Mauria Finley is founder and CEO of Citrus Lane, a subscription e-commerce service geared toward parents, babies and kids. Follow her on Twitter @MauriaFinley.

The line between editorial content and marketing has never been thinner. Brands are telling their stories through content – creating and distributing articles, posts, photos and videos across social sites and via native ad placements. Or they’re going even further to become all-out publishers, in the way that Johnson & Johnson runs BabyCenter.com, for example.

Brand marketers have achieved success with content marketing. It allows them to connect with consumers and build ongoing brand engagement in an authentic way. But does content marketing work for the much more fundamental goal of getting consumers to buy stuff? As CEO of an e-commerce startup that uses a lot of content marketing to drive customer acquisition and sales, I think the answer is yes – but it isn’t easy.

As I found out through experience, when using content marketing, e-commerce companies must create a blend of posts, videos and articles that showcase products but don’t overtly push them. That’s a delicate balance to strike.

Consumers are smart. They will spot when content “reads like an ad” instead of being useful, interesting or engaging. There’s a big difference between a thoughtful article sponsored by Pampers that provides parents with valuable information to choose among cloth, compostable and regular diapers, and one that pushes Pampers as the best choice. Likewise, there’s a big difference between pinning photos of clothing you need to sell to clear inventory and pinning photos of trendy outfits young fashionistas will love.

So how can retailers get the content-meets-commerce formula right? From my experience, the single most important strategy is to start with commerce, then add content. Many retailers have attempted to create online communities of interest – such as sites for moms, fashionistas or financial wizzes. Once the community reaches a critical mass, the retailer tries to subtly sell its products to the members through posts and articles, assuming these marketing messages will be welcomed. More often than not, this switch leaves customers confused about the brand or feeling their core experience with the community has been violated. Both reduce trust, and where trust goes, so does spending.

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Instead, if retailers want to leverage content to spur commerce, they should create communities around products to begin with. This does not mean building glorified catalogs. Instead, the savvy retailer or e-commerce company creates content that showcases products in their natural environment and then invites consumers to share their human experiences with these goods. They can then use this feedback and ongoing dialogue to decide which products to showcase.

Consumers know when a retailer is putting one over on them through pushy content-marketing tactics. Instead of starting with content and then trying to force commerce into the mix, build a product-centered content-marketing program. Shoppers don’t want to feel tricked or marketed to; they just want useful information to make smart buying decisions.

Image via Shutterstock

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