Ecommerce can be a brutal space.
Depending on your niche, you might be competing against monsters like Amazon, Target, New Egg, or other well-established players. You might be competing against all of them. It can seem like it’s impossible to win.
Even if you have a great product or a fantastic brand, you don’t have the budget or the name recognition to muscle out these giant retailers.
As a ecommerce store owner, you probably feel that pain every day.
But one secret weapon that many ecommerce retailers are using to win the David vs Goliath battle is content marketing. It’s an extremely effective way to carve out a niche and build a following of loyal customers.
Done well, it can turn your struggling store into an online powerhouse.
The Power of Content
Content marketing is something that spans almost every industry, including both B2B and B2C companies. At it’s core, it’s built on a simple idea. If most companies drive business through advertising on pages of magazines and newspapers, what if the company just published their own content and then had free reign to advertise their products without the pricetag or the competition of buying ads? Why rent attention when you can buy it?
With time, content marketing has become more sophisticated and strategic than simply publishing articles slathered in product ads. But the central reasons why content marketing is effective have remained largely unchanged.
Content marketing–unlike ads, sponsorships, and other forms of traditional marketing–give you a few huge advantages that work well for ecommerce brands.
You can use content marketing to:
- Target and attract a very specific audience with the type of content you publish
- Build and cultivate a community
- Inform, entertain, and delight potential customers
- Involve your customers in your company and give them ownership in your brand
- Expand your SEO footprint
Let’s look at 7 online retailers who are using content marketing to the fullest to compete against the Amazon and other mega-retailers.
REI is one of the largest and most successful retailers in the world. Their name has become nearly synonymous with outdoor gear and lifestyle. Even so, on the internet, they are the underdog.
Many of the products they sell can also be found on sites like Amazon and they have a smaller digital footprint. So, how do they stay relevant online?
They stick to their niche and use content to grow a huge community of outdoor enthusiasts, bring them to their site, and keep them coming back.
Their site includes a massive collection of articles related to almost any outdoor activity you can imagine–camping, hiking, canoeing, bicycling, snowboarding, and many more. If you want to learn about how to do something outside, you can find the answer on the REI website.
While they are obviously a company that is interested in selling goods, their strategy is to provide value first–to create content that attracts the right people. And then to worry about selling. But it’s secondary, not the primary focus on their content.
On social media, they’re taking a content-first approach, building trust and community with their fans rather than hocking products in every post.
Check out this unique spin they put on a Valentine’s Day post, complete with massive engagement and participation:
Source: REI on Facebook
This points to one of the most important ways to use content marketing, which is to cultivate a community. The more trust and connection that you have with your customers, the more likely they are to want to buy from you rather than shopping around for a better deal.
People value relationships and they can influence purchasing behavior in a big way.
Lessons to learn from REI:
- Focus on your customer, not your product(s)
- Use your niche to build authority with a certain audience
- Use search as a driver for connecting with your audience
- Connect your content to something bigger than selling stuff–make it about identity and lifestyle
#2: Herschel Supply
This premium brand knows that people buy their products not because they’re the cheapest or the easiest to find, but because of what they represent.
Aesthetics, looks, and feelings matter. They transform customers into advocates–they’re the reason people buy the same shoes from Nike for twice as much as the knock-offs. Because they have transcended selling products and services and now sell an idea or a concept.
This is called branding. And Herschel Supply has mastered it.
They use their content as a way to transport soon-to-be buyers to a life of leisurely travel and sophistication. They align these values with the products they sell it becomes part of the experience.
Their customers don’t buy other brands or shop around for a better deal, because no one else offers the entire experience and lifestyle that Herschel is selling. And that’s the main reason why they’re able to fend off Amazon and carve out their own piece of the market.
Lessons to learn from Herschel Supply:
- Focus on brand, lifestyle, and experience as differentiators
- Use content to deliver value beyond just your products or services
- Reinforce your core brand identity
Betabrand offers a one-of-a-kind online shopping experience because they collaborate directly with their customers and aspiring clothing designers all over the world to create their products.
This is a novel business model, to be sure. But it’s also a great way at using content to cultivate a community–in this case, user-generated content.
Users can submit designs for new products and then the community votes on which ones they like. It’s a huge boon to Betabrand and also involves the customers in the direction of the company–ensuring that they create products that their customers will end up buying.
And, guess what most of these designers do after they submit an idea for consideration? They share it like crazy with their friends, of course–they want to win! So, that content becomes a launching pad for exposing new people to the site and a viral referral mechanism all rolled into one.
You may be thinking that Betabrand doesn’t have to compete with Amazon because they are selling unique products thought up by their community. But the reality is that most of their products are not that unique. And the ones that are, by definition, don’t have an established market of customers. Yet Betabrand is still killin’ it with their user-generated content + ecommerce model.
Lessons to learn from Betabrand:
- Involve your best customers in your product creation
- Let your customers and fans own part of your brand
- Listen carefully to what they want and deliver it
ThinkGeek has been one of the reigning champions in the ecommerce space for some 10 years running. They’ve managed this despite the fact that many of their novelty items can be found on Amazon–and sometimes for less or with free shipping.
So, how have they kept their place in the ecommerce world?
They’ve carved out a specific niche and a brand for themselves–they are the place to go for nerdy stuff, even if you don’t know what exactly you’re looking for. And they’ve used content as a way to bolster their nerd cred and attract other nerds to their secret lair.
Their blog is regularly updated with promotions and content aimed at bolstering their community of geek enthusiasts in nearly every stripe and color. Plus, their products themselves become like content–providing funny and unique items with interesting and detailed descriptions.
