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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

Content and commerce: just how related are they?

February 12, 2016 | By Brandon Carter, Content Marketing Specialist—Outbrain

Without knowing you very well, I’d be willing to guess you split a majority of leisure time online between two activities: sifting through content and flirting with ordering something online. I know I do…

We’re constantly clicking in and out of content. Just about every search result that isn’t an ad points to an article containing the information we seek. The article itself is surrounded by even more links pointing to more content. Our social feeds are basically news feeds, at this point. The sites we visit out of habit usually include a few blogs. Somehow, at some point during the day, we end up on YouTube. And I haven’t even mentioned “Netflix and chill” or Spotify.

Then there’s Amazon. Should we just designate one tab that’s always open for Amazon so we can get literally whatever our heart desires at the click of a mouse?

We spend so much time doing both, brands are trying to figure out how to leverage one to drive the other (we sometimes refer to this practice as content marketing. Heard of it?). Well doing so first requires an understanding that browsing content and browsing products are very similarly behaviors.

When people are browsing—whether it’s a bookstore, online retail, or their Facebook feed—they’re subconsciously waiting to come across something that catches their attention. Something that makes them stop in their tracks for a second because it’s intriguing. Their curiosity is piqued.

And it turns out the same triggers appear across a range of experiences: the element of surprise and the element of familiarity.

Two sides of the same coin
The element of surprise makes sense as a trigger. To be surprised is to be awakened out of our daily slumber by something we deem remarkable.

In the bookstore example, we might stop in our tracks purely because a book cover strikes us as remarkable. Since we didn’t know it existed before we saw it, we’re surprised, and then intrigued. For at least a few seconds, we want to know more.

In digital content, the remarkable often announces itself in a headline. Sometimes, it’s a fraction of a headline, like trending keywords on Twitter. It’s easy to make fun of the kinds of headlines we’re talking about, but then again, we all continue to engage with, laugh at, and share them with our friends.

In fact, the magnet that draws us to the sites that form our daily habits—the Facebooks, Twitters, Buzzfeeds, CNNs—is usually this expectation of surprise. We know we’re going to see different stories or items every time, we just don’t know what they’ll be. The cycle becomes familiar… and it’s one we’re quite happy to repeat.

It turns, out this is an incredibly natural intersection for commerce to enter into.

For what is eCommerce if not the art of piquing curiosity and then removing all barriers to exploration until the clicks turn into a sale?

Inducing curiosity
One of the first jobs in eCommerce is to induce curiosity about the product for sale. And one of the best ways to do that is to eliminate any barriers to curiosity.

Those barriers would be things like a site that looks cluttered or disorganized and tends to overwhelm consumers. Or a site that looks 20 years old and turns people off as soon as they enter.

As the business owner, you ensure some basics: You make sure your site is welcoming and modern-looking. You have your products appear against a white background to really make the products pop off the page. You merchandize them in an orderly fashion on a grid. You don’t want them to appear cluttered, so you leave a decent amount of white space around each product. You make the navigation really simple but descriptive so people can browse in an informed way.

eCommerce shares all these principles in common with engaging content; you want it to be welcoming, you want it to look modern, you leave plenty of white space, and you use simple but descriptive navigation to keep people engaged when they’re ready for the next piece of information. That includes “recommended” items as well.

If you think about it, recommendations are really just a way to navigate to the next page in an informed way. In eCommerce, that finds expression in, “You just looked at this item, so you might be even more interested in this similar item you didn’t know I had.” And in the content world, that finds expression in, “Because you watched that on Netflix, you might want to watch this tonight.” The recommendation engine’s job is take what you’ve familiarized yourself with and turn it into the next surprise.

For that reason, just about every page of every eCommerce site should be equipped with this recommendation mechanism. It keeps people interested. It delivers surprise. And it becomes a familiar part of the consumer journey.

If a user lands on your blog, suggest a product relevance (even if there isn’t an obvious one). Point them to an even better blog post. Use your newsletter as a curated cross-section of both your content and your products. Repeatedly. Until it becomes a familiar surprise for your audience.

Given the opportunity, your customers may yet surprise with how they respond.


Brandon Carter is a Content Specialist at Outbrain (@brandedcarter @Outbrain). He began his career as a staff journalist for the Maine weekly ‘The Coastal Journal’ before moving to New York and joining the product licensing divisions of Peanuts Worldwide and Sesame Workshop.

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