“I hate marketing,” my friend told me the other day. “I hate it when someone tries to sell me something. It turns me off immediately.”

As a marketer, I’ve grown accustomed to hearing comments like these (hastily followed by, “No offense.” None taken — marketers gotta market). Once I dig deeper, though, I often realize that the person doesn’t hate marketing in general. They’re simply put off by marketing that gets in their face, making them feel pushed to buy rather than intrigued. It’s the equivalent of being turned off when someone’s too forward on a first date.

Case in point: people run screaming from most display advertising. According to Contently, standard and mobile banner ads have CTRs below 0.14%, ad-blocking is growing like crazy, and 28% of people said they’ve tried to hide their click trails from advertisers — second only to criminals. But certain forms of marketing are actually popular: plenty of brands have huge social media followings (cheers to you, Taco Bell), 96% of people who begin BuzzFeed sponsored quizzes finish them, and the Super Bowl is nearly as much about commercials as it is about football.

In other words, people like marketing that conveys something other than “BUY NOW!” whether it’s entertaining, informative, or simply designed to help them find what they want. Increasingly, the most forward-thinking brands are creating customer journeys with this concept in mind. Harvard Business Review recently outlined the shift:

Across retail, banking, travel, home services, and other industries, companies are designing and refining journeys to attract shoppers and keep them, creating customized experiences so finely tuned that once consumers get on the path, they are irresistibly and permanently engaged. Unlike the coercive strategies companies used a decade ago to lock in customers (think cellular service contracts), cutting-edge journeys succeed because they create new value for customers: Customers stay because they benefit from the journey itself.

Want to attract customers by creating a genuinely valuable shopping experience? Take a look at the examples below. I’m going to start with the one that made my skeptical friend go, “Actually, yeah. I’d really like that.”


The Quiz


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Function of Beauty makes customizable hair products. Its homepage is decidedly minimalistic, especially for a beauty brand: clicking “order now” takes you directly to a quiz, which asks about things like your hair texture and hair-related goals. At the end, you get a formula that’s supposed to specifically address your needs, and you can customize the colors and scents.

Does the quiz make the product discovery process longer? Yep — but it makes you feel you’re choosing wisely as opposed to browsing around and attempting to decipher cryptic product descriptions. Plus, parts of the quiz explain the components of the formula (for example, baobab seed is apparently hydrating?), which promotes trust.


The On-Demand Expert


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Function of Beauty has another value-packed feature: on-site messaging. People tend to have a lot of questions about beauty products, because a) they’re often expensive and b) the wrong one can give you bad hair or a gnarly rash for weeks. Seeing a chat box labeled “chat with a chemist” was a relief, as was the expert’s quick reply time; it gave the site the feel of a high-end brick-and-mortar store. (If you’d like to learn more about real-time messaging, we’ve written about its history here and several use cases here.)


The Customizable Browsing Experience


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Bonobos, a men’s apparel company, stays true to its sleek brand with a clean web experience. First of all, it has fit-focused filters; second, they stay put, even if you haven’t been on the site for a while. They even hide styles that aren’t available in your size.

Is Bonobos missing out on the opportunity to email shoppers when something’s back in stock? Definitely, but it also reduces the chance of overwhelming people with options. A well-known paper by professors from Columbia University Business School and Stanford University demonstrated the downside of presenting too many choices: when they gave shoppers the option of picking jam from either a smaller or larger assortment, shoppers showed more interest in the larger assortment but were 10 times more likely to buy if they chose from the smaller one.


The Fun Content Marketing Play



Ideally, the point of purchase should be a place where the buyer and seller align — where the buyer feels a connection to the brand and aligns herself with the brand’s message. GoPro has fostered these connections with a stellar content marketing program. The “videos+photos” section of the site is full of action-packed shots that showcase what a GoPro can capture (and make you wish you were as adventerous as all those skaters and skydivers).



The Educational Content Marketing Play


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The team at Paula’s Choice, a skincare brand, does the unthinkable: it reviews and recommends other companies’ products. But the writers do it intelligently: by breaking down the formulas of each product (with links to legitimate research!), they give Paula’s Choice credibility and reinforce the brand’s own standards of excellence — to which Paula’s Choice products adhere, of course.

Some people love the approach, and some people are put off by the team’s frequent editorializing (my personal favorite insertion: “Really, the only drawback is the price; you can spend half as much and get nearly twice the amount of product with the BHA exfoliants from Paula’s Choice”). Still, there’s no denying that this unique strategy has given the brand a cult following, especially in the beauty blogosphere.


The Killer Review Section


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Reviews are extremely influential: in a survey by Dimensional Research, 90% of participants said that positive reviews affected their buying decisions, and 86% said negative reviews did the same. Newegg, which sells computer hardware and software, capitalizes on the power of reviews with easy-to-navigate review sections. These sections allow shoppers to filter by date, rating, and review type; they even indicate when someone’s a verified owner. Along with helping shoppers do thorough research (and making sure they don’t seek it elsewhere), the company fosters trust by demonstrating a belief in the quality of its products.



The Link to the Brick-and-Mortar Store




Sometimes, you just need your Double Chocolaty Chip Crème Frappuccino® Blended Crème ASAP — and thankfully, the powers that be brought us the Starbucks app. Geared toward retention rather than customer acquisition, this app keeps things simple. It allows Starbucks lovers to find the nearest location, put in an order, pick it up in-store, and pay via rewards points. There are no frills, no weird games, and no obnoxious effects. The app exists solely to get you to your coffee (and, okay, maybe encourage you to buy someone a gift). Considering the state most of us are in when we need our caffeine fix, this simplicity isn’t just welcome: it’s merciful.

Want to beef up your email strategy? Check out our list of the best triggered campaigns for retailers. 

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