March 5, 2004, 12:00 AM

The Information Age

Content was king, then commerce was king. Now content is the crown prince at some sites that believe that information, competitions and how-tos drive visits, sales and customer loyalty.

Once upon a time, content was king. Content ruled retail web sites with the promise that content engaged consumers-and engaged consumers would stick around and spend money. Then came the bursting of the Internet investment bubble and suddenly the king was deposed. No time for frivolities like content, investors said, we’ve got to make sites pay. And so then commerce became king.

Commerce is still king, but online retailers today have learned that content also—and in some cases frequently—leads a web site to commerce. Take Advance Stores Co. Inc.’s AdvanceAutoParts.com: A year ago, it started an initiative to add content to its site—how-to articles, repair tips, driving advice. It did little other new web site marketing, sticking instead to its normal search engine optimization to drive sales. Yet in that year, web site sales increased 119% over the year earlier. “Adding this content has had the best bang for the marketing buck so far,” says Phil Akin, director of marketing.

AdvanceAutoParts.com is not alone in making content an important initiative. Not only are DIY auto mechanics interested in content at Advance and other auto parts sites, such as AutoZone.com, customers as varied as upscale home cooking enthusiasts at Cooking.com and quilters and other hobbyists at HancockFabrics.com are responding to content. “Our clients’ desire to do more with content indicates that adding content results in conversions,” says Kelly Mooney, president of Columbus, Ohio-based consultants TenResource. But she cautions that to be successful, content can’t be too overtly sales-oriented. “It needs to be built on a relationship strategy rather than to push sales,” she says.

Content with a purpose

That’s an insight that today’s retailers have gained through the arduous trial and error of the early days of online retailing. Many sites came on with content-heavy offerings and pointed to site stickiness as evidence that content was having a positive effect. But hardly anyone today views stickiness without sales as an effective web strategy. “We’re seeing a little more content on web sites, but it’s very site specific,” says Lauren Freedman, president of Chicago-based consultants The E-Tailing Group Inc. Much of what The E-Tailing Group has uncovered in its periodic review of 100 retailing web sites are glossaries and how-to advice, as well as the common consumer reviews at books and music sites, as well as technical advice at consumer electronics sites. “It’s very strong in the information-intensive categories,” Freedman says.

For content to be effective, though, retailers need to think carefully about the goals they want their web site to achieve and the content’s role in achieving those goals. “Content should be designed to engage and inspire you to be part of a lifestyle,” Mooney says. “I like to think about it as content with a purpose.”

At Cooking.com, the content’s purpose is to differentiate the brand from other places, both on the web and in catalogs, where consumers can buy cooking and baking products and equipment. “We really felt the need to incorporate something into our site to give us a point of differentiation,” says Tracy Randall, CEO. Cooking.com hosts 6,000 recipes, a glossary of nearly 15,000 terms and as many as 3,000 cooking techniques and ideas, such as five menu ideas for Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner, Randall reports.

While the company can’t trace content directly to sales, Randall notes that 25% of the site’s page impressions occur from content pages. In addition, surveys of Cooking.com’s customers—75% women 55 and older with average household income over $100,000—show that the vast majority of them are aware of the site’s non-product content. Furthermore, even if it doesn’t generate sales, the content area does generate ad revenue for the company in the form of advertising dollars from the likes of Sara Lee, Celebrity Cruises and Eddie Bauer.

Cooking.com pays very little for the content, obtaining most of the recipes from cooking magazines and cookbook publishers. In return, Cooking.com hosts subscription links to magazines’ web sites and stocks cookbooks for sale. Only occasionally will Cooking.com create an original recipe, such as when it wants to promote a particular product and it can’t find a recipe using the product. The content is managed as part of the responsibilities of the technical staff that makes sure the entire site is functioning properly, Randall says. “It’s pretty inexpensive to do it the way we do it,” she says.

A new touchpoint

A gauge of the broad appeal of web site content is the different retailers who have had success with it. While Cooking.com’s affluent women customers are looking up recipes, Advance Auto’s middle America home car mechanics are engaging in their own kind of content. AdvanceAutoParts.com hosts 5.7 million unique visitors a year who conduct 34.7 million articles and parts look-ups.

Roanoke, Va.-based Advance, which operates 2,500 stores mostly east of the Mississippi River, maintains two web site ventures. One is an e-commerce site—PartsAmerica.com—that is a joint venture with Phoenix, Ariz.-based CSK Auto Inc., which operates 1,100 stores under three brands in the West. The other is AdvanceAuto-Parts.com, which is where the content resides. With little overlap in markets, the two companies felt they could better leverage a web site investment with a joint venture. “The reality is that few people want to buy auto parts online,” Akin says. “They want to go to the store so they can look at the part and make sure they are buying the right one.”

But Advance executives still believed that a web site could be an important part of their retail strategy, even if it doesn’t generate the sales that some thought during the web hype period that it could. They based their belief on their observation that customers regularly looked up price and availability of parts online, even if they didn’t buy online. “Parts lookup is huge,” Akin says. It took only a small leap from parts look-up to content, he says. “We figured that if people are researching information online, the web site can do for us what we’ve never been able to do and that is tell people how to do things, things like what’s the firing sequence of the spark plugs on a certain Chevy or how to change brake pads,” Akin says.

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