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Expert Analysis: E-commerce storytelling to connect with customers

Jimmy Duvall
Jimmy Duvall

Anyone with an email address or Facebook account can see how hard brands are working to get their attention. 

Consumers are deluged with marketing emails, offers, advertisements, and direct mail urging them to buy everything from power tools to socks to appliances to skin cream. During these days of quarantines and stay-at-home orders, consumers are inundated with even more information coming at them, and it can be overwhelming. For retailers, all these messages represent a challenge to get the customer’s attention.

In the days of Sears & Roebuck, the buying journey was far more linear. Customers scanned the catalog, picked out what they wanted and ordered it. In today’s hypercompetitive online shopping environment, customers have virtually unlimited resources to research products and countless stores to buy from. That puts a lot of pressure on retailers to stand out, and they are increasingly trying to win customers’ hearts -- not just their dollars -- with storytelling.

Storytelling is a powerful way to create an emotional connection with customers, but it doesn’t always come naturally to merchants. When running an online store, things like managing their catalog, inventory, competitive pricing, fulfilling orders, handling returns, advertising, etc., all while keeping everything secure, tends to get the bulk of the attention. Obviously, those things are critical and can’t be ignored, but none of them matter if shoppers don’t show up. 

“If you build it, they will come,” does not apply to e-commerce in 2020.

There are some brands out there that really excel at storytelling. Take a look at Solo Stove. Its products include camping stoves and backyard fire pits, but really the company is selling the experience that comes with those products. Customers regularly share pictures and stories of friends and families gathered around the fire. The brand’s Fireside Chat blog features customers telling detailed tales of climbing mountains and hiking through the backcountry.

Apple, Microsoft and PayPal are two other companies that do a great job focusing on the experiences their products create rather than the products themselves. Apple ads consistently show what people can do with their iPhones and Macs instead of listing off stats about pixels and RAM. Microsoft’s AI ads show viewers how their technology protects wildlife, transforms healthcare and helps breweries make beer without getting technical about artificial intelligence. 

PayPal makes a point of talking less about its products and more about what customers can do with them, and it highlights charitable donations made via PayPal and the charities that benefit from the company’s “Giving Tuesday” promotions. 

Kickstarter, while not a typical retailer, is really the ultimate example of story-based commerce. Every successful fundraiser on the site tells a story that shows how their idea would transform the world.

One of the most critical elements of your storytelling strategy should be authenticity. It’s more important than presentation and polish. For content to be productive, it must provide a payoff for the audience. That means it has to be relevant, interesting, informative and entertaining. Try viewing your content through the same lens that your customers will see it through. They are all too aware of stores trying to sell them stuff, and have become experts at knowing what to ignore. Take a hard look at your content to make sure you are offering real value in exchange for their time.

Storytelling can’t simply be another marketing tactic. If you are stuck with a mindset of trying to brag about your accomplishments and how great you are, you’ll be more likely to turn away your audience than lure them in. Brands that do it well demonstrate an understanding of customers’ needs and how the products address them; they show how they enrich people’s lives – not boast about how great they are.

Just as brands have adapted to a world where commerce is more than a transaction, e-commerce tools have evolved as well. The first generation of those platforms were laser-focused on facilitating the sale, but today, the best platforms are the ones that empower merchants to focus on both content and commerce. One example is what’s called headless commerce, where the customer-facing part of the site is separate from the back end that powers the transaction and commerce technology. 

That means store owners can change the stories and content they show customers without affecting the commerce side. Over the last year or so, we’ve seen a lot more integrations between e-commerce companies and content services such as WordPress.

Retailers are increasingly understanding the importance of storytelling to engage with customers and stand out in this highly competitive environment. Now they have the technological tools to put storytelling into practice. The ones who do it well will reap the benefits of better customer engagement and loyalty and, ultimately, more sales.

Jimmy Duvall is chief product officer of BigCommerce.

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