How Search Traffic is the New Foot Traffic for Retail

Search and Site Traffic are the new Foot Traffic of Retail Success

Traffic, Traffic, Everywhere

Traffic in NYC

Traffic. A word capable of inciting reactions on both ends of the emotional spectrum. Hear it in the context of your commute and your eyes roll as you sigh with disgust. See it in a marketing report and your eyes widen with excitement at the prospect of sales.

We hear a lot about traffic in the Sales & Marketing world – search traffic, store traffic, site traffic. All this attention is generating a lot of…well, traffic for “traffic.” According to Moz, up to 1.5 million people search this keyword each month.

According to Moz, up to 1.5m people per month search for

Retail Traffic

Traffic has always been crucial for Sales and Marketing but our relationship to it has shifted and evolved. Just a few years ago, retail stores had the upper hand over manufacturers because they had all the traffic.

Most brands didn’t have or need a strong consumer following because they depended on retailers to raise awareness of their latest products. They secured broad placement in stores across the country, often in high-visibility areas like the end of an aisle or by the checkout counter.

Grocery stores charge Slotting Fee for placement in storesSpace on retail shelves became a commodity of its own. In addition to generous discounts, manufacturers were also required to pay a slotting fee just for the privilege of having a presence on their shelves.

Retail chains knew that their traffic gave them the upper hand and, frankly, this power went to their heads. They used it to squeeze every point of discount, every day of payment terms, and every dollar of credit from manufacturers. The “partnership” between vendors and their retail partners was profoundly one-sided.

The Traffic Tables Have Turned

But oh, how the tables have turned. Store traffic has plummeted. Retail giants have fallen and those still standing are desperately scrambling to restore their former glory. And where are they turning for help? You guessed it – manufacturers.

Over the last few years, many brands have built a strong online following with their target audience (e.g., Coca-Cola has over 3.4M Twitter followers) and retailers are now turning to them for help with their traffic problem.

Sales calls look much different today than they did just 5 years ago. When retailers had the upper hand, a salesperson had to beg for an appointment with a chain’s buyer. And even then, it wasn’t guaranteed. I’ve had buyers cancel an hour before an appointment with no explanation or apology even though we flew half-way across the country to present our new products.

If a salesperson was lucky enough to secure a meeting, they were only given a few minutes, so they had to talk fast and hope that something would catch the buyer’s eye. We wrote 5-second “elevator pitches” for every new product and often, didn’t even get through them.

Store TrafficFast forward to today where retail executives are now asking to meet with their suppliers. And not for fifteen minutes but for half a day. What’s on the agenda? Often just one question – “What can you do to drive traffic to our stores?”

No one in the early 2,000’s would’ve foreseen this twist of fate, but times have changed. Now, the word “partner” more accurately conveys the relationship between brands and retailers.

We are co-dependent. Producers of goods still need retailers, but retailers have a heightened dependence on brands because, by and large, they’ve done a better job building an online following than retailers have.

Traffic’s Continuing Evolution: Product Development

The rapid evolution of traffic created a transfer of power between retailers and the brands they carried. But traffic’s evolution has only just begun. Another transformation is happening right at this very moment and those companies taking advantage of it are seeing radical results.

Two of the most innovative and effective uses of traffic today include leveraging it to drive product development and to shape marketing campaigns.

First, let’s observe how some companies are using traffic to guide the new products and services they create. We typically think of traffic in the context of marketing, but the most valuable application is to let it guide what is created in the first place.

We have access to data that brands in the early 2000’s would’ve emptied their pockets to see:

  • We can follow trending hashtags to see what consumers are talking about on social media
  • We can use SEO tools like Google Keyword PlannerMoz and SEMRush to measure the volume of searches for keywords on Google
  • We can use Facebook Audience Insights to know our customers’ interests and behaviors
  • We can select thousands of demographic categories in Facebook Ad Manager (and other social advertising dashboards) to quantify how large a potential audience is
  • We can pull reports of the terms people search for on Amazon, giving us insight into exactly what customers are looking for at the point of sale
  • We can review POS data of our products and our competitors to see what is being purchased across every channel
  • We can see into consumers’ carts to discover the other products they buy along with ours (via Amazon’s Market Basket Analysis report)
  • We can read reviews to learn exactly what our customers like and don’t like about the features of our products and those of our competitors

All this data means we can know what our customers are talking about, searching for, buying, and even what they’re unhappy with. And we can drill down further to know their behaviors, interests, location, and dozens of demographic data points.

Can SEO services serve as a crystal ball for marketers and manufacturers?If you think about it, there’s little excuse anymore for creating a product that doesn’t sell.

I’m not claiming that traffic data is a crystal ball but it’s about the closest thing we can get to one. Some due diligence with all this information can and should guide the product development strategy of companies in every sector.

Instead of building something you think will sell and then putting the burden on the Marketing and Sales Teams to make it happen, discerning companies are using traffic data to identify customer needs first and then creating solutions in the form of new products.

By the way, when this happens, it makes the work of Marketers and Salespeople so much easier!

A New Product Development Process

Here’s a grossly oversimplified list of basic steps that forward-thinking companies take when determining how to leverage traffic data in their product development process:

  1. Quantify the largest potential audience within their market
  2. Listen to their conversations and list their felt needs in descending order by volume
  3. Research the products that already meet the most common need
  4. Identify gaps where competitors aren’t serving customers
  5. If there are no obvious gaps, realistically determine the likelihood of being able to compete with leading products already on the market
  6. If no clear opportunities rise to the surface, repeat step 3 with the second most popular need (and then the third and fourth, etc.)
  7. If no clear winner is identified, return to step 1 and repeat with the next largest potential audience in a niche market

Let’s flesh these steps out a little with an illustration of them in action.

