Making the digital connection

Setting its brand apart with an experiential story, French Connection is proving that its quirky values can successfully migrate online to unlock valuable revenue streams.

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French Connection is still perhaps best known for its controversial 1990s ad campaign using the risqué moniker FCUK. The slogan may be gone but the company’s risk-taking attitude is still present, although much of its edgier marketing is now done online.

Digital innovations at the company include this summer’s digital ’sneak preview’ of the brand’s autumn/winter range for its top customers; and an interactive video shop called YouTique, which allows people to buy when they click on products in short films on YouTube.

French Connection director of ecommerce and digital marketing Jennifer Roebuck says: “Our brand is associated with innovation and provocation, so it is easy for us to try new stuff because it doesn’t look out of place.”

The need for Roebuck to find new ways to prise revenues from customers is clear. French Connection, like many other retailers on the high street, is finding times tough, with pre-tax profits of just £0.7m for the six months to July this year. With its prices double of many competitors, such as H&M, it needs to set itself apart from rivals.

Roebuck, who has worked in the digital area for 12 years for businesses including Nectar, Orange and Arcadia, says that online is a great area for the brand to experiment with marketing.

“The worst case scenario is that something doesn’t do well and you take it down,” she says. “As long as you can keep the spend reasonable, make sure the impact on your team and resource is minimal and put something out there that is different, I say: why not?”

It was this type of attitude that led to the development of YouTique and championing of social commerce through a Facebook page with links to products. YouTique makes use of YouTube’s pop-up buttons by letting viewers buy in just a few clicks the items shown. The initial videos, with titles such as ’How to Shine on a Night Out’, were presented by stylist Louise Roe and aimed to give viewers the sense that they had a personal shopper guiding them through various looks.

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Through running YouTique for two seasons, French Connection has found it brings in higher average order values than when goods are ordered using other channels. The campaign validates video content as a sales tool but the brand is now asking whether this should be done via YouTube or whether it could be better leveraged on its own site.

“These days people are still gravitating towards shocking, funny or disgusting YouTube content or music videos,” says Roebuck. “So when you are a brand selling on YouTube, you are not getting the audience. The amount you have to invest sometimes costs more than the sales you are getting.”

As for investing more in social commerce, Roebuck is sceptical of its weight in the digital mix. Within Facebook, keen shoppers can buy items direct from the brand page’s news feed, so she is monitoring the channel carefully.

“It is very early days for transacting on Facebook and YouTube,” she says. “So far, the only people who have really seen success with that are film companies selling movie content or sports teams selling T-shirts.”

Aside from trying new marketing techniques, the brand also has a mature digital strategy mixing search, email, affiliate, display, re-targeting and customer relationship management techniques. Like many other retailers, French Connection’s digital sector has grown over 100% in the past three years, while traffic has grown 200%. The crucial question is how to turn that increase into sales.

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With a range of products for several target audiences, personalised marketing is one of French Connection’s aims

“We are constantly looking at what functionality and visual improvements we need to add, where the market is and who has what,” she says. “I look at the US market as a benchmark because I think they are a little more innovative and quicker there.”

Roebuck has already made significant changes to the company’s overall identity online since joining in 2008. One of her first tasks was to relaunch the site with a focus on an interactive experience and top products, including launching its shoe and bag ranges online.

Fashion-focused editorial sections, including trend reports and stories on celebrity followers were incorporated, along with a discussion board.

Roebuck takes a pragmatic approach to the digital mix. “All brands are at a different stage with the different channels of digital marketing,” she says. “Generally, you start with building the business, your traditional digital tactics, then you move onto more innovative areas. Then you move onto extracting as much as you can out of the site through optimisation, and then you move on to personalisation.”

The brand’s approach to email marketing, working with agency EmailVision, illustrates that journey well. In a mid-way stage of digital evolution that has integration but no personalisation as yet, the strategy so far is to have automated communications and standard weekly content updates that people can opt into. This is primarily fashion led and exploits the appeal of fashion staples such as the top-ten sellers or ’How to wear a black dress’.

Roebuck’s hard and fast rules in this space are to carefully consider content, don’t over mail and stay on top of the unsubscribe rate. “We take pride in being on brand, matching the overarching campaigns and being in sync,” she says.

The character of the company’s email communications follows the offbeat approach seen in the rest of the brand’s advertising, which currently uses baffling phrases