A group of brand advocates pose for a J. Crew Style Session. Image via Simplylulustyle.com.

A group of brand advocates strike a pose at a J. Crew Style Session. Image via Simplylulustyle.com.

Seventy-five percent of brands plan to increase their content marketing budgets this year. But you probably already knew that.

What’s less expected is that for retail brands with a dominant brick-and-mortar presence, investing in digital content that doesn’t support their offline business could actually be a move in the wrong direction.

Can online content lead to offline sales?

To be sure, brick-and-mortar retail brands can and do build audiences online by investing in quality digital content. They’ll get shares, they’ll get followers and they’ll get likes. But what they won’t necessarily get are in-store sales opportunities.

A powerful example of how retailers are prioritizing online impressions over sales is Lowe’s and its celebrated Vine campaign, #quickfixinsix. If you haven’t seen them, the Vines are friendly and useful and hit the content sweet spot: They get lots of shares and don’t cost much to produce.

They’re a favourite of mine because they represent everything we’ve come to celebrate about digital marketing. These clever videos provide useful inspiration as well as product awareness without feeling out of place in social feeds.

But this type of campaign – even if it goes viral, even if it’s “a home-run” – is still too far from the physical cash register. It’s potentially more of a boost to Vine and Amazon than it is to Lowe’s.

Here’s why: If brick-and-mortar’s biggest asset – its physical stores – get cut out of the digital strategy, retail differentiations in location, products and shopping environment become less meaningful.

When the products are not proprietary as in the #quickfixinsix videos, all that effort of revving up a purchase mindset gets spent driving people directly into the digital abyss.

But imagine if Lowe’s Vine fans were enticed to head to the nearest store for further information and hands-on tutorials, and were given the confidence and tools to succeed in their DIY projects. That Vine content could have created a powerful reason to shop exclusively at a local Lowe’s.

The brick-and-mortar advantage

Physical stores have the enviable opportunity to maximize a content strategy using the emotional engagement only possible through face-to-face interactions.

Sure, online shopping has polite chat-bots and big zoom buttons, but it still can’t beat the emotional resonance of a helpful staff interaction, a relevant product demo, or a shopping trip with friends.

In fact, according to a 2013 Gallup study, shoppers who feel “fully engaged” with a retail brand – “those with the strongest rational and emotional connections to a particular retailer” – are not only more likely to convert, but will actually spend more.

As we’ve seen time and again with the brands we work with at Togather, not only are people who come in for specific store activities willing to shop, 85 percent will bring friends, and their opinion of the brand goes through the roof.

A natural next step for retailers with a savvy digital strategy is to translate the tone of their most engaging online content into in-store programming that engages and converts.

J.Crew tries on in-store content

While retail brands like Target and West Elm get traction on Pinterest and native sites by posting lifestyle content, J.Crew hosts in-store events that result in cost-effective and shareable online content.

Here’s how they do it: J.Crew hosts popular Style Sessions with local style bloggers. Shoppers are invited to J.Crew stores to create Instagram-worthy outfits using clothes from J.Crew’s new collections.

The result is that a positive brand experience takes place within arm’s reach of the racks, while images and good times get spread online through fan blogs and social networks.

With minimal digital spend, J.Crew creates sales opportunities and content that brands it as an experience destination.

An invitation to a J.Crew style session.

An invitation to a J.Crew style session.

Even the e-commerce kids are doing it

Creating campaigns around good, old-fashioned experiences that forego the hard sell and cater to shoppers’ tastes, lifestyle, and craving for inspiration is a laudable and profitable exercise. More so if those experiences close the web-to-store sales loop.

And it’s not just traditional retailers that are catching on. Savvy e-commerce sites like Warby Parker and Bonobos are also investing in the face-to-face potential of stores, opening brick-and-mortar locations and reminding everyone that shopping once existed – and delighted – offline.

In the battle for eyeballs, retail brands have a silver bullet. The question is: Will they use it?