Helping Is Nice -- Selling Is Better

When was the last time Amazon was helpful to you, in the kind of way email marketers advise one another they need to be helpful to customers? Come to think of it, when was John Lewis or Next ever helplful, sharing a piece of content that proactively answers a question that many may have, such as what ink their printer takes or which leads to what job at the back of a tv or PC?

I'm scratching my head right now. These brands, alongside eBay, Debenham and M&S make it to the DMA's top six retail brands customers feel most engaged with. Yet i can't recall a single time they've passed on any useful tips or content. If they have, it's been a thinly veiled sales message around "winter cool looks" or "the perfect fabric for lounging sofas". 

it's a point worth raising because the DMA, to which most email marketers in the UK look to for advice and lobbying, conducted research to see which retailers customers feel most engaged with. It's hardly surprising that Amazon is way out ahead as the No. 1 trusted brand and that John Lewis is in second place. The latter's "never knowingly undersold" co-operative approach to retail is highly respected in the UK and it's Christmas adverts are eagerly anticipated each festive season. It's even more trusted that eBay which is on pretty much an even par with Debenhams, M&S and Next.

These brands' approaches flies in the face of conventional email wisdom to be there as a friend for the prospect and send them lots of great content that they'll love so much they'll be in a favourable frame of mind when you get round to telling them you actually have something to sell. Nobody would say there isn't some good advice there but it would seem most apt for people in the b2b space selling professional services. Such companies need to demonstrate they are at the head of their game and can demonstrate it with wise words that will stand them in good stead when a prospect needs to draw up a short list of relevant suppliers.

Buying a television or a new frock for a cocktail party are very different. Amazon stands out for its wide range and personalised suggestions with the benefit of one-click ordering with the option of ditching delivery charges. John Lewis has it's price promise and legendary devotion to customer services, while everyone grew up knowing and trusting M&S and Next. We sit through and largely ignore a tirade of 'top tech bargains' and 'shoes for the office party season' emails knowing that they're the brand we'll turn to when we need them. 

So neither approach is correct to the detriment of another but it is worth reminding ourselves that a lot of advice about bending over to be helpful with free content holds the most value for people who want to show their advice is eventually worth paying for. Nevertheless, there's still nothing wrong with a brand that sells things being very upfront and, well, just trying to sell stuff to its list -- just ask the top six retailers named yesterday by the DMA. Small brands with less customer trust obviously aren't quite in the same position and there is a place for shrewd content marketing. But while you're out there winning hearts and minds, just remind yourself the most successful retailers in the country are unapologetic all about trying to sell their wares, and there's nothing wrong with that either.

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