Offline, Online: Connected Thinking


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For over two decades the internet has changed the way in which businesses and institutions have delivered their products and services to consumers. In fact, the abundance and the range of online resources and services and the level to which they have been adopted has called to predict the harbinger of death for bricks-and-mortar businesses and institutions.

However, a large contributing factor for this is that too many of these have been treating the bricks-and-mortar or offline parts of their organisations as completely separate entities to their online services. This has been to their detriment, and it has now become clear that for many businesses to survive and remain relevant offline, as well as online, they have to adapt and evolve each to become one part of a greater whole.

A new school of thought

Universities represent some of the eldest institutions in the world, and it is they that are representing some of the first to react to the idea that online services can be used to supplement offline offerings.

Starting off in America, the widespread implementation of MOOCs has recently hit the shores of the UK, with leading universities such as Bristol, Kings College and Exeter all offering courses through the conduit of the Open University’s online platform. Standing for massive open online courses, MOOCs give students access to a selection of higher education content that students can follow online for free.

So how is this helping universities to supplement their offline services? The quality of free online courses offer the opportunity to provide a shop window of their paid courses by giving potential students a taster to the content and nature of the courses they could study full-time.

This makes perfect sense, as fees rise and applications to higher education fall for the second consecutive year, universities need to take advantage of all the possible opportunities that modern technology present to promote their traditional services.

Additionally, and also because of a fall in attendance, universities are seeing a significant shortfall in their earnings. By producing a range of MOOCs, universities have the opportunity to take advantage of the myriad of opportunities the internet conjures up to make money from its users. The advantage of this is that participating establishments are able to bolster their coffers and help sustain the level of funding and, in turn, the quality of a university’s bricks-and-mortar offerings.

Offline, online

The revolutionary nature of the MOOC is that, as opposed to a separate online offering, it represents a fully-integrated recreation of offline content.

Everything from community to staff support is accessible online, as opposed to the traditional business model where online retail and offline retail are each their own separate teams.

By combining offline and online content in this way, universities are showing traditional businesses the right way to go about creating a digital presence.

The changing face of consumer buying patterns

No-one can deny the landscape of the UK high street has shifted significantly, with countless established and respected retailers having gone under in recent years. Although the recession has undoubtedly been the major contributing factor for many of these, it would be amiss to fail and recognise that some have fallen because of their inability to recognise the different way the vast majority of people shop today.

In a whitepaper published by Experian, a global information service company, they claim 80-90% of all consumer’s shopping decisions are influenced by the internet. A statistic that is compounded by a survey undertaken by Dimensional Research, which found that 90% of its respondents buying decisions were influenced by positive reviews found online. Similarly, 86% said they were influenced by negative reviews too.

Yet, 90% of all retail sales in the UK still take place in-store. Therefore, statistics and research of this nature suggest that shoppers now commit a significant amount of time to research using online resources, considering different aspects of a product such as price and the easiest place to buy something form, before then actually making the physical purchase in-store.

Revisionist Retailing

Within this modern retail environment it is the bricks-and-mortar retailers that recognise and react to the shift in buying behaviour which are the ones who are surviving and, in some cases, thriving. And for many of those that have, it is the implementation of an effective online-to-offline strategy that is providing the catalyst for their improved or improving performance.

An online-to-offline strategy is where a business uses all of its online resources in such a way as they help strengthen the service delivered offline. This is a strategy that looks at all the different channels a business has, not as separate entities, but as part of one multi-channel plan. The design of which is to make sure a business is making the most of its online assets in such a way as they have some value in-store and, ultimately, increase revenue by encouraging more in-store sales.

Because the vast majority of retail businesses already have a myriad of online resources that customers use to engage with their brand, implementing a strategy such as this is perfectly attainable. The key is utilising these resources in such a way as they give customers a compelling reason to visit their stores such as the level of customer service and access to specialist staff that are able to deal with very specific queries.

Bringing in the experts

Such is the momentum gathering behind online-to-offline strategy being the saviour of bricks-and-mortar retail; many businesses are now choosing to use experts in the arcane arts of multi-channel such as K3 Retail to help out.

Although there is a plethora of online-to-offline techniques being suggested and exploited by retail businesses, here are three of the most prevalent and successful:

Click and collect

This service offers online shoppers the option when checking out to have their purchase sent to a local store, where it is then held ready for them to pick up. This gives customers more autonomy over their purchases, as they can arrange to pick up their goods at a time that is most convenient to them, rather than relying solely on the postage service and spending an inordinate amount of time queuing at sorting offices.

Smart phone technology

The smart phone is giving customers the chance to engage with customers at throughout the buying process, including in-store. An example is that smart phone technology is enabling customers to look at the company website, or even a competitor’s, to check prices and information. This means that retailers have to ensure their mobile sites and apps are comprehensive, consistent across channels and that their prices remain competitive with their rivals.

However, this is just a drop in the ocean in comparison to the potential options mobile technology presents. Tesco, for example, are testing an app that will allow users to upload their shopping list to their phone, which will then direct them around the shop in the most efficient fashion that will allow them to pick up all of their desired goods.

Customer Relationship Management (CRM)

Online services also offer the potential to provide retailer with CRM solutions. The idea of which is provide customers with opportunities to engage and build a relationship with a brand, as well as gather information about customers for marketing purposes.

For example, by sending an email or an SMS to customers after they have purchased a product asking for feedback, retailers can find out which of their products are proving popular and why, as well as improve customer service relations by increasing responsiveness and dealing with any possible complaints proactively. Additionally, by finding out more information on their customers by understanding how they engage with the brand, retailers can concentrate their marketing efforts on supplying products that people actually want.

Competitive advantage

Companies that integrate a successful online-to offline strategy are able to create for themselves a significant competitive advantage. However, to do it successfully it is essential that all of the different channels are consistent.

To do this a business needs to ensure that the strategy is exercised from the ground up and becomes engrained within the organisational culture, ensuring that brand communications are the same across all platforms and the way in which each channel is utilised has the customer at the centre of it.

Customers don’t differentiate between channels, and instead see each as representative of the brand as a whole. Customers don’t differentiate between different channels, seeing each as a representative of the brand as a whole.

Therefore the ‘voice’ of the company should be consistent and recognisable in each channel to the point that it reinforces brand identification. A pertinent example being in-store staff, whose expertise is often a main driver of online-to-offline strategies; if their tone and line of communication is drastically different to what has been conveyed online then the whole strategy is in danger of failing.

Do you have any examples of how online resources are breathing new life into offline businesses and institutes, or any other suggestions on how they can? Please share in the comments section below.

James Duval
James Duval is a marketing expert who has been cited by Mainstreet, ProBloggingSuccess and MarketingProfs. He works for Comm100, thinking about new tricks and techniques in the email and marketing industries.


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