Three steps to help brands connect digital content with in-store experience

It's important for brands to understand the growing alignment of our physical and digital retail experiences, write James Poletti, head of digital strategy, and John Viccars, shopper strategist, at RPM.

Brands are now adept at creating engaging digital content, but often neglect the integration of real world physical marketing such as in-store experience. Fortunately, emerging location-based technologies are helping to join the dots.

No longer a fringe sport, many brands now operate 24/7 digital content strategies, bringing audiences into their world like a media title firing the passions of readers across multiple publishing platforms. Think of the way Waitrose combines utility (recipes, shopping lists, wine matching) and customer publishing with its excellent iPhone app, all alongside magazines, vibrant social media communities and a YouTube (and now TV) channel helmed by celebrity chef ambassadors. Yet, Waitrose’s in-store content experience is a curiously "printed word" affair.

Where our digital and physical worlds align is, of course, mobile. According to L2 ThinkTank, mobile influence – not to be confused with m-commerce – is estimated to influence global sales of $689,000,000,000 by 2016. Plus, shoppers are increasingly using mobile in-store. A Cisco Study shows 8 out of 10 people already shop through "bits and bites". This existing and rapidly growing shopper behaviour is ripe for exploitation by brands. The opportunity is huge.

But there remains a disjuncture between shopper and shop in this behaviour. Hence the widely reported phenomenon of "showrooming", where shoppers jump online to find competitor pricing and recommendations. By treating showrooming as a threat, not an opportunity, retailers risk copying the music industry’s mistake of trying to stem an ultimately uncontrollable behavioural shift.

Imagine browsing wine aisles and receiving relevant tasting tips, or advice on building the perfect outfit when rifling through racks of Topshop.

Stores can already access tools that manage and enrich mobile user experiences. Apple’s impending iOS7 (currently in beta) includes a new Bluetooth feature that identifies a user's location within retail environments, triggering relevant alerts as they move around stores.

It’s a more sophisticated way of bringing the concept of location-triggered audio guides for galleries into the world of shopping. Imagine browsing wine aisles and receiving relevant tasting tips, or advice on building the perfect outfit when rifling through racks of Topshop. iOS7 unlocks a crucial opportunity to connect branded digital initiatives to real world physical environments.

Returning to the music analogy, online music has given consumers the contextual guidance that was lacking in old retail environments, like the intimidating old-school independent record shop. Liberated by digital, music shoppers have become more prolific, educated and engaged and are spending more in the live arena. Retailers can bring this model of discovery and crowd-sourced opinion to products that "feel" better in a high street outlet.

Along with Twitter’s nascent geo-located messaging, mobile technologies sharpen the blunted tool of NFC and lead us into a more sophisticated era of digital-on-the-go. What’s more, consumers are ready for it. Trendwatching’s "Point-Know-Buy" highlights consumers’ expectation for mobile to provide "instant visual gratification". French retailer Leclerc has been quick to identify these opportunities. Their highly effective price comparison campaign was extended to in-store via a smartphone app that lets customers scan products to quickly compare competitors’ prices.

We know purchase decisions can be heavily swayed in-store, so it’s imperative that brands keep up. But this doesn’t only apply to brands. Any "live" environment can benefit from mobile-enhanced online/offline integration: museums, zoos, shopping malls, high streets, pubs, sports stadiums… the list goes on.

So we know the right shopper behaviour already exists (shoppers use mobiles and are hungry for enhanced experiences) and the technology is coming (thanks to the likes of Apple and Twitter). But what’s less defined is "how":

Step one: Create content stories rooted in brand DNA. We are well versed in the principles here: "flow" not "stock" content, create loyal and engaged audiences by being open and culturally attuned. Like Burberry breaking down barriers of the fashion cognoscenti to give social fans upfront access to collections, the best practitioners reward community loyalty.

Step two: Seamlessly match content to real world environments. This can be achieved by piggybacking on existing mobile behaviours: 84% of mobile shoppers now use phones to help with shopping in physical stores. Look for opportunities that bridge between customer and product, in the way that audio guides bring together audiences and exhibitions.

Step three: Know the consumer’s mind, mood and mode. Focus on "just in time" interactions that give consumers exactly what they want, exactly when they want it; like telling them about alternative alcohol offers as they hit the drinks aisle. But it’s a delicate balance. Bombarding consumers with too much information is counter-productive. Ensure content is spot-on relevant and use on-going user experience testing as guidance.

Digital has already fundamentally changed how we shop. And it’s a change that will only deepen as technologies like iOS7 develop. If brands want to lead creative content solutions and define new consumer behaviours, they must embrace the growing alignment of our physical and digital experiences.

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