Content Merchandising: An Evolving Definition Part 2

Over the past several years we’ve worked with hundreds of clients to help build out their content merchandising strategies, but whenever we’ve been asked to define what we do, we have effectively operated under Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s approach to defining pornography:

Justice Potter Stewart

Justice Potter Stewart *knows* good content.

“I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be [hard-core pornography]; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it…”

Until recently it has been easy enough simply to apply our definition of content merchandising as we “saw it,” without doing the dirty work of defining what content merchandising actually is. But as our clients’ needs to merchandise their products across several online channels continue to increase, we’ve had to be more assertive in our work with them about drawing the line between content merchandising and its many progenitors and distant cousins, namely marketing, advertising, and Search Engine Optimization.

Content Merchandising: The First Cousin of Content Marketing
Lee Odden of TopRank Online Marketing has been a leading practitioner of what’s been referred to as “content marketing” for years. While he admits that the idea of content marketing varies with different people, his most recent attempt at distilling its meaning to a core definition resulted in this:

“Aligning business and consumer information needs with content.”

Content marketing uses the “pull” of content and the power of Search Engine Optimization to draw eyeballs to your site. It’s a powerful idea, made all the more powerful by Google’s recent Panda update. No longer (at least in theory) can companies get away with cutting and pasting irrelevant, keyword-rich content; the content must now be on topic and unique.

Simply put, if you want to optimize your site for search, your content must provide user value. Say goodbye to content farms and hello to information-rich web content.

The idea of content marketing comes straight out of an Iowa cornfield: build interesting, relevant content, employ best-practices SEO and social media strategies, and the Shoeless Joe Jacksons of the world will emerge from the trees to visit your website and embrace your brand.

Like content marketing, content merchandising also uses a wide variety of content types. But the difference is that content merchandising specifically uses content to inform consumers about the features and user benefits particular to your products. And while content marketing occurs through a wide variety of platforms and locations (social media sites, emails, websites, and so on), content merchandising almost exclusively occurs at the product page, at the point where the consumer decides whether or not to “buy now.”

How Is Content Merchandising Related to E-Commerce Marketing?

Before we add to our preliminary definition of content merchandising, a few words about what content merchandising is not.

Ping Assertion 1.0:

Content merchandising is not marketing.

However…

Ping Assertion 1.1:

Content merchandising relies on marketing to bring it eyeball-traffic.

Buy now button with pointerSimply put, online advertisers and marketers are paid to drive consumers to the product page; content merchandisers are paid to convince those same customers to hit the “buy now” button.

As we previously discussed in our Billboard-Free Zone: Keep Your Content North of the Border post, at the moment your customers arrive at your product detail pages, you should thank your marketing departments for their work, and politely whisk them away.

Repeat: Ctrl+X your marketing and advertising personnel as soon as you can.

When customers arrive at your product page, they have already been convinced by marketing that your product is worth consideration. Remember, the vast majority of Internet users research products online before they buy, and over 60 percent abandon the product page if it does not have sufficient or accurate information or images (according to Brandbank‘s 2010 Retail Media Report). So give them what they are looking for: product-detail information in clear, plain, user-benefit-rich language.

A content merchandiser’s job is, more specifically, to convert your product’s innate features into user benefits for the edification of the consumer. While good content merchandisers create thorough and engaging content to merchandise your products, their job is not to “prettify” your products with the use of an amazingly incredible and superbly unbelievable number of adverbs and adjectives. Their job is to provide information you customers can use.

How Does Content Merchandising Use SEO?

Caution sign with a pencilI admit to entering into some hazardous territory here, but let me get this out of the way.

Ping Assertion 2.1:

At the product page level, your job as a content merchandiser is to focus on your product, not on keywords or SEO.

Now let me add this before I’m hung in effigy at the upcoming SES Conference and Expo event in San Fransisco.

Ping Assertion 2.1.b:

A good content merchandiser follows SEO best practices when creating and tagging content for the product description page and creating the product page’s meta data. But informative, easy-to-understand product descriptions should ALWAYS (as in, 100 percent of the time, every time, no exceptions) trump keyword usage.

Let me rephrase that: if your SEO folks give you a keyword list for your product descriptions, and you cannot create easy-to-read, easy-to-understand, conversion-optimized product descriptions using the words on that list, jettison the list!

Product detail content of every kind should be created to optimize conversion, not eyeballs. Your SEO work should drive eyeballs to the category page level, not the product page level. Why?

You may spend significant resources to send consumers to your product page, but once your product is discontinued or replaced by a new generation of products, your SEO efforts will be for naught. However, it’s likely that your “product line” will continue. So focus your SEO on driving traffic to your product line, and from there you can drive eyeballs to the product page.

In our next post in this series, we’ll break down the components of a good content merchandising strategy.

Censored StreakerThe Ping Takeaway:

  • Content merchandising is not pornography, marketing, advertising, or SEO. Content merchandising relies on engaging, information- and user-benefit-rich content to describe products for potential consumers.