It’s a classic battle: art versus commerce, editorial versus advertising, journalism versus sales—and it continues to play out in new, super-interesting, slightly frustrating ways all across the media and marketing landscape. Buckle up, baby!
What’s happening? On one end, you have media sites morphing into ecommerce platforms—selling stuff directly or through affiliate links. On the other? Retail sites are creeping into the editorial space to help people live better lives (with solutions, supported by their products, of course). Two sides of the same coin. “Curation,” either performed by editors or merchants. Both are working to find the right balance between selling versus storytelling.
Luckily, we all get to figure this out together, and we can start at the beginning—by looking at some examples from the first month of this new year.
January. The biggest “story” revolved around resolutions. Yes, “resolutions” are kind of an outdated concept. Yes, everyone always seems to resolve to do the same things each year. Yes, there are tons of easily Google-able stats about how few people actually “keep” their resolutions. Some shied away from the word itself, but the thought (of January as time to reset or renew your priorities) was still there.
Let’s talk about missed opportunities—where, with a little more effort, the three big retailers could have had more impact if they’d been willing to navigate the selling-to-storytelling spectrum a little more thoughtfully
Alexa, why does Amazon suck at storytelling?
This is not a real question I would ask Alexa, because I don’t actively invite spies into my home. But it is something I wonder, very often.
For the new year, Amazon had a small bug (top right, by the Search bar) encouraging you to “Start Your New Year Goals.” That led to a page of lightly categorized products (“Health and Fitness”) that was finished off, at the bottom, with “Get Inspired by Our Top Picks.”
Clearly, “Get Inspired by Our Top Picks” is code for “A bunch of other junk” as I, personally, don’t find faucets and dumbbells, squashed together without any rhyme or reason, very inspiring at all.
Who is running this site, and why are they so willing to be so unhelpful?
Imagine the IRL equivalent of this. And, yes, whether you have a brick and mortar store or not, I expect an online experience to be as delightful as a great in-store shopping experience should be. Here? I’m led to a mess of nothing in a dusty, forgotten corner. Amazon is doing this with what amounts to its main monthly campaign theme. Zero effort.
Okay. I hear you. Amazon might not be the best place for storytelling. It’s more selling. It’s the world’s product search engine. Great. But there has to be another way than this.
Amazon has created a joyless shopping experience that’s strictly transactional, like a bad one-night stand. The romance is in the storytelling, and I need to be courted a little first, Amazon.
It’s not like it doesn’t know how to do this selling versus storytelling stuff. There is this thing, that’s gorgeous, that helps you dream a little while also helping you understand the mechanics of how to build that dream of your own, should you feel called to do so.
This magical little document? A CATALOG. You know, Amazon, that thing you put out with toys last Christmas, that was revered as oh-so-groundbreaking for you? Storytelling.
You don’t have to give me a #NewYearNewYou catalog, but what about some inspiring tips on what I can do with the products you’re showing? Get me excited. What kind of smoothies should I make with that blender? Why are those the right dumbbells for me, and not the other ones?
I rely on you telling me this here, just like I’d rely on a knowledgeable in-store associate to tell me in-person.
This is just bad selling. Selling is not just about cobbling products together to create “stuff on a page”—even cheap circulars would be embarrassed to do that! Tell me why you’ve made some of the decisions you’ve made and, ultimately, how it can help me make my life better.
By the way, did you know that Amazon’s main social feed only had one post related to this campaign on its main Instagram page? And the post itself didn’t even use a hashtag that’s relevant to the campaign approach itself? And only 3 posts, about anything, all month?
This is not a brand that I want to call the morning after.
Other retailers: stop following Amazon’s bad habits
Walmart has some pretty fantastic posts (liiike… only 2 or 3!) related to its “Renew” approach to the new year…
And its circular does a good job of hooking into the idea of resolutions with punchy headlines, without having to get into too much detail about them (we know real estate is limited in this highly promotional vehicle). The “Wellness” in-store event feels like a nice way to be the community center or happy town square that I’ve always thought Walmart wanted to be...
...but you really wouldn’t know any of that if you just went to its Amazon-esque site.
One of the world’s top retailers should have a much more sophisticated omnichannel approach than this.
Target tries—but misses the mark
Target is all about inspiration and making great things available to the masses. Good partnerships with experts and unexpected, engaging visuals are in its DNA. It has all of the ingredients for a stunning solutions-based storytelling experience that pays off with product. Did it deliver?
Well. It did produce some Made by Design tips on its Insta Stories (which may have been repurposed from previous content, if memory serves)...
...but, again, no mention of all that good stuff on its site’s main landing page for the section, when we checked. What a cool “get organized” microsite that could have been!
Its “Target Finds” section, found in Insta Stories and via the “Trending” link in its main navigation, looks interesting and like a copy-light blog—a step in the right direction? (We’ll take what we can get.)
But its “A Better You” section, overall? Again… Amazon-y. A header image and ecomm grid. That OXO spatula is probably really cool, but I guess we’ll never know whyyy….?
In a time when it’s harder than ever to get and keep people’s attention, and there are unlimited options and places to buy products, retailers have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity here. This flattening-out of storytelling is like the changing of the guard. Consumers of the future might not look to traditional digital publications for information, inspiration, and lifestyle tips and techniques… they could look to retailers, if the stores will make the most of this opportunity—now.
If you’re just selling, you’re giving customers a reason to go elsewhere. You’re not differentiating or pulling through the best of your brand. With storytelling, retailers can provide more value—to their customers and their stakeholders.
If retailers would lean into the expertise that they have, naturally, just like editors do, and communicate their product benefits better, it just might give customers a reason to do something even better than convert.
With just a little romance, they might come back again for more, and end up choosing you, over all of the other guys, to be loyal to time and time again. And knowing that, what will you get them for Valentine’s Day?