Storytelling & The Rise of Experiential Commerce

By Glenn Conradt

The traditional ecommerce world is very much a transactional place. A customer arrives at a site, looks at some reviews, selects a product and checks out. Others still go online to find information and product specifications only to purchase in-store where they can browse, see displays, discover related products and interact with salespeople who make suggestions.

People spend a large portion of their time online immersed in conversations and stories: news, social networking, entertainment, etc. The online world has always been based in stories, yet this interactive engagement is missing from the majority of online shopping experiences. Storytelling, which is almost always present in brick-and-mortar retail, appeals to a customer's emotional side, and it is desperately needed in online shopping to improve customer experience and conversion.

By addressing only transactional needs, online retailers have historically missed out on the emotional and inspirational side of the human experience. Effective storytelling in ecommerce, which takes an experience-based approach, helps customers not only connect with products, but also helps them connect products to something within their world. Take, for example, mayonnaise. Nobody wakes up and thinks, "How am I going to use my mayonnaise today?" Instead, people think about meals as they exist in the cadence of daily life.

Likewise, customers think about products only in the context of their needs and circumstances. Storytelling adds context to products to help customers imagine how a product will work for them, and which related products make sense to use together. So, where a static catalog experience can deliver straight product facts, an online retailer that has effectively implemented storytelling offers rich media, personalized suggestions, demonstrations of how items work together and sparks a customer's creativity.

How can online retailers who want to focus on experiential commerce use storytelling to improve customer experience and increase sales?

4 Brand Stories to Remember

See how these Internet retailers are telling their stories and selling their products at Invest in Creativity

Storytelling is done within a creative framework, especially in visual industries like fashion. In a store, designers and merchandisers show shoppers how products relate to each other, which serve as inspiration. Everyone has had the experience of going into a store looking for one thing, and walking out with a handful of other items as well. This is because a smart/knowledgeable salesperson or merchandiser was able to make suggestions and upsell through storytelling. It's no secret why stores go to such great lengths to merchandise items and show them in context. According to TMG Custom Media, 78 percent of consumers believe that organizations providing custom content are interested in building good relationships, and 90 percent of consumers find custom content useful. By appealing to customers' emotions and making suggestions, brands increase sales. Creative merchandising has a place online, as well (see Express sidebar). Make a cohesive experience for customers from site to store by investing the same level of creative talent online.

Clothing retailer Express provides suggestions and upsells through storytelling - showing online customers a head-to-toe look, similar to two of the most popular destinations on the Web (Pinterest and Polyvore). Evaluate Technology

Second, businesses must understand and evaluate whether the technology they have in place makes it easy to integrate storytelling for ecommerce. Many mistakenly try to separate the brand site from the shopping site, but these elements need to be blended. Buyers don't see the silos - they do experience the results of those, however - but they want a cohesive experience online. Executing this cohesive experience is of course very doable and necessary, but the proper technology needs to be in place.

Start Small

Structuring a retail site to present products in an inspiring manner can be done in myriad ways, so take a step back and move toward that goal slowly. From building an online community where customers share recipes, in the case of the previously mentioned mayonnaise example, to setting up sample rooms filled with products arranged in inspiring ways, a la IKEA (see image), brands should carefully consider what experience fits best with their customer base, and make incremental progress; a rip-and-replace isn't necessary.

Consumers have become more demanding of the online shopping experience, and those who incorporate the best storytelling into their ecommerce site will secure success into the future. With a creative approach, based in the right technology at a smart pace, improving customer experience, and sales, is well within reach.

Glenn Conradt leads CoreMedia's global marketing efforts and manages the company's North American operations.

IKEA tells a story about making a small living room work for the whole family and shows off their products in the same digital breath.