Today, product data and marketing content have one of the coldest relationships in the martech stack.
Engineers worry about SKUs, specs, sizes, and materials. Marketers worry about images, videos, docs, and diagrams. Copywriters try to bridge the divide with descriptions, features, benefits, and sales messaging.
If the product data and content match across channels, either the marketers got lucky, or they're using an integrated digital asset management (DAM) and information management (PIM) solution.
To not mislead or let down shoppers seems like a low (but technologically challenging) hurdle to clear. The higher hurdle is for a brand to be consistent with its own mission and values—thereby demonstrating trustworthiness. That, too, is all about product data and content. At least, that's my takeaway from Widen's Connectivity Report.
Brands can no longer treat product data and marketing content in isolation, my teammates and I found. Accurate, comprehensive product data is critical to building trust, whereas emotive, interactive content is essential to driving sales.
Both types of information are needed to tell the story of how a brand lives up to its values, and a brand's ability to tell that story may hinge on emerging technologies.
Trust From the Product Up
Marketers intuitively know that presenting accurate product information across channels is important. But why?
For the 2021 Connectivity Report, my colleagues and I surveyed 155 marketers and creatives from the US and UK between August and September 2020. The respondents represented 25 industries with employers ranging from Global 2000 brands to our local Wisconsin tourism agency.
Nearly 50% of respondents credited product data as the information type that has the greatest impact on building customer trust—far ahead of product photography (16%) and descriptive copy (11%), the runners-up. In other words, marketers don't consider their own photos or videos to be trustworthy, because hyperbole is part of the art.
But product data is different. There are massive consequences for fudging nutritional stats, material tolerances, safety ratings, etc. Product data sets expectations, conveys authenticity, and builds a foundation of trust. Online shoppers especially rely on product data in absence of a sensory, hands-on experience.
Still, most brands are led to think that "trust" is a top-down phenomenon. Every year, the PR firm Edelman releases its Trust Barometer. In 2021, even though business was the most "trusted" institution (ahead of government, NGOs, and media), US-based companies have seen their trust index fall from 62 in 2014 to 48 in 2021.
Worldwide, 56% of respondents agreed that "Business leaders are purposely trying to mislead people by saying things they know are false or gross exaggerations."
Does it make sense for "trust" to hinge on whatever the C-level leaders happen to say out loud? No. I think we need to build trust from the product up instead.
Blurring the Data/Content Divide
Although our Connectivity Report respondents credited product data for building trust, they agreed (72%) that digital assets such as photography, videos, and product marketing content have the biggest impact on sales. They also said they feel that they haven't come close to realizing the potential of virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), and interactive experiences in driving transactions.
For example, a retail leader in home goods spoke to the problem of selling expensive items online: "You would really love to see how that $1,000 chandelier would look in your dining room using something like augmented reality," said the interviewee.
For that to happen, product data and content would need to be interlinked. Accurate dimensions for each chandelier must coexist in a profile with 3D imagery and take into account the limitless variations of a single product (e.g., a black metal body versus a copper one versus...).
The augmented reality experiences could build trust and excitement by depicting how the chandelier would look in a certain dining room. Maybe the shopper could add dining hall dimensions, wallpaper color, and a 3D image of the table using a smartphone at home.
The point is that trust-building media experiences sit at the intersection of product data and visual content, which cannot be treated separately anymore—especially not for brands that want to tell a more meaningful story about their products.
A Mission Told in Product Data
During long-form interviews for the Connectivity Report, one marketer tapped into a challenge that dominates news cycles but doesn't have much traction with marketing technologists: Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) reporting. The marketer said, "The factories and manufacturers where the products come from follow responsible sourcing practices and are expected to meet or exceed environmental standards. Those parts of the product data tell a compelling sustainability story."
The use case is interesting because so many companies have lost or gained trust through ESG actions. Sometimes, consumers perceive ESG marketing as greenwashing or wokewashing, an example of "Business leaders...purposely trying to mislead people," as Edelman put it. But if companies build ESG reporting into their product data and content, they could build trust that is safe from whatever the CEO tweets at 2 a.m.
For instance, technologists have discussed using spoof-proof distributed ledger technologies (DLTs) such as the blockchain to document products through their supply chain.
In practical terms, a fishing vessel could scan a QR code to verify where the fish were caught and the health of the species population. With each stop in its journey from Dutch Harbor in Alaska to a grocery store in Madison, Wisconsin, each QR scan would add product data, like the accumulated carbon footprint per pound of fish. At the end, an online shopper would see photos of the fish and the vessel and crew that caught it. They would also find data documenting how the grocery store took measures to protect the environment and the end consumer through its sourcing process.
The same could be done with textiles, mining products, petrochemicals, and the countless finished goods they enable. What narrative could do more to build (or restore) trust in brands that tout their responsible practices?
Inspired by Values and Powered by Martech
The marketing technology stack is a foundation for telling a meaningful story with product data and content. As I mentioned, DAM+PIM systems are already equipped to manage consistency across channels. More advanced VR, AR, and blockchain applications will likely depend on the same system.
It's time that digital marketers advance from worrying about data-content consistency to cultivating integrity and trustworthiness. New approaches to the role of product data and visual content might create trust in ways that not even the most charismatic CEO or spokesperson can. And enriching product data with ESG factors and content would enable us to recognize the hidden heroes who make possible our commercial paradise.
Brands that have nothing to hide should embrace the opportunity.
More Resources on the Role of Product Data in Marketing
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