eTail East 2016, Day 1: For Retailers, Shareable Content Is More Important Than Ever

BOSTON — In today's social, mobile, influencer-led world, customers hold substantial power to advocate for companies and sway peer spending habits, so retailers should invest in brand-building materials that can be distributed and monetized, speakers stressed on day one of this year's eTail East conference at the Sheraton hotel.

Andy Wiedlin, executive in residence at Andreessen Horowitz, and former chief revenue officer at BuzzFeed, said that the No. 1 determinant of an e-tailer's success is its brand reputation, and a strong rep can be created through shareable content. In fact, Wiedlin said, "if you’re going after a millennial audience, and you're going after them in a mobile environment, then it's probably more efficient to create on-brand content—whether it's videos, or lists, or quizzes—that your consumers will actually engage with and share with their friends," than it is to invest exclusively in static, traditional ad channels such as print, TV, and radio.

Ilana Rabinowitz, vice president of marketing and product development at the Lion Brand Yarn company, agreed, saying that "today, advertising is not terribly effective." The textile provider stands out from competitors not in terms of product but rather by the stories it spreads among customers, Rabinowitz said. In the mid-90s, when Target decided to sever its relationship with Lion Brand, the company discovered through research that its appeal rested in the pattern instructions it supplied with the yarn. Understanding this, it decided to shift its focus to marketing.

Rabinowitz demonstrated the ways in which social media and original content from influencers has stimulated loyalty and awareness among customers, ultimately driving their purchase decisions. In recent years, the company has dipped heavily into creating original how-to videos and its own blogs, as well as reaching out to independent bloggers to speak on the brand's behalf. It has formed a number of partnerships with influencers to strengthen its reputation, among them "yarnbomb" artist London Kaye, who covered a Times Square billboard with Lion Brand yarn to promote Miller Lite. Similarly, an independent blogger, Kristy Glass, participated in a holiday countdown campaign leading up to Christmas, each day posting a new crochet pattern gift-idea video. Drawing on such examples, Rabinowitz encouraged attendees to heavily use social media to educate, entertain, inspire, and connect customers.

Steven Leeds, senior vice president of marketing at Systemex, and a former writer for CollegeHumor’s Funny or Die videos, shared a similar message, pointing to case studies from the electronics retailer TigerDirect to underscore the potential ROI of viral videos. The company, originally a pure online player, collaborated with YouTube stars to create awareness regarding its physical stores. In one video, Rhett and Link created an "Epic Rap Battle" between a "geek" and a "nerd," in one of TigerDirect's physical stores. "That video was wildly successful," Leeds said, pointing out that on its first day it appeared on the front page of YouTube. According to Leeds, the video cost $50,000 to make and yielded a return of $200 million in earned media.

Leeds outlined some of the reasons he believes people share content, including the innovative, inspirational, incentive, and emotional qualities behind them. He pointed to a number of brands that have done this successfully, including Lexus, who innovated by creating the world's first hoverboard (which it didn't intend to sell); WestJet, whose Real-Time Giving Christmas campaign could be perceived as inspirational; Doritos, who each year invites customers to create a Super Bowl ad, encouraging participants to share their submissions on social media to earn votes; and the Dollar Shave Club, a company recently acquired for $1 billion thanks in part to its humorous "Our Blades Are F***ing Great" online video.

Leeds encouraged companies to similarly leverage YouTube, which is now the world's second-largest search engine behind Google and, he said, represents "the future of marketing." He outlined the factors that contribute to a video’s rankings on the video-sharing site: the video's title (hyperbole is highly encouraged), its descriptions, and its calls to action, which instruct users to like, comment, and subscribe. "People are your distribution network," Leeds said. "The more views and shares that you get, the higher the value you're going to get from your videos."

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