Online Shop Trend Narrative Retailing: How Content Marketing is said to Optimize Shopping

Narrative Retailing

Everyone is talking about a new term, which could be the start of the next ecommerce hype: narrative retailing. It was first mentioned at South by Southwest (SXSW) was picked up by the German trade magazine W&V. What does it mean? We will show you how especially e-shops with associated corporate blog can profit from the trend.

Content marketing is – very simply put – marketing products and services through storytelling. By offering entertaining education and useful, practical facts, which the people can’t get from other (online) sources, you grab the reader’s interest and make them “want more” – that’s the theory. The focus is not on your own products, but on non-supplier specific solutions. It’s not about pure self-adulation like in the days of Marketing 1.0, it’s about offering valuable content to potential clients.

For experienced bloggers, this is old news. They have always been working with stories of various kinds without giving it much thought. That is why especially bloggers who want to add an online shop to their blog should have no difficulties with this trend.

Narrative Retailing in Theory and in the Real World

The approach of narrative retailing is similar to content marketing, but with a stronger focus on entertainment. Basically, it‘s an attempt to recreate the offline shopping experience of the old days, which was based on interactions with good salespersons and shop owners. Back then, “Mom and Pop” made the consumer buy the more expensive, but better-tasting jar of pickles. Today, this is left to the text or multimedia-based content of the e-shop and – ideally – corresponding blog entries.

Here are a few (German-Based) examples – some of which originate from the current discussion around content marketing etc. – to illustrate this:

Narrative Retailing Example: The Fashion Manufacture
How are suits made? Lots of narrative retailing formats start in a similar way.

What you can’t really see in the screenshot (the original entry of the manufacture can be seen here) is that the text and images explain in a witty and friendly way the difference between choosing a hand-me-down suit or a custom-made one from the almost forgotten haberdasher without sounding promotional.

Surely, the blog entry is not perfect, especially in terms of design or SEO, but its glimpse behind the scenes is a good example for the principle of narrative retailing as a useful instrument for online shop owners from all industries: offering the reader (and search engines) something special. Something that grabs the reader’s interest with the right text and pictures. Narrative retailing is supposed to surprise and offer new knowledge. This increases the chance of the reader actually immerse himself in the texts instead of just scanning them.

Better Product Descriptions, Meta Information etc.

You don’t always need whole entries to complement your internet shop. You can also make your shop more interesting with simple but creative product descriptions, which gives you several advantages:

  1. The potential costumer can create a mental image of the product and sort of “try it out” and think about the situation as if he already owned the product.
  2. The result is not like the manufacturer’s interchangeable product descriptions that can be found on hundreds of websites, have no unique features, don’t answer specific questions and make a shop appear boring and generic.
  3. You also give search engines more content to work with as well as special niche terms (keywords). This gives your shop better presence in Search Engine Result Pages, (SERPs).

The soft factors explained above are constantly gaining importance for buyers considering the huge competition of similar shops. You may even be able to break the costumer’s habit of looking only for the cheapest bargains if you have good content: some costumers may trust the likeable blog and shop team and the numerous customer reviews more than the unknown and only slightly cheaper provider X. Other factors are detailed product descriptions, which may feel like actual counseling to the customer or details that even the manufacturer does not name. It is always worthwhile to test the products you are offering yourself and find out about their qualities.
 
Tip: You might have to get the manufacturer’s permission or feedback for this. Also always remember not to include any unrealistic content or comparisons to competitors. This might cause you expensive legal issues. If you’re not sure, it’s best to get legal counseling by someone who specializes in online shops.
 
Good texts telling a story are not only useful for products. For example, only few online shops have detailed category descriptions like this one (seen here at pinkmilk.de):

Creative Shop Category Description
Category areas can have interesting content, too.

This way, you can direct the search engines’ attention to the category pages of a shop, if that’s what you want. You don’t even need much prose: in the example, it’s just simple but coherent texts with a personal note that reach the desired effect.
 
SEO Tip: Google and other search engines don’t like different pages and sub-categories of a website or a blog having the exact same content (see the so called Duplicate Content Problem).

With WordPress, you can easily allocate different widget blocks containing text and other content for categories, tags, pages etc. The Widget Logic plugin is one proven and tested way of doing that, which for example lets you individually chose the information in the sidebar.
 

From Online Shop to Shopping Assistant

You can also easily create small text-based shopping assistants using WordPress blog features without having to code complicated configuration tools. I found a very nice example for these customer-friendly features in this shop:

Narrative Narrative Retailing in Fashion
Narrative Retailing in Fashion

You can see the original here, although it uses another CMS (Content Management System) than WordPress. (PS: Don’t be surprised, parts of the displayed text fell victim to a blotted internationalization of the shop.)

Of course, this is just the beginning of narrative retailing. In online shops that fully embrace the new ecommerce trend, it is often very hard to tell the difference between magazine and shop. Interactive content, additional video material and the products themselves are intertwined in a way that the potential client experiences a smooth transition from guide text to shopping cart.
 