A Real-Life Example

Wendy’s March Madness Bracket Builder Bot is a perfect real-life example of starting with data instead of a traditional product idea. When they faced a need to increase traffic at their restaurants, they didn’t turn to old standbys. They didn’t merely line-extend the Baconator brand with a new 5-decker version (a.k.a. the “Defribulator”).

Instead of coming up with a new product based on prior experience, they used traffic data to drive their next big launch – and it wasn’t a burger at all – it was a piece of software.

Wendy’s shared the story of their success on a dedicated marketing page where they state in the Strategy section that step #1 was “Find a relevant audience.”

Wendy's Bracket Builder Bot

The audience they identified was college basketball fans who get swept up in March Madness. They were able to quantify its size by seeing that in 2016, over 17 million tweets were sent about Selection Sunday.

They listened to this audience and learned that their felt needs included an easier tool for building a bracket and a simple way to check in to see how their bracket is performing.

Wendy’s chose this audience and determined to own this traffic. They invested in building the bot, targeted the intended audience with ads and hashtags, and then used the bot to build brand awareness each time users engaged with it.

All of this engagement with customers successfully built their brand awareness (2M DM’s exchanged and 8M organic & earned impressions), brand authority, and brand likeability. And the free Dave’s Single coupon is driving those customers into their restaurants.

This was an unconventional strategy that was unthinkable just a few years ago but now it’s a legitimate method for determining which products to create. Brilliant job with that fresh (never frozen) idea, Wendy’s! Can’t wait to see what you do next.

As a marketer, I get a lot more excited about working on a product launch when it goes through a process that starts with traffic data like this and then works back from there.

Traffic’s Continuing Evolution: Marketing Strategy

The use of traffic is evolving, not only with the product development strategy but also with Marketing. Whether the Product Team uses data to drive their decisions or not, savvy marketers are leveraging it to create epic product campaigns.

Just a few years ago, Marketers had to rely on instinct, past experience, focus groups, and feedback from retailers and the Sales Team. Though all of these factors are still part of the marketer’s toolkit, there’s a new Power Tool available to us (hear Tim the Tool Man’s grunt) that changes everything.

Web traffic reportsTraffic data can drive a marketing strategy in ways that are very similar to the Product Development strategy listed earlier. Instead of the traditional method of starting with a list of potential marketing headlines and clever ad designs to choose from, slick marketers today start with the traffic data and work back from there.

A New Marketing Process

Here’s another grossly oversimplified series of steps, this time outlining the impact traffic data can have on Marketing campaigns:

  1. Quantify the largest audience with a potential interest in a product
    • Facebook Ad Manager, SEO tools like Moz, and Google Trends are just a few of the tools available to estimate the size of a given niche audience
  2. Listen to their conversations and list their felt needs in descending order by volume
  3. Record the trending hashtags, most commonly search keywords, and the content that is ranking for the most common felt need of your target audience
    • Identify gaps your competitors have missed
    • If there are no obvious gaps, realistically determine the likelihood of being able to compete with the ranking content of competitors
  4. If no clear opportunities rise to the surface, repeat step 2 by identifying the second most common felt need of your target audience (and then the third and fourth, etc.)
  5. If no clear winner is identified, return to step 1 and repeat with the next largest potential audience in a niche market

A Real-Life Example

Let me flesh this out with another real-life example. We’ll stay with fast food because who doesn’t love it, right? This time, let’s turn to Arby’s for inspiration. Wendy’s and Arby’s compete for some of the same customer traffic but they have chosen very different strategies to reach them.

Arby’s decided to start by identifying a gap – a specific target audience that wasn’t being served by their competitors. The market they chose to zero in on was gamers.

According to Newzoo’s 2017 Report, there are 2.2 billion active gamers in the world, generating over $100 billion in revenue annually. Not exactly a “niche” market, is it? It certainly warrants a concerted effort to target them.

Arby's social media for gamersSo Arby’s created a social media strategy that appeals to the gamer audience. Using food, ketchup packets, and cardboard from their meals, their marketing team recreates characters and scenes from popular games and then posts them on social media as still images, gifs, and videos.

As a result, their social following has exploded (3M Facebook, 800k Twitter, 228k Instagram), giving them the attention of an unlikely crowd.

Consider how much of a stretch this was for Arby’s. A brand identified by a cowboy hat suddenly became wildly successful at reaching people who don’t self-identify as cowboys and have never ridden a horse (unless Epona counts).

What an incredible success story! And it all happened because they started with traffic data to identify large underserved segments of the market where there were gaps of opportunity and then they built a campaign to identify with them.

Well played, Arby’s!

The Power is Up for Grabs Again

Traffic has always been tied to power and success. Retailers once wielded it. Then it transitioned to brands. Now it’s up for grabs again but this time it’s available to anyone who will use traffic data to drive the products they build, the services they offer, and the marketing campaigns they use to promote them.

Can your team adjust to working back from the data instead of trying to force old ways of doing business into an ever-changing market? That’s where the greatest opportunities lie but there is an art and science to interpreting data accurately.

If you need a nudge, consider consulting with a Journey Mapper who has experience using data to find gaps in the market. They might be able to steer you away from pitfalls and towards some opportunities you might never see on your own.

It isn’t too late for you and your team. There are more gaps to uncover, more unreached niche markets to target, and more keywords and search traffic to “own.” Stake your claim before the competition does and you’ll have the upper hand.

Disclaimer: Although I frequent the restaurants mentioned in this article enough to be a stakeholder, the only steak I hold with them is of the French Dip variety.

If you enjoyed this article, please subscribe and share it along with your comments about other examples of companies that leverage traffic data in innovative ways.

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