With the back-to-school season upon us, retailers are struggling to stand out in the digital world. It’s getting harder for brands to differentiate themselves without being borderline abusive to consumers. Let’s face it, most of what’s being done in digital today is being overdone. Efficacy is failing, so marketers are focusing on efficiency to do more with less when really, less is more.
Yes, ads need to get attention, but attention should never come at the expense of user experience. Good marketers and good brands should know that, and insist that good user experience is never sacrificed. That means no pop-ups, no page takeovers and no forced video. “Capturing attention” should never be disrespectful or disruptive and yet, it so often is.
Marketers, it comes down to this: Stop doing bad things. It makes your brand look bad, and there are consequences to your actions. Instead, make a good impression with good marketing.
Retailers Flunk Online
This is especially important for retail marketers, who need to ensure a positive brand experience from that “Zero Moment of Truth” right through to the in-store or online purchase and beyond. While retailers will frequently own that their biggest failure is poorly trained in-store staff, it can be argued that every one of their digital touchpoints fails as badly or worse. There seems to be no respectful or meaningful way to gain consumer attention online.
Most retailer ads are direct response ads that ask consumers to take some action — buy now, subscribe now, something like that. Following current online practices, retailers will frequently cookie and retarget consumers who click through and visit their site, assuming there’s some interest or some level of qualification since that user has clicked. A consumer will see ads for the product they clicked on, sometimes at a discount, wherever they go online for weeks after that initial click.
But ask yourself this: What are the odds that those retargeted ads are situationally relevant after that first touch? If a consumer is engrossed in the day’s news or catching up with friends and family online, how likely are they to click on your ad and buy your product in that moment? Outside of sponsored search ads — which address an entirely different behavior — what are the odds that the consumer who shopped your site last week will stop what they’re doing and purchase the instant your ad is shown? The fact is, 99.99 percent of consumers won't convert.
Show Some Respect
Consumers are sick of your disrespectful ads, and that’s part of the problem. They may also be creeped out by the fact that you’re following them around the web with an ad that features the exact product they shopped for in your store. Surely it would be less unsettling to pick a segment of related products instead. Consider, too, that you may have better luck with email, which they can read or even print at their convenience, or search, which is situationally relevant.
You can talk about data, signals and customer journeys all you want, but at the end of the day, these are people and families you’re dealing with, and they’re not going to buy things just because you bombard them with ads. Trying to force them into a transaction is shortsighted and small-minded — and it probably does more harm than good both to your odds of converting that consumer, and to your brand.
So, what can you do instead? How about trying to build relationships with consumers? How about trying to help them, rather than bullying them into a purchase? Focus on nurturing. Offer subtle, casual, respectful reminders. Let them know you’re there for them when they need you or when they're ready to purchase.
When you take out the abuse and the waste, you open up more opportunities. That’s when marketers can find ways to start or continue dialogues with consumers who may be interested based on who you are as a brand, what the products are and what time of year it is. Then, you can allow the consumer to do what they’re best at — deciding what they want and purchasing it. You’re not going to force that behavior by slapping them in the face with display ads.
That may be hard for retailers to swallow, particularly in seasons like back-to-school — and holidays which are just around the corner — when inventory is in short supply and sales goals are higher than ever. However, these seasonal events come with a lot of lead time, so there are months during which marketers could be learning about who their consumers are and how their situations predispose them to take action.
Help Instead of Hound
Not every touchpoint has to be a forceful attempt to transact. Brands could, instead, provide helpful content. A marketer who studies parents in the months leading up to back-to-school will know that there are universal concerns that face nearly all of them: What will make my child more productive and efficient when they go back to school? What will make them happier or less stressed during the school year? How can I keep them safer?
Retailers that can provide content around these (and similar) parental pain points will start to build trust and relationships, and eventually drive more sales. Rather than pushing deals on pencils and rulers, offer ideas about how better breakfasts improve focus, how taking movement breaks can reduce stress and how important it is to turn the kids’ screens off 15 minutes before bed. Offer products that are outside of the typical August shopping list to support the themes of your content.
It’s not the easiest task for marketers. It’s tough to stand out in digital as it is, and even the largest display ads can’t fit a full article or make shoppers read them. But it’s high time marketers started using more respectful and more creative tactics to win customers online. Some display and email still works, some of the time. So does search, print, radio and direct mail to name a few. There are still lots of ways to engage consumers. Stop thinking about clicks and start thinking about people — the parents who actually do the clicking. It’s time we started applying the golden rule to our marketing efforts and bring consumer respect back to the forefront.
Lewis Gersh is the CEO of PebblePost, a provider of programmatic direct mail based on real-tim online activity.