are second only to December holiday sales? Indeed, Back-to-School spending was a whopping $75 billion in 2016, according to the National Retail Federation. That equates to more than $500 per shopper, 20% to 25% of which will be transacted online. Walmart, Amazon, and Target are the winners here.
What is exciting for both retailers and manufacturers alike is that the spending flows across many categories—clothing, electronics, computer software and hardware, office supplies, and home furnishings.
How can you take advantage of the “holiday” shopping extravaganza?
Get Your Demographics and Personas Right
When we think of the school year, it is not surprising we think of adorable grade-school students in plaid jumpers and khakis heading out the door. It is true that this is one key target market—to the tune of 50 million students. However, last fall, more than 20 million students were heading back to colleges and universities in the US. In addition to these Millennials, Generation Z students—today’s teenagers—have a greater say in product purchases and more money to spend. Make sure that you are marketing to all these groups, as well as their parents, and are aware of the lengthy local school supply lists that are distributed each year for all these groups
Be Prepared—Online and Offline
As we noted above, Back-to-School shopping occurs both online and offline. The key is to be prepared, and well-stocked, with everything that students and parents need. Get a hold of the supply lists of local school districts and college dorms and ensure that those items are easy to locate—both in-store or online. Nothing is more frustrating to a parent than spending an afternoon at the local Walmart, Staples, or Target or on Amazon.com—with supply list in hand—and still having a plethora of items that need to be sourced elsewhere. Creating a “store within a store” will help shoppers move through their list quickly and efficiently. Make sure shoppers can check off every single item on the list at one venue.
Although it is already August, keep in mind that Back-to-School shopping, like Winter Holiday shopping, is starting earlier and earlier each year. This may be due to parents’ desire for deals that occur throughout the summer, or due to the known inevitability of Back-to-School shopping. This means that decreasing your time-to-market is as important in summer as it is later in the year. A comprehensive workflow, which includes a product content review and approval process, can help you execute faster and more efficiently.
Remember, too, that improving your product content and keeping it consistent across channels will help to create that “endless aisle” experience and improve the customer experience for all of your target customers. inRiver can help with both these important objectives. Contact us for a demo!
Kathryn Zwack, Sr. Content Marketing Manager, inRiver
In May 1897, Mark Twain was on a world speaking tour. While in London, he heard that an American newspaper had printed his obituary. When told about this, Twain remarked, “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”
The retail industry could say the same.
It is true that we have seen the likes of Sports Authority, Rue21, The Limited, Wet Seal, and BCBG Max Azria file for bankruptcy protection. In addition, many department stores, such as Sears, Macy’s and JC Penney have closed locations. However, the so-called “Retail Bloodbath” may not mean an end to brick-and-mortar stores.
In fact, the US Census Bureau recently reported that retail sales were up nearly 4% in the first six months of 2017, compared with the same period last year.
These data suggest that multi-channel retail—including brick-and-mortar stores—is not going away. So, how can retailers stay afloat and even excel at both traditional and digital shopping? The key is to bridge the online and offline gap. You need to re-create the offline experience online. And, in turn, generate an “endless aisle” experience in the store.
Use your online experience and interactions to drive foot traffic to brick-and-mortar stores. Email, push notifications, and social media all provide you with opportunities to promote local discounts, products, and events that can drive shoppers to stores. Store locators, product reservation tools, and ship-to-store options can boost revenue, while increasing convenience for the shopper. And there is that added benefit: while the customer is in your store to pick up that special item, it is likely that they will acquire additional items on impulse.
This can also apply in the other direction. If a product is out of stock in your store, “endless aisle” technology can allow your customer to order the item online while standing next to the shelf. Integrated IT systems mean that customers can return online orders in-store instead of having to mail them back and wait for a replacement or refund.
Successful retailers are using information from online channels in their offline marketing. For example, Best Buy displays product reviews and ratings on the shelf next to the product. Providing consistent product data across channels ensures that customers who found a great product online can find that same item in-store. By improving SEO and enriching product information, Primeau Velo was able to decrease customer online search time and increase in-store sales simply because shoppers could more easily find products they were seeking.
Another tactic is to personalize catalogs, adverts, and mailers based on online data. When retailers can draw insights from online interactions, printed materials can extend the digital experience and provide a seamless customer journey—from e-commerce to catalog to conversion.
Regardless of your retail industry, all your markets and channels need to tell the same story. This way, your customers will encounter a consistent brand and product experience no matter where they start their journey.
But to accomplish this, you need a single source of accurate product information.
When your catalog production in Europe can draw from the same information as your e-commerce engine in the U.S., you can go to market more quickly with new seasons or assortments. You have the means to enrich your product content so you are relevant to customers no matter which channel they are using. You can also more easily align offline experiences and online interactions, creating a consistent and satisfying customer experience.
The result? You build stronger relationships with your customers and realize higher sales and greater customer loyalty.
Kathryn Zwack, Senior Content Marketing Manager