Some observations on Content Marketing derived from visits to San Francisco's Chinatown.
When I used to live in the United States, I used to travel to San Francisco for conferences and meetings once or twice per year. I arranged those trips so I would have time to enjoy the city a bit. I like to travel to cities and explore neighborhoods via walking and public transport, whenever possible. San Francisco offered those opportunities, so I had a chance to enjoy many of the things ‘the locals’ enjoy, plus some of the more touristy areas that have a charm of their own even though the majority of visitors are from out of town. One of these areas is the San Francisco Chinatown.
There are a lot of shops in the SF Chinatown. Many of them sell the very same items and Chinese-style ornaments, statuary, toys, small gifts, and other items. Often, these stores stand side by side or across the street from each other. The target audience for them is composed of ‘people from out of town, visiting for a few days or perhaps hours, who want to take home a little ‘something’ from Chinatown so they can talk about it to their friends and/or remind themselves of their time in San Francisco.’ For many of these visitors, San Francisco may be a stop in a ‘trip of a lifetime,’ part of a ‘bucket list’ item for a trip to California, or simply part of their ‘get to know America’ from places like China itself and other parts of Asia.
The competition among shopkeepers to attract customers, one would think, is fierce. Since the target audience is not exposed to their wares on a regular basis, the only part of their business that is likely to win a customer is how the store presents itself: what ‘vibe’ it projects, and whether it feels accessible. The purpose of the arrangement is to inspire trust for the visitor who is browsing a store to check it out.
This situation is very similar to what we find when shopping online. A search engine results page reduces our entire online presence to a ‘bazaar’ setup that makes all of us shopkeepers in a tight environment, struggling to entice someone to click through to our store and engage with us.
Content marketing is the tool we use to stick out in the ‘bazaar’ of search engine results and a way to make it count for us is to ensure it is helpful in the task of creating a leads magnet while at the same time contributing to the overall value of the store’s presence, the ‘vibe’ that can bring people into the shop and have them leave with a purchase and a story, which create an experience that they want to tell others once they have returned home.
In the case of the physical stores in Chinatown, this ‘content-driven marketing’ is done via decoration and interior design (or merchandising, if you want to use the precise term): certain stores just look and feel more interesting and attractive than others. How do they do it? Some bring unusual wooden sculptures, that are not for sale, into the store. These could be dragons, or special images of the Buddah, or some type of large flower arrangement that is striking and serves as the ‘lead magnet’ to bring people exploring into their space. The authenticity, strong detailing, and just impressive character of these unique items bleeds over the other items in the store that are for sale, therefore creating an aura of value for a visitor. The presence of unique items is also an invitation to photograph, or learn the story of the item, which helps cement the experience for the visitor.
Other stores take the time to write explanatory notes about the cultural aspect of the items for sale, to help create a ‘buy something and take it home together with its story’ situation. Patrons who have a chance to read something and perhaps chat with someone at the store about it are more likely to not just purchase, but also remember and mention the experience to their friends.
Yet others use their merchandising literally and cleanly with the mission of delivering items for sale for people who are just curious to come in: These stores feel like a clean and easy to navigate bazaar of merchandise, properly arranged and priced, and inspire confidence via transparency. They try to emulate a store a visitor would find at home, and by bridging that gap with familiarity, they hope to entice those who want a small ‘something’ to take back home but don’t want to work too hard to get it.
For some stores, like a Chinese apothecary, the intention will be to show as strong Chinese culture as possible with as little ‘give’ toward the clientele from out of town as they can get away with. Transparency is the last thing they want to project. They need to project authenticity as their main value: If you are looking for a Chinese herbalist, you want one who is steeped deeply into Chinese culture and whose shop has all the signs in Chinese, without translation. Not only does this feel a little intimidating to a casual visitor, but it enhances the thrill of a visit for someone who is willing to let themselves be challenged by the experience. Not everyone will be willing to buy herbs or potions at a Chinese apothecary, but those who venture in will experience a unique, well coordinated, ‘content-marketing’ approach that will feel authentic.
As with the stores that sell more ‘visitor-friendly’ products, a Chinese apothecary creates value just by having someone walk through it once. The number of interesting unique items, even those not for sale, the interaction with a ‘culture’ that is not your own, and the small thrill of exploring a commercial situation that is very different from what you normally find at home, all contribute to make the ‘content driven’ expression for each type of small shop a valuable part of the business. They help make sales by making each store explore and present a unique angle and so feel authentic. Most shoppers associate ‘authenticity’ with ‘honesty and veracity,’ so these are good goals for the ‘content marketing’ approach.
There is another type of ‘content marketing, however, that is also on show at some stores in the San Francisco Chinatown. That would be the eternal ‘going out of business’ sale.
If the target audience for a shop is composed of people who are unlikely to come back any time soon, then one way to entice people into the shop is with a ‘bargain of a lifetime’ approach. One way to project this out onto the street is via a sign that says: ‘Going out of business.’ This automatically implies to anyone passing by that the store will have discounted items inside to avoid having inventory once the store finally disappears.
For many visitors, even those who walked through Chinatown without any clear intention to buy anything, the potential ‘bargain of a lifetime’ is a difficult gamble to resist. They may be able to find something big and obscure that they can buy relatively cheaply, take home, and tell others about how they took advantage of the opportunity when it presented itself. Every time they look at the object, they will reassure themselves that, not only did they purchase something they can be proud of (vs. a useless trinket from any seller out there), but they did so under circumstances that cannot be repeated: the store is going out of business, after all. No one can go back to San Francisco now and repeat the experience they went through. In other words, by being time-sensitive, it acquires an authenticity of its own.
However, if you, like me, happened to return to Chinatown on a regular basis, but many months apart, you may have noticed that the very same store that was going out of business last year, is still going out of business this year...again!
The ploy is exposed: if you were to know the detail about how the store keeps going out of business all the time, then the purchase, for a visitor, loses all the trappings of authenticity as part of a ‘purchase with a story.’ It merely becomes a transaction, and not a very good one at that, since the ‘discounts’ you can get from a ‘going out of business’ sale are usually the same ones you can get at any other store that is less time-challenged to move its inventory.
Worse, if someone a purchaser knows also buys something at that store, and they share stories, the obvious will come out: no one was going out of business, and they both fell for a pitch that just wanted their money. The item they bought will now not reflect their savvy or their ingenuity. It will represent to them something that was part of a cheat. Likely, the purchase will end up in a basement, or sold at the next garage sale. Out of sight, out of mind.
That type of ‘content marketing’ works as a sales driver, but it depends on single purchases, not repeat business (you can hardly expect repeat business if you say you are going out of business).
This is a risk shared by using time-driven marketing for online stores. It works for certain types of customers, usually, single purchase customers, but does not encourage multiple purchases simply because the target audience would not invite that kind of approach: they derive value from being opportunistic, not from being steady purchasers with a relationship with a brand.
If you rely on limited time sales or coupons to push forward business, you are encouraging opportunism as the main driver of a purchase which is not conducive to regular business and may harm your prospects over time (your customers tell each other to ‘wait for the sale’ to come before you purchase anything). The regularity of the discounting is what they end up looking for, and they abandon you if they find something else that is similar, may cost more, and provides them with a different type of story to tell.
Consider these items when you think about content marketing for your online store, and particularly, with email messaging, which is one of the best ways to bring out your ‘vibe’ to your customers on a regular basis.
Daniel Loebl is an experienced Marketer focused on expanding the recognition of customer value inside a business and keeps a 'beginner's' mind approach to business problems.