Sell the Hole, Not the Drill – A Guide to eCommerce Content Strategy

This is one in a series of eCommerce Strategy posts. You can read the rest here.

Legendary Harvard Marketing professor, Theodore Levitt was famous for his saying, “sell the hole, not the drill.” He would argue that “people don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill; they want a quarter-inch hole.” The point he’s trying to get across is that customers don’t purchase products for the sake of the product, they are “hiring” it for a job they need done. In the case of the drill, they’re “hiring” it to make a hole in their wall, not for the sake of owning a drill.

Yet, when I visit an eCommerce site today, it’s an optimized machine to help me find that drill, not make the hole in my wall. The site is functional, but it could be better. We need to shift our thinking from selling to enriching our customers’ lives, and sometimes that means not selling them something when they come to the site.

Ron Johnson, who built one of the most engaging retail experiences at Apple, shared a key to their success:

People come to the Apple Store for the experience — and they’re willing to pay a premium for that. There are lots of components to that experience, but maybe the most important — and this is something that can translate to any retailer — is that the staff isn’t focused on selling stuff, it’s focused on building relationships and trying to make people’s lives better.

The failure of eCommerce is that the functionality has been designed to sell, but sites have overlooked the opportunity to build relationships with their customers and genuinely make their lives better. Most online shopping engagements only make customers’ wallets lighter.

For example, Redbeacon is a service which connects homeowners to service providers. With a few clicks of the mouse, someone can get estimates from up to four contractors, plumbers, etc. Redbeacon takes it a step further and has invested in content to help educate homeowners. As a homeowner, I can arrive on the site, learn something, and go do it myself. They’ve made the assumption that an educated customer is more likely to buy services from their contractors.

As an online store, your content is your salesperson. It will build a relationship with your customers, lay down a foundation of trust, and help them solve their problems. Ron Johnson explained the job that salespeople served at Apple Retail:

[The salespeople's] job is to figure out what you need and help you get it, even if it’s a product Apple doesn’t carry. Compare that with other retailers where the emphasis is on cross-selling, upselling, and encouraging customers to buy more, even if they don’t want or need it. That doesn’t enrich their lives, and it doesn’t deepen the retailer’s relationship with them. It just makes their wallets lighter.

eCommerce sites must start blurring the line between being an editorial site and a place for commerce. Humans are built to learn and connect through stories. For centuries, mankind has learned and passed on their legacies through storytelling. Yet, in our optimization-driven world of eCommerce, we often pass up dozens of opportunities to develop a relationship with our customers.

Jetsetter helps you find amazing vacations. Every week, they compile a list of great deals on vacations. Unlike the sterile feel of competitors like Travelzoo, Jetsetter gives you “hand crafted vacations” – things like “An NYC Baseball Weekend.” Even when they’re only presenting a hotel, they’ll provide content like “What we love”, “What to know”, and “What to do.” This information is crucial in having the customer connect with the hotel and pushing them to book a room. It’s not just another hotel in a list of options – it’s an experience.

Crafting an eCommerce Content Strategy isn’t an overnight process. It requires an investment in people and time. There are entire books written on this single topic – The Elements of Content Strategy is a great starting point.

Here are a few high-level jumping off points when implementing a Content Strategy plan:

  • Designate an editorial lead. This person must run an organization and still maintain editorial skills. This person will run the content development process.
  • Connect dedicated content producers to the rest of the business. If you have dedicated content producers, get them plugged in with the rest of the business so they can better understand the topics they will write on.
  • You don’t necessarily need dedicated content producers. At Credera, we have made content production part of our annual performance review. The subject matter experts are the ones responsible for writing. Be careful that you don’t let jargon-filled content be published. It’s the editorial lead’s job to humanize what your people are writing about.
  • Emphasize quality over quantity. One client of mine, a home builder, realized that they interact with a single customer once every decade. Because of that, they settled on putting out 6-10 pieces of high quality content each year that weren’t time-based. They didn’t need a weekly updated blog, nor did they have the staff to do manage that.
  • Establish a consistent calendar for producing content, and hold people accountable to deadlines. This is where having an editorial lead to make sure that your site stays fresh can be helpful.
  • If you’re outsourcing writing, consider if it’s truly adding value to your customers. There are many low cost firms that will offshore writing, but that may not be as beneficial to your customers if it’s not true thought leadership. Customers are smart. They can recognize disingenuous content from a mile away. Don’t create content for SEO or to sell, make it to help people.

Content Strategy isn’t just an SEO or optimization tactic. An organization that successfully implements valuable content is shifting it’s approach to serving customers. You don’t want to be a place that just makes wallets lighter: you should become a resource for your customers.

December 12, 2012