The New Digital Landscape: The Role of Context in Moving From Mass Markets to Masses of Markets
In my last article, I discussed how the retail model which gave brands insight into their customers in the past has shifted. This has changed the demands placed on brands to show up in meaningful, personalized ways. The challenge presented was this: How can brands express themselves and message their products dynamically and continue to show up reliably without the intelligence they once had?
The short answer to this question is that brands must start by mastering context. As we move from “mass markets” to “masses of markets,” we must adopt new skills. In a mass marketplace, making the same thing with a high degree of consistency in both product and channel was the key to growth. In a “masses” marketplace, mastering the right context, and doing so quickly, matters more.
Context determines not just how brands show up, but where as well. Context exists as a consumer opportunity, but also the rules of the game for any specific channel. Amazon.com adjusts its on-site experience daily, if not hourly, all with the goal of continually ensuring its visitors find what they're looking for and click the "Buy" button. This reality requires brands to make adjustments to their content in line with these changes in order to appear higher in Amazon’s search rankings. Understanding the context of Amazon, how to win in an algorithm-driven environment, and being able to adjust/update your content often and well enough to show up according to what consumers expect and what will allow your brand to be found, is a critical part of the game.
As one example, when Salsify’s data science team analyzed the first page of results across more than 500,000 Amazon searches, product pages with more images outranked competitors with fewer images 53 percent of the time — a small but meaningful advantage over time. Other data shows that taking advantage of newer, richer content types (e.g., A+ content, comparison charts, video content) is also associated with higher sales rankings on Amazon. From a qualitative standpoint, we see higher-selling products using in-image text to better showcase product benefits, and brands experimenting more with 360 spins to potentially position themselves ahead of their competitors.
Brands need to keep up with all of this online, but imagine the in-store equivalent — having to change your product packaging and shelf display, plus in-store positioning, on a constant, ongoing basis. The main difference is if you fail to keep up by not supplying enough relevant, rich content to the retail channel, your product simply falls down search rankings and disappears from the “shelf.” We know that products that fall below the fold or on page two of a search result take weeks or months to catch up and be visible, whereas in a traditional retail environment all it takes for your product to “reappear” is a simple re-stocking of the product in-store.
Winning at Context in Masses of Markets
Let’s take another context example, social selling. Five of the last six brands I’ve purchased from recently showed up in my Facebook News Feed and expressed themselves to me in terms that mattered to me and my life. AWAY luggage expresses the size of its luggage in terms such as “small planes,” “big planes,” “two to three days away,” “five to seven days away,” etc. In AWAY's about section, instead of leading with quality and durability (which of course it does address), the founders say “we believe in making connections: on the road, online, and in person.” This luggage isn’t substantively different from other luggage like it in the market as it relates to technology, but the way in which the brand has added a level of personalization and relevance to the mix is remarkable. AWAY has mastered the social context selling, and what matters to me — connections, exploration, and packing for one to two days — rather than a specific dimension that I would need a tape measure to find meaningful.
Brands seeking to gain insights and visibility into customer behavior must look beyond traditional retail environments and focus on prioritizing and mastering the right contexts — i.e., where a consumer is and what they're doing, who they are and what they care about. Digital-native brands such as Casper have raised the bar in that regard. Having mastered online sales, they recognize that sometimes being able to touch the product makes all the difference. Casper has flipped its groundbreaking digital paradigm and opened stores offering people a chance to trial its mattress by taking a 45-minute nap. In fact, Casper is now selling its product in Target. Showfields, a “pop-up department store” in New York City that Forbes called “The World’s Most Interesting Store” houses digitally native brands in a physical store environment. Consumers can taste, touch and feel brands like quip and It's By U, and then choose to buy right there or order via a touchscreen and have the product delivered now, later or monthly.
Big brand manufacturers have something to learn from those that are extending and mastering multiple contexts, e.g. “masses of markets,” including collapsing the world of online and offline, and showing up in new, relevant ways that are neither entirely digital or analog, but smart, insightful combinations of both worlds. These strategies don’t involve abandoning the core business and moving to all digital all the time, but using the best of both worlds to master context and close the gaps.
It’s not necessary for brands to go it alone in this pursuit, however. Most brands should and will establish strategic partnerships to deliver these kinds of experiences. Joining forces with innovative organizations in the supply chain, technology or lifestyle space can better position your brand to meet and engage with customers throughout the course of their daily lives. Retail “mashups” where retailers pair up with other categories or traditionally non-retail physical spaces are on the rise. Recently, Kroger partnered with Walgreens to extend its bricks-and-clicks footprint. Kohl’s is experimenting with a Planet Fitness partnership; WeWork opened Made By We, a retail and co-working space; and many other retail players are considering strategic partnerships that enrich the lives of consumers and give them more options for providing value in the future.
A seasoning brand that partners with a healthy cooking blog, for example, will benefit more than if it established its own blog and put resources into curating its content. Likewise, a luxury cosmetics company that partners with high-end spas in key cities reaps the benefits of direct consumer engagement without the costs of securing its own pop-up locations. YSL even launched a “pop up” beauty hotel. Tapping into resources with established partners that already reach your customers position your brand to add value and create meaningful experiences that generate sales and loyalty.
Molly Schonthal is the vice president of strategy and innovation at Salsify, a product experience management platform.
Related story: Mastering Context: The New Digital Frontier
Molly Schonthal is the Vice President of Strategy and Innovation at Salsify, a product experience management platform.
Sitting at the intersection between digital innovation, marketing, e-commerce and technology, Molly has succeeded in mobilizing large organizations like Wrigley, Mars and Nokia around important opportunities, re-framing strategies taking the (technology-enabled) future into mind. Throughout her career, Molly has been a pioneer in connecting technology to business growth. At Mars, she built the first cross-functional (sales + marketing), cross-segment (confections, pet, food) technology roadmap and tripled funding for these initiatives in just under 3 years. Molly, once a Salisfy customer, now sits on the "other side of the table in her dream job, helping Salsify and its customers imagine the future and balance what’s needed with what’s next.