That’s What I’m Talking About

At EContent magazine, we adhere to a strict separation of church and state. I think most reputable magazines do, but in trade publishing it is particularly challenging—and important—to maintain editorial integrity while balancing the interests of the vendors, who are both readers and potential advertisers. Despite this separation, I find myself with plenty of sales issues to think about. I'm not hawking ad pages or subscriptions, but many editors are concerned with the salability of their product in both of these arenas; it is our primary objective to fill pages with quality content that will attract readers—both for subscription revenue and to offer advertisers a desirable audience.

The founder and CEO of the Women's Ecommerce Association International (WEAI), Heidi Richards, asked me to give a presentation for one of her Wire Side Chats. At first, I wasn't sure I would have much to say because I personally don't sell my content online, though I have been involved in strategy discussions about various related topics, including content delivery mechanisms, a la carte options, and aligning our online content offerings with our offline subscription models. So I figured I'd give her a call to see if I had something to contribute.

When Richards and I chatted about possible topics, I asked about her membership so I could determine what content the audience would find most useful. While my direct content-commerce experience would have applicability for some of the listeners, I decided to tackle the content value proposition differently: how digital content helps sites sell. While I am an undeniable proponent of the power of content, it was my work editing David Scott's book Cashing in With Content: How Savvy Marketers Turn Browsers into Buyers, that helped me understand that online, we are all selling, and the best way to do it is through quality content.

When I ran this concept past Richards, I could tell that at first, she didn't quite get what digital content had to do with ecommerce, but I pointed out that the very act of producing her Wire Side Chats was providing her members with content that imbued the organization with explicit and implicit value: Learn now and also build a community of expertise, which demonstrates ongoing value. Besides, Richards plans to build a digital archive of the Chats so members can refer to them in the future.

A lot of verbiage gets bandied about on the topic of online community. For an organization like WEAI, leveraging digital tools to assist networking opportunities is a relatively straightforward application of the concept. But in the case of ecommerce, it isn't so obvious. I'm sure most retail sites would initially question the value of such a Web-utopian idea factored into a basic sales proposition. Yet it always comes back to the customer. In brick-and-mortar sales environments, you can make a mercenary one-off sale or you can develop relationships with customers that bring them back for years to come. It works the same way online.

Take Richards' business, floristry: She offers pre-fab arrangements that anticipate general requirements, but in her shop, she can also walk a customer through various options to create something special. Further still, she provides flower-arranging classes for clients, which obviously helps them learn but also communicates that she is a trusted advisor to whom expert customers will want to turn repeatedly. Building this type of relationship with online clients is a more difficult proposition; she can't stroll through the shop with each of them. However, she realizes that by videotaping her demonstrations, she can repurpose this content at her site to help build lasting clientele. Aha—online content builds community. She not only gets it, she does it.

In Cashing in With Content, we found that successful online businesses have something to sell, whether they know it or not. Take CARE USA, a nonprofit that must sell its good works to potential donors in order to keep donations coming. Sure, CARE could just list projects, but instead it offers contributed articles from around the world, compelling images, and even its tax returns. The ecommerce sites Scott covers go well beyond product information (though effective use of this is a great place to start) with interactive features that engage the user and publishing models that deliver non-product-focused content. Design Within Reach, which sells furniture, produces an enewsletter that doesn't sell directly, but demonstrates the design expertise of its CEO and educates readers about aspects of design—in the way savvy showroom salespeople would in a DWR shop.

Yet as in the case of salespeople, it is the savvy that sets some apart. Consider the waiter who haughtily corrects your pronunciation of some obscure fish as opposed to the one who asks what sorts of fish you like and then suggests that tilapia is a white flaky fish from Africa that might suit your palate. What? you say. I have a palate? Wow, tell me more. Okay, your customers might not be quite so credulous, but the fact remains that how you communicate and what you communicate are of just as much importance online as off. To build relationships that will lead to enduring business—be it the buying and selling of goods, good will, or good ideas—your content needs to work as hard as you do.