This brings us to the (legitimate) criticism that narrative retailing will definitely draw. If content with editorial appearance is more or less secretly aimed at product sales, the lines between information and manipulation begin to blur. Current discussions about the advertorial trend “native advertising” or covered advertising in big online news sites show that parts of the blogosphere and readers are getting more and more sensitive towards this kind of influence.

Transparent introduction as online shop owner or employee – in the form of detailed, public author profiles in the corresponding blog, for example –ensures unambiguous communication. See the advice at the end of the blog.
 

Blog as the Ideal Medium for Narrative Retailing

A blog is perfect to experiment with narrative retailing approaches with simple CMS means. German clothing retailer Otto‘s “Two for Fashion” blog for example – which was created with WordPress – is publishing more and more posts in storytelling format:

 Before-After Story as Narrative Approach
A Before-After Story from the Two for Fashion Otto Blog

In this case, however, blog elements are generously mixed with YouTube and Facebook content. The success – measurable in blog comments and social signals (Likes and Shares on Facebook, Twitter etc.) is still varying. It remains to be seen, to what extent narrative ecommerce formats will actually become accepted. In some industries, like fashion and lifestyle, it seems to be easier to tell stories that get the necessary attention and reach, but even a technology shop will surely profit from high-quality content.
 
Note: As it is the case with all trends, the first ones to adapt a new content format may establish a unique feature with long-term effect.
 
But there is also another side of the coin. After all, narrative retailing is not “free”: the effort to create and maintain the stories is often considerable. Sometimes, however, you can count on the support of your own customers. They are the ones who tell the best stories, as you can see in the following crowd content of a well-known DIY store chain:

Obi Costumer Blog
Here, the blog entries are from the customers themselves

Not particularly well designed, but honest and with the guarantee that the proud author’s friends will do their best to share and spread the entry. The blog behind this entry, which gives do-it-yourselfers the chance to show off their projects and tutorials, can be found here.

Those interested in innovative ecommerce content marketing, should have a close look at the startup scene and their online shops and blogs. The founders there usually have a much more relaxed and authentic way of telling constructive stories. Even seemingly unnecessary details like the right design of the shop categories (“Mädelsabend” or “Hausputz” in the following example) can be an essential distinction, as you can see at Emmas Enkel:

Online Shop Example Emmas Enkel
Here is how Narrative and Diverse an Online Shop can be

The outdoor industry (Example: Cleanest Line Patagonia Blog) as well as cosmetics companies (Example: Nivea’s multimedia-based tutorials) give further examples of how product content can be wrapped nicely without seeming pushy or promotional.

Five Pieces of Advice for Narrative Telling

To wrap it up, here is some advice so the narrative retailing experiment can work out as well and sustainable as possible:

  • Narrative retailing content is even less calculated and optimized for search engines than “regular” blog entries, but it is still important to think about what your potential clients might actually be interested in and which specific pieces of content can be utilized or add value. Listening closely to all channels of customer contact (support, sales, bricks and mortar sales if applicable) can be a huge help. That is why even employees who don’t contribute to the content should be educated and included in a corporate blog project to constantly get new material for new stories.
  • Subsequent evaluation is just as important: is there material for new entries in the comments (Important: Promptly respond to comments and dig deeper with your own comments, like when there are questions included or implied)? Who shares and likes my entry via social media and what conclusions can be drawn regarding my actual target group? Is the entry picked up by other media and bloggers and can this kind of success be repeated? Answering these questions will improve your social media strategy step by step.
  • In general, input from the outside should always be considered. The shop or blog team develops ideas in their own glasshouse and often forget about actual problems and customer questions. If you put a lot of love and effort into content that no reader is interested in, you most probably notice the difference between the inside and outside perspective. The solution: inclusion of outsiders and people without technical knowledge and customers in your editorial process.
  • Narrative retailing relies on the experience of the shop owners. The personality factor is very important here. To make an authentic impression, the content should be written by the shop owners themselves or by employees who are close to the owners and the subject matter. Of course, full names should be disclosed along with as a short resume, photo, links to (appropriate) social media profiles and a direct way of contact (email). Native retailing is barely suited for outsourcing to a content provider, as they simply lack the necessary passion.
  • No matter if you sell your own products or others: simple praise is not enough to gain the potential customer’s trust. Of course you have to stand behind the goods and services you offer, but a straightforward explanation of advantages as well as limitations of a product is usually much better received by critical consumers. Here is an abstract example: when shopping on Amazon, you trust the product with many top ratings but also some critical reviews more than another with nothing but 5-star ratings. This does not mean that praise and criticism should be used with calculation, but the “honest” blog post will always be recognized and appreciated as such.

Can you see yourself using more shop content formats like narrative retailing in the future? What is your content strategy? Do you have questions about the new trend? We’re looking forward to your comments on this post.
 
Cover picture: © VadimSherbakov

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Editor at MarketPress. Passionate blogger, corporate blog expert and book author (e.g. "Blog Boosting"). Co-organizer of WP Camp Berlin.

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