I feel the need to state something that is probably obvious to many of you, but I have been thinking about a lot lately. For those of us who spend a great deal of time on the Internet, everything is content.

At the risk of having you say, “Um, duh!” I just want to point out that it didn’t used to be this way. When I was growing up, my family owned a hardware store. We sold hammers and nails, paint and paint brushes, locks, tape, and glue. We also sold housewares such as lamps and serving dishes, knick knacks, and picture frames. People came into the store and they got to “sample” the purchase before buying. They got to feel the quality of the paintbrush and decide if it was worth the price tag. They got to hold the candy dish and feel the weight, look at the color,examine the shape up close. It was like the good old days of shopping. Go to the store, evaluate the object, make the purchase (or not).

This is not the way I shop today. I buy almost everything online. I hate going to the mall. I hate going to the supermarket. I even hate going to the shoe store (even though I love shoes). When I make a purchase, my purchase is based not on the feel of the item, the weight, the shape in my hands. My purchase is based 100% on content.

Content purchases are very interesting when you think about it. They have a number of components:

  • The written description of the item, usually in sentences or bullets.
  • A photo of the item; sometimes multiple photos of the item from different angles.
  • Reviews, usually a combination of a star rating system and written reviews from other people who have purchased the item.

I make most of my purchases based on these three things, alone. Sometimes, only two out of three are available (for example, no photos or no reviews). Rarely have I seen something for sale that does not have a written description.

A while ago, Zappos (one of my favorite shopping sites…see note about shoes, above) came out with videos. Many of the shoes have a video at the bottom. In the video, a Zappos employee models the items and talks about how wonderful it is, what they love about it, and so on. For some reason, those videos are helpful. I’m not sure why. After all, I’ve never seen a video where the employee puts on a shoe and says, “Ouch! This shoe is terrible! I crushes my toes!” I don’t think a video like that would sell much.

On the other hand, reviews written by other shoppers are usually quite candid. I’ve seen terrible reviews of products (these towels are scratchy, these shoes are extremely narrow, this shirt fell apart the first time I wore it) when written by others who bought the item. I find reviews to be extremely helpful. The only problem with unsolicited reviews is that they usually contain opinions from people who are either incredibly happy with their purchase or completely miserable. I rarely read reviews that say, “Oh, it was okay. I’m wearing it. I like it. I don’t love it. But I’m not returning it.” Usually, a 3-star rating is an overall combination of a lot of very high marks and a lot of very low marks.

When I read reviews that are extreme in opposite directions, I get confused. Why do half of the people love the same item that half of the people hate? Who do I trust? How do I make the decision? User-generated content is incredibly unreliable in this way. Yet, reviews tend to be one of the most important aspects in the online buying decision.

In the olden days, when someone came in to my father’s store to buy a lampshade, he didn’t ask about the 17 other people who purchased the lampshade, if they liked the lampshade, if they felt the lampshade was easy to install, if the quality of the materials used in the shade was on par. No. They picked it up, turned it over, looked at it, and then either bought it or not.

Not today. Today, I need a really clear explanation, along with a visual or two, perhaps a video, perhaps a chart or graph (narrow or wide? “to size” or “to big/small”), and definitely a bunch of reviews. I need a lot of content in order make my decision. Afterall, in the absence of product, content sells.

Val Swisher
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