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The human touch

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A Human Touch

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[/vc_raw_html][text_output]In the article below, I discuss the conditions for success in online retail, based on my experience with online marketing and business analytics without trying to be prophetic about it. I appreciate that there are more facets to the topic and would be grateful for any kind of feedback.

In the soul of the uninitiated, online business – be it publishing, retail or representation, can evoke feelings of helplessness and despair due to its fast-paced and reactive nature. Trends here change with the bat of an eye, and not getting them right immediately means choking on the dust of your competitors and hearing the door slam behind your former clients. Pretty scary.

To make it even worse, there are literally millions of businesses on the Internet, ranging in size from overnight-built one-pagers with a dodgy checkout process and even dodgier product offering, to titans like that of Amazon or Alibaba… And the lure of online retail, the only trillion-dollar industry growing at double digits yearly in many countries, will not see the stream of new entrepreneurs and businesses subside any time soon.

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That is a lot to digest.

For some time after joining Croud I walked wide-eyed and stunned, like a deer in the headlights, not being able to figure out how businesses survived at least a year in this environment! I was struggling to identify factors of success for online businesses in such an unstable marketing landscape. Trying to answer just HOW businesses survived in such an environment, I was torn between “SEO! We need better rankings on organic search!”, “PPC! We need bigger budgets for PPC!” and “Social! Let’s post something provocative and bordering on insulting!” It quickly became apparent that I was not the only one having the same crisis – many businesses are in this exact state of digital “soul-searching”.

Due to the nature of my job as an analyst, I am more of an observer and commentator, than a direct influencer. It provides me with a very rewarding perspective of overseeing many different online businesses and comparing them to one another. Having worked with at least a hundred businesses of different size and kind, I now firmly believe that there is a safe haven that offers stability in digital marketing. It is evoking, retaining and not disrupting people’s interest.

 

1. The Simple Truth – Be More Interesting

In the modern context of publishing, it is always extremely difficult to write about simple things supporting big theories. Readers expect “action!”, “drama!” and “surprise twists!”, so when I presented “people’s interest” as the solution, this may be disappointing to some readers – they would not expect the fruit to hang so low. If you are still with me, please continue to be. I promise you to discuss below some slightly deeper philosophical underpinnings of the phrase.

Despite the seeming simplicity of the concept, it’s surprising the amount of people that don’t get it right.

 

1.1. Be More Interesting: talk to ‘people’ and not just ‘consumers’

The word “people” is a concept that many companies fail to grasp – that in their work, they deal with people: people that think, people that read, people that laugh, people that have opinions, people that talk and people that sometimes happen to buy stuff.

I would be the first to confess my appreciation for marketing science, but one thing that I will also admit is that marketing has poisoned our minds with the concept of a consumer – a being that lives only to buy and in the moment of doing so.

Although faulty and rotten at its core, it worked well at the dawn of marketing, because “consumer” groups were separated geographically, they could not exchange information and stand up to big businesses and their sometimes-dishonest ways (hello, planned obsolescence!). Companies could manipulate demand by affecting cultural, societal norms (does “keeping up with the Joneses” ring a bell?) and leveraging supply. There was no need to account for people – caring for their consumerist sides was enough. Therefore, companies studied average consumer behaviour, defined common consumer types and aggregated data to spit out products of an okay quality in their siloed geographies.

Now fast forward to modern days. Amazon is testing delivery drones, wares cross continents on planes and ships within days, social networks keep all people connected, real-time communication and sites sticking to no-edit policy sift through and monitor all channels, making it difficult for any newsworthy information to escape attention, while the Internet collects mercilessly all this data and makes it available for generations to come.

With access to billions of gigabytes of data, people can research a product or company background very quickly efficient, and they are free to choose from an ever-increasing number of goods and services providers all over the globe. Businesses need to invest a lot of effort to be noticed… for all the right reasons.

It is a world-sized singles’ party out there, where several vendors flaunt their feathers and schmooze a single customer as much as they can, in the hope of “getting her number”. Suddenly, social finesse, the choice of topics and words matter. No one will want to talk with that obnoxious car sales guy in the corner, who’s only at the party to try to sell you a cheap, second-hand car, a “deal”, he calls it, and tends you his business card with his flimsy, sweaty first handshake before he even asks your name.

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1.2. Be more interesting: be more human

Modern brands are very anthropomorphic: they have social media accounts to “talk” with their audience, they host events and they have values, just like socialites in the human world. Inevitably, they have to develop skills to hold a conversation with members of the audience and to signal very clearly that they listen – something known as active listening among humans.

Business-to-audience communication is inevitably becoming more emotional and increasingly farther away from the “buy N product – get X points to your image of a good father or loving mother” dialogue formula of the XX century marketing. Nowadays businesses must engage in an immaterial exchange of values with the audience – an almost heart-to-heart, in order to achieve sales growth.

Sure, some may argue that conventional advertising of today proves that old principles are still standing strong, and to a certain extent, I would agree – people still buy stuff on a whim. That said, the existence of companies such as ‘Red Bull’ proves that engaging with the audience on an emotional level yields much more stability. Selling to people who genuinely believe in the awesome coolness of your brand is incomparably easier and more natural than trying desperately to convert random strangers, lured in by the flashiness of your banner ads and the sweet promises of your ad copy.

Who needs all that when you can whip out something like this or this on your site to generate headlines? That downhill gives me the shivers whenever I remember about it, man… Which I still occasionally do just because of the emotional charge that the video has given me.

 

What to make of it?

Over the last 80 years since the emergence of marketing, businesses learned very well to capture attention. First in print, TV and outdoor and now in digital, their ads successfully draw millions of eyes to products and persuade to click to websites. (if you do not think you are successful with that, it is time to contact Croud immediately!)

The wheel keeps on turning, though, and the attention is not enough anymore. As consumers become increasingly resistant to advertising and knowledgeable of tactics thereof, as the number of businesses increases, it is crucial to have “your” customers, with whom you connect through common interests and shared experiences. In turn, a sense of community around a brand will draw new customers in.

Every aspect of the site, every piece of content becomes a topic, which may help you win new customers/fans/friends:

product pages;

email unsubscribe pages;

terms and conditions pages.

 

You do not necessarily have to be funny – humour is just my personal pick for the communication style, which does wonders when done with taste. I am fully aware that sometimes it is best to avoid it. Luckily, there are plenty of other topics to explore: photos and beauty, cultural events, sports, “lists of cool stuff”, dreams, aspirations, other brands and so on.

Also, let us not forget the product itself as a source of inspiration. Explaining to visitors how products can be used, how they are made, how they work, providing cool stats on product usage or the audience – it all can be used as a base to build conversations with your audience and keep them returning for more. Just like it is with people, if a brand has substance, it will have its audience.

So regardless of whether you own a site to earn all the money in the world, to introduce some cool idea/product or to promote yourself, always:

  1. Do not be a salesman;
  2. Know your audience. 2013, the year of Big Data, happened 3 years ago, and by now, we should have at least some skill to learn about our audience;
  3. Research broadly and note what your audience is interested in, what they talk about. Keep a close eye on what they post, understand their reasoning and engage with them;
  4. Take note of what gets a response, and of what kind;
  5. Foster a sense of community: respond to comments, refer to past discussions with your audience and talk about what happens in the world  – often the best source of ideas for content is what you talk about with your audience.
  6. Be social on social: respond, react and share feelings and ideas.
  7. Treat every letter of every text on every page as an opportunity to win over hearts.
  8. Empathise with the consumer: build content that is interesting for people, not that is useful to you, and sales will follow.

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