Bridging the online/offline divide: Five ways to bring online presence into your store

By Mark Sambrooke, sambrooke@screenscape.net

If you are like most retail brands, you put a significant amount of ongoing effort into managing your online presence. Social media for businesses is all about maintaining a healthy and open dialogue with your customers in the channels they frequent. Social media also requires substantial resources, so it is critical that you are strategic in your approach to maximize this investment and get results.

Today, many companies have mastered the art of online engagement, whether it is via engaging viral videos or a responsive Twitter handle. But what happens when your customer leaves their computer and walks into your store for the first time?

The irony is that the confines of your own store could be the weakest link of your carefully crafted campaign. The hyper focused marketing efforts that brought the customer to your doorstep need to continue inside your venue, from in-store media that is coordinated with online campaigns to educated employees.

There are several strategies that retailers can adopt to convert a successful social media or online marketing initiative into a real world sale.

Five steps to bridging the online/offline divide include:

1. Connect your signage
The first step is to get your in-store signage plugged into the same source as your customers -- the Internet. Traditional forms of media have become increasingly marginalized in the eyes of consumers, who now turn to the Internet as their main source of information and recommendations.

Digital signage has recently undergone a revolution not too different from one that took us from the mainframe computer into the age of the Internet. Internet-based digital signage systems now allow for targeted, timely and cost-effective distribution of the latest forms of digital media.

Digital signage has also become very cost effective, and should cost you only dollars per month, not hundreds of dollars. Choose a digital signage provider that does not lock you into years of service, nor require specialized hardware. Find a system with a “self serve” component for your marketing department, which will give you a measure of direct control over your screens. Make sure the system can handle all the modern must-haves -- including syndicated news feeds, YouTube video, online management, usability and integration with new services like foursquare.

2. Combine your online and offline initiatives
If you are wondering where to get all the content to put on your new digital screens, the good news is you are probably already creating much of it. Your website is full of digital assets that can be re-purposed or re-formatted for your digital screens. Twitter feeds, blog entries, viral YouTube videos, Flash ads, digital images from your web site -- all these are content sources that can quickly be uploaded onto your in-store digital displays.

Online campaigns are often carefully crafted to target their message by geography and demography as well as individual customer preferences and habits. With the right tools, the targeting techniques used in the online world can also be employed offline.

Re-using these digital assets and techniques is the best (and easiest) method for keeping your online and offline campaigns coordinated.

3. Engage your customers
The same principles that apply to good online engagement with your customers apply when engaging in-store:

    * Build a community
    * Create engaging content
    * Share the passions of your customers
    * Be authentic

For example, if you are a chain of sporting goods stores, make sure there is room in your content list for local sports. That is where your customers’ hearts (and dollars) are found. Highlight the local pro sports franchise -- or even better, the local little league. Build some leeway into your marketing guidelines. Allow the local store operator to make limited decisions that align with his local clientele’s passions. Playing that half minute YouTube clip of the triumphant local heroes is a surefire way to gain customer loyalty, one community at a time.

A modern digital-signage system will allow you to meet these hyper-local goals and still satisfy your mandate to control your brand and stay on message.

4. Keep it fresh
The ultimate goal of all your in-store efforts is to grab your customers’ attention and hold it long enough to truly engage them. That means creating not only compelling content, but fresh and timely content. The day-to-day effort of keeping everything up to date is often where conventional digital-signage efforts break down.

Steps two and three should help mitigate this problem, but remember that successful online to offline marketing requires a considerable time commitment. Invest time and resources into understanding your new capabilities and recognize that the ROI outweighs the added costs. Give yourself and your team the bandwidth and the budget to get it done right.

5. Connect the dots with mobile
The world is going mobile. “Location aware” smart phones, which allow mobile applications and services to take into account the user’s location, are already being widely used.

This is important because mobile phones are the missing link in the chain that makes online to offline a reality. Your customers are always online, because their phones are always online. When your customers bring their phones into your store, they bring the potential to directly connect with your online to offline marketing campaign.

How this revolution will change the retail experience is a chapter still being written. Your customers’ phones are giving them unprecedented access to information such as tips, product reviews and competitive pricing. On the other side of the coin, their phones are giving you unprecedented information that can be leveraged for in-store marketing efforts. Your customers’ phones are telling you not only when they have arrived, but their interests, their history and even their friends. These are monumental shifts in the consumer environment. We all recognize that marketing efforts will need to adapt. The best advice for responding to these shifts is “be prepared.” A few simple and practical steps today will keep you primed to take advantage of tomorrow.

It is easier than you think
Combining your efforts in the online world with in-store digital signage and mobile technology is a great way to test the waters in the new online to offline space. It is not difficult to get started; here are three quick things you can do:

   1. Claim your foursquare venue by visiting http://foursquare.com/businesses/;
   2. Register your venue with Google Places and Facebook Places; and
   3. Try out a modern, Internet-based digital-signage system.

Once your store’s presence is felt in these three online/mobile resources, you will have an immediate mobile presence for your offline store. From here, you are ready to follow the five steps to bridging the online/offline divide and bring all your marketing efforts to life right inside your store.

Mark Sambrooke is VP product management for ScreenScape (screenscape.net ), the first community-based digital signage network, where he leads all product management functions. Businesses use ScreenScape for digital signage, media distribution and advertising. He can be reached at sambrooke@screenscape.net.

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