Building a Communications Narrative
Leverage marketing frameworks to respond effectively to a rapidly changing digital retail model
It's a given that digital transformation has rewritten the playbook not just for marketing communications, but right across the Marketing Mix.
Digital capabilities offer new opportunities in terms of virtual products, dynamic pricing models, a revolutionary sense of place when it comes to retail, and provide an endless list of new promotional channels.
Despite this, the transformation of the tiny fragment of the Marketing Mix that is communications has drawn the most attention. As the primary point of contact between brands and their consumers, a communications strategy is a public statement about a brand that has an instant impact on consumer perceptions and purchase intent.
Getting it right isn't easy.
The complexity of each new channel - whether it's Publishing, Search, Social or Influencer Marketing - demands that practitioners devise specialist skills. But that degree of specialisation creates a risk in itself: it is often nurtured in dedicated teams that lack a 'big picture' approach to the consumer experience, resulting in silo mentalities and a fragmented route to purchase.
Creating a coherent experience demands a rethink:
- Recognising how the digital retail experience has rewritten the customer journey
- Embracing the unique roles diverse digital platforms play
- Empowering customer insight through data aggregation and analysis
- Tailoring messages to meet the diverse needs of customer inflection points
- Repurposing communications to signposting roles
- Repositioning marketing at the core of the retail process
Effective approaches require that marketing leadership takes a step back from operational issues, and creates and maintains a holistic message that sustains itself through each and every touchpoint, establishing a consistent sense of both the brand and its value proposition, whilst sustaining momentum throughout the customer journey.
It's time for a Communications Narrative.
Supporting the Customer Journey
Whilst the workload around specialist channels intensifies, the customer journey is as transparent now as it has ever been.
Changing needs mean customers may drift in and out of product engagement, creating loops and whorls, mis-steps and diversions in the customer journey, but the fact remains that customers inevitably first build awareness of products categories and positioning, satisfy their interests, consider their options, submit to desires and act upon them.
Lowered price points, heightened familiarity or urgency may all combine to shorten the journey, but it's still there, underpinning decisions in every purchase consumers make.
Effective marketing responds to potential customers by inspiring them with dazzling opportunities, triggering and satisfying their need for information, engaging them directly and facilitating purchase.
To see how that works in a digital context, we need to see the whole picture.
The Legacy Retail Model
Challenges arise with digital because internal marketing structures are based on legacy approaches to a traditional retail environment.
It was precisely the limitations of traditional retail opportunities that prompted marketing departments to split Brand and Retail teams.
Brand teams found themselves restricted to driving awareness of product purpose and positioning with big budget broadcast campaigns, supported by occasional forays into specialist press for high ticket items that needed more of an explanation.
Retail teams increasingly found themselves lumbered with the rest of the sales process. Brochures, flyers, field sales training and partnership with major retailers became the fall back position when it came to actually engaging directly with customers, interacting and persuading them to pull out their wallet.
Customer Service, meanwhile, was either the retailer's responsibility, or little more than a warehouse of discarded cardboard warranty cards.
And at the top of the funnel, capability stagnated, because Brand teams became comfortable with 'big ideas' and creative flourish, but they became complacent with their role in the overall customer journey, neglecting their responsibilities to drive purchase.
Innovation flowered at big brands, whilst sales capability rotted on the vine.
Retail and Digital Transformation
Whilst Brand teams rage against what they perceive to be the devaluation of brand advertising in a digital environment, the real shift in expenditure is created by an unrelated issue.
Digital technologies have change the Place of purchase.
Increasingly skilled technologists prompt consumers to save both time and money compared with traditional shopping activities, and browse to purchase in the comfort of their own homes. The e-Commerce era undermines the entire traditional retail paradigm.
As traditional retail founders in the digital storm, the entire support network for the customer journey goes with it.
e-Commerce simply doesn't provide the informed, persuasive sales team that comes with a traditional retail environment.
New digital players stepped into the gaps that consumers still needed to fill:
- Niche digital publishers and key opinion leaders replaced brochures and product guides
- Social platforms replaced shopping buddies
- CRM replaced knowledgable retail experts
- e-Commerce replaced buzzing High Streets
... and marketing teams dropped the ball.
What marketing teams did well was to introduce operational capability:
- Technologists who understood the systems
- Traders who could negotiate a presence
- Systems that could manage a message
- Platforms that could retail off the page
But what marketing teams needed to do was empower communicators to populate each stage of the process:
- Inspire consumers with product benefits to…
- … learn about solutions…
- … and engage with their peers…
- … with expert support….
- … to buy the product….
- … and be empowered to share their success
This then becomes the foundation of a Communications Narrative
The Rise of Integrated Ecosystems
The task doesn't end with a Communications Narrative.
Consolidation amongst major players in the digital publishing environment means that marketing teams also need to create roles for practitioners to deliver this story across the full range of communications solutions amongst integrated ecosystems like Facebook / Instagram / WhatsApp in the West and Tencent in the East.
Whereas legacy systems demanded television and press specialists, integrated ecosystems demand big picture practitioners who understand every stage of the customer journey and can implement it across sprawling and disconnected corporate partners.
Inflection Points and Big Data
The challenge when faced with such scale is creating efficiency.
Whilst many marketers aspire to 'always-on' solutions, the reality is that being omnipresent far outstrips the budgets of even the largest brand.
This means focusing attention on triggering activity amongst consumers at 'inflection points' - moments when consumers undergo significant transitions on their journey, crossing the line from being a voyeur into consideration, from musing about options into actively seeking advice, or from latent desire to pending purchase.
Finding the trigger points, and delivering key messages at critical moments is supported not only by dedicated customer insights, but by identifying latent or expressed customer needs through their behaviour.
This puts data at the core of the Communications Narrative. Consumer identifiers ranging from cookies to personal logins, search and social media queries to self-help activity on mobile apps generate a breadcrumb trail of interactions that dynamically allocate customers to audience segments undergoing constant change.
Consumers falling into specific segments receive messages tailored not only to their demographic profiles, but to their specific needs and contexts, leveraging relevant content to create incentive and signpost the route to purchase.
A Communications Narrative
Singposting activity transforms brand encounters from isolated audience impacts to vector quantities. They are directional.
Supporting key events on the customer journey, digital content leverages a need and ushers consumers to a pay off.
It transforms marketing from a monologue of brand positioning statements to a structured learning experience that steers consumers from one lesson to the next.
It demands content that is tailored to the specific role that a platform plays in the customer journey and requires specific calls to action to maintain momentum down the sales funnel:
- Broadcast media inspiring consumers to learn more
- Publishers and key opinion leaders informing decisions
- Social media that encourages and develops opinions
- CRM programmes that respond to specific customer needs
- e-Commerce plaforms that create incentive
- Brand platforms that reward relationships in both tanglible and intangible assets
In short, it's a Communications Narrative that transforms brands from incidental social wallpaper to accessible and trusted advisors, repositioning marketing departments at the centre of the retail experience.