They even include funny videos with their products. Not your average, sales-y videos, either. Funny and entertaining videos that their audience actually enjoys watching, whether they’re going to buy the item or not.
Lessons to learn from ThinkGeek:
- Pinpoint your audience and serve them well
- Build a community and love your customers
- Stick with what–and who–you know
If you’re like me, pants are pants are pants. But if you’re like me, then you’re probably not in Bonobos’ target market.
Despite the near-commodity status of pants, Bonobos got their start by building a pants company that has turned into one of the world’s largest ecommerce brands. Now they sell shirts, pants, belts, ties, and more directly on their website.
As you probably guessed, a big part of their success has come from the way they use content to create and engage their community of loyal buyers. They know that men’s clothing is about more than just pants and shirts–it’s about the things you do while wearing them.
They’ve taken that to heart and regularly publish lifestyle content (on their blog, called Equateur) that examines and celebrates the men who wear their brand and some of the incredible things that they do.
These profiles and articles serve as part entertainment and part branding exercise. It develops a narrative around the product and deepens the experience for the customer.
But, more importantly, it creates a mental barrier between Bonobos and other brands that you can buy online through retailers like Amazon. If it’s not coming from them, it doesn’t have the same panache. That’s how you attract and keep loyal customers.
Lessons to learn from Bonobos:
- Build a narrative around your brand
- Use content to foster your community and grow your support base
- Defend your position by reinforcing your brand’s core elements
#6: Ties.com and Scarves.com
These ecommerce sites may seem a bit bland on the surface. After all, aren’t the names a bit on the nose?
But, don’t let that fool you. Each of these sites has built up a massive footprint within a targeted niche piece of the online shopping world. And while they may not have a huge range of products, they are experts within their specific vertical.
A large part of their success has come from actionable and informative content.
This content isn’t going to go super viral. But when you need to know how to tie a scarf, it’s going to come in super handy.
But what’s really exciting is that by focusing so much energy on such a specific product and vertical, they have been able to out-rank any of the major retailers (including Amazon) in Google search for terms like “ties.”
This undoubtedly brings them thousands of targeted visitors every single day.
Lessons to learn from Scarves.com and Ties.com:
- Targeted niches can be a powerful way to compete
- Providing simple, informational content can attract the right buyers at the right time
- Never apologize for focusing your energy on a single vertical or market
#7: One Kings Lane
Once again, we see that a retailer can offer content that Amazon simply doesn’t have as a way to differentiate themselves.
This high-end home furnishings store provides tons and tons of inspirational and DIY content that help you not just buy stuff, but build a vision for your dream home. This kind of connection is what helps customers decide what to buy and then purchase on the spot.
Not only are they providing value, but they’re also helping you find just the right piece to make your home look the way you want.
Lessons to learn from One Kings Lane:
- Be a source of inspiration and ideas
- Curate and add value with expert knowledge
- Attract an audience of potential repeat buyers and treat them well
In many of these examples, we see some common threads that teach us not only how to do ecommerce content marketing well, but also how to use that content as a way to build a brand–and a business.
Whether you’re selling off-the-shelf products or creating your own lifestyle company from the ground up, we can learn a few key lessons from all of these examples:
1. Laser-focus on your consumer
The most important thing about any kind of marketing is finding the right audience. It doesn’t matter what your message is–or how compelling it may be–if you’re delivering it to the wrong people, you’re dead in the water.
This means that your content marketing efforts should be laser-focused on your specific type of customer. Your website should become a destination. Think of it like a magazine–who would subscribe to your content?
If you bring in some other people along the way, that’s no problem. As long as you bring in enough of the right people who are interested in what you have to offer, you’ll be moving in the right direction.
2. Connect to something bigger than just products
Use content to build a narrative around your brand and your merchandise that gives it a deeper meaning rather than just being “stuff.” Consumers are increasingly buying from companies that share their values or have a marked connection to their lives or interests.
If they feel like your organization has a worthwhile story or mission, they’ll go out of their way (and pay a premium) to support it.
3. Build a community
Friends support friends. You want your fans on Facebook and followers on Twitter to be rooting for you so hard that they share your posts with their friends, and spread your message far and wide.
You can achieve this by creating content that is focused on engaging your audience, building their trust, and creating a relationship with them. Not only will they help support your business, but they’ll be less likely to shop around or buy from a competitor because they feel connected to you and your brand.
4. Help first, sell second
One thing that is glaringly absent in each of these examples is a big, pushy “Buy Now!” button. While products may be weaved into the content or shown alongside and in-context, the central purpose of the content is not to sell directly–it’s a long-term play built on relationships, not hard sell tactics.
And this is a critical distinction between content marketing that works and content marketing that doesn’t work. Your content should always seek to inform, delight, or entertain first and foremost. You can’t go for the hard sell right away. Instead, build a relationship with your customers and then they will come back to you when they’re ready to buy.
5. Use content as a secret weapon to win at SEO
While mega retailers have huge product footprints and enormous awareness, one of their few weaknesses (and where you can attack them) is in content SEO.
While you may not be able to rank #1 for “wingtip shoes,” you may have a better time bringing in your core audience with an article on “when to wear wingtip shoes” or “which dress shoes to wear to a work party.”
This kind of educational or entertaining content can help you get discovered through search and create tremendous value without a huge SEO budget or a big-name brand. And it can be accomplished through consistent, good content marketing.
Over to you
Are you trying to muscle out a 10,000 lb gorilla in the ecommerce space? War stories? Questions? Thoughts?
Leave your experience in the comments below.