Posted on

Marketing Online: Rock solid tips on connecting (virtually) with customers

This FCNews Marketing Online series, sponsored by 3M, is designed to help retailers build their social media presence and, by extension, strengthen the connection with consumers.

November 21/28, 2016: Volume 31, Number 12

By Leah Gross

screen-shot-2016-11-28-at-4-04-19-pmThere is no doubt that digital marketing is the new way of doing business. In order to be relevant in today’s crowded marketplace retailers must have a sound online marketing strategy. The rise of the online revolution has completely changed the way retailers run their stores and attract, connect with and maintain their customer base. How well retailers navigate the digital terrain will no doubt determine their future success.

The good news is retailers have more control than ever before over their customer relationships—thanks to the power of digital marketing. “Online marketing is part of our overall strategy for reaching new customers and staying in touch with existing ones,” said Dean Howell, owner of Moda Floors & Interiors, Atlanta. “Online marketing can be cost-effective, tailored to a specific audience and easily changed when needed. Best of all, it can be tracked.”

Moda Floors & Interiors sends periodic newsletters to three separate audiences: clients, trade partners and local real estate agents. These communications often include information about sales, the company and its employees, as well as new product introductions. “We often include online links to articles they might find helpful,” Howell added. “If Moda has been mentioned or quoted in an article, we will also include that information.”

Other business-savvy retailers are also putting more emphasis on digital marketing. Eric Langan, president and owner of Carpetland USA, Davenport, Iowa, believes digital marketing is just as important—in terms of media platforms—as traditional outlets such as radio, print and direct mail. “It’s evident that individuals shop entirely different than they did a decade ago,” he said. “You must have an online presence and a strong website to engage the consumer. More times than not, the vast majority of the window shopping is done online prior to visiting the storefront.”

screen-shot-2016-11-28-at-4-04-09-pmThat’s not to say retailers should disregard the importance of designing a storefront that has great curb appeal. On the contrary, retailers should consider their website as the digital extension of their store and showroom, experts say. “No one can deny the importance of a beautiful storefront, but that lovely store only goes so far when your customers constantly tune into tiny, powerful devices that instantaneously deliver the information they need to live their lives,” said digital marketing guru Christine Whittemore, chief simplifier, Simple Marketing Now LLC. “The content on your website is the online equivalent of your salespeople. Its purpose is to initiate and carry on the trust building process between your business and your buyer. The content on your website should virtually pull people in and provide the hand-holding service that a professional would offer in your store.”

Many experts agree today’s consumers are trained to qualify a product or business online before ever going into a store. To that end, it is vital that a retailer’s website operate as an extension of the brand. “It should offer a voice that is consistent with the overall brand image of the brick and mortar store, and the content should be presented in a clear easy to navigate, visually appealing and educational format,” Whittemore explained.

Developing a cohesive, effective digital marketing strategy is particularly important when it comes to big-ticket purchases such as home improvement projects. Advocates cite statistics showing the more expensive the product the longer the buying process takes. “Not all customers come to your website or your store ready to buy the same day,” said Whittemore, who brings 23-plus years of experience with brand building in the flooring, home furnishings and apparel industries. “Flooring decisions can take up to six months, which is why having a sound digital marketing strategy to maintain a relationship with your customer throughout the process is critical. You must ensure your business remains at the top of the customer’s mind through the whole process. If you don’t, the months of time and money you invested in the customer may very well be lost.”

Back to basics
In most cases, when retailers ask where they should spend their online marketing budgets, their first response is in a rock-solid website. Email marketing and social media are important, according to Whittemore, but it is more important to start at the most critical element of your online program—your URL—and prioritize from there. She believes a retailer’s website represents an opportunity to augment credibility and enhance customer relationships. “Your digital storefront demands every bit of the TLC that you give to your store,” she said. “Not only should your website offer engaging content that attracts customers and brings them back for more, but it also must be mobile friendly so your customer has the same experience on your site no matter what type of device they are using.”

Therein lies the challenge for many retail web sites: updating platforms to ensure URLs are more “responsive,” meaning they render seamlessly on a variety of mobile devices. This is critical, experts say, as mobile readiness is also a key element of Google’s search rank algorithm. “So if you are not mobile-ready then you’re losing an opportunity to get higher search engine rankings and more engagement with your target customers,” Whittemore explained.

One of the most important features a retailer’s website should have is the ability to capture emails from people who visit. Experts stress the value of being able to continue communicating with prospective customers and keep the relationship going. “Remember, you want to keep that relationship going throughout the entire buying process,” Whittemore stated. “Email marketing campaigns are the Holy Grail because this is [the retailer’s] direct line of communications with the customers who come to your store. As wonderful as social media is, your ultimate goal is to get people to come to or back to your property. If you connect with them via email you can continue to talk to them.”

The email address of a consumer who is actively in the market to buy product is golden. “With this you can continue the romance, as they say,” Whittemore said. “These consumers volunteered their personal information because they are interested in your business, so you owe it to them and to your company to do something compelling.”

At the end of the day, a retailer’s email campaign is all about relationship building. To ensure retailers get the most out of their digital marketing efforts, Whittemore strongly encourages a little creativity. Rather than limiting online communications to selling floors, she suggests sending birthday greetings or coupons. Offering out-of-the-box opportunities is another idea. “Find things that consistently draw consumers back into your store,” she explained. “This gives you another opportunity to strengthen the relationship while giving the buyer the chance to see how competent your professionals are.”

One idea Whittemore shared was to invite an interior designer to the store for free consultations. She also suggested hosting a ‘Girls Night Out’ themed event. Above all, she said, don’t forget to promote these special events using digital marketing campaigns.

“If you do these events make sure to amplify them through your email campaign to create buzz so the next time your store hosts a special event even more people will be talking about it and coming to check it out.”