Empowering retail’s digital underdogs

sociomantic2This is the fourth installment in our series The New Brand Playbook. It is sponsored by Sociomantic, a market leader in driving incremental sales at scale for e-commerce marketers with programmatic display advertising solutions for desktop, mobile and Facebook. It is written by JB Brokaw, president, North America of Sociomantic.

It’s no surprise that legacy online retailers have the upper hand. With decades of experience and vast stores of online and offline data to pull from, they know what their customers buy and when, and they use it to personalize the dot-com shopping experience. It’s the 21st century equivalent of the mom-and-pop touch.

But pure play retailers—hundreds of thousands of sites new to the digital jungle—don’t have the data troves of an Amazon, or even a Macy’s or Nordstrom. Companies like Bonobos, Nastygal.com, HotelTonight.com or Gilt are what Amazon was in 1994 – but with a million competitors all vying for the same market. So how can they survive and thrive?

They certainly can’t out-Amazon Amazon. Amazon has come to understand digital consumers better than anyone and employs every possible tool to connect with them: a heavy social presence that is focused on promotions, data and analytics to provide recommendations and economies of scale that allow them to offer prices and services few others can beat.

Likewise, pure plays don’t have the long history of customer insights enjoyed by Macy’s, Nordstrom or other “crossover” retailers. These brands were connecting with customers long before Jeff Bezos’ grandparents were even born. They are working hard to apply the knowledge they’ve gained over decades to today’s digital ecosystem.

What can pure play brands do to compete online? Here are a few steps these companies can take to increase the power of their brands and their chances for success:

Go Big With Data: Big data is one thing, but going big with data is another. It means looking at ALL your data and considering how it can inform and improve customer relationships. Looking at purchase behaviors, shopping patterns, social engagement, real-time inventory, weather – anything that can be used to foster meaningful engagement – is key.

Gathering up all of that data then allows brands to deliver marketing messages that make customers feel understood and valued, rather than taken advantage of. Many brands employ personalized offline campaigns, but going big with data means moving beyond that by adding a meaningfully personal touch to email campaigns, display ads and all marketing communications.

Be a Social Standout: Digital native brands have to be better than their crossover rivals on social media. This is their turf; and while big brands are fast learners, many are still surprisingly sluggish and a little gun shy when it comes to actually connecting with customers.

Learn fast, act faster: The one constant of digital is that it never stays constant for long. Recognizing this and being able to react quickly is an advantage digital brands have over crossover brands AND Amazon. Before 2007 who was thinking mobile? Before 2010 who took tablets seriously? For big organizations adapting to these types of developments takes time, resources, planning and pain. Without rigid rules or entrenched business practices, digital-only brands can jump on the next thing before their larger competitors even get the memo.

Digital brands have always had more freedom and room to maneuver than their offline cousins. They have always had speed and flexibility on their side. Even without a physical presence, brands can still build meaningful relationships with customers in the same good old way that retailers used to – by recognizing, saying hello, remembering and understanding their customers.  Integrating data from all sources and putting that data to work in every customer interaction – whether through display ads, emails, offline offers or social media – drives brand affinity and sales by deepening those relationships.

The path of Amazon – gigantism and muscle – or crossover brands – customer awareness and a past experience – aren’t viable for today’s digital only companies; but maybe that isn’t a bad thing. What is available instead is a chance to be more efficient, more nimble – and more personal.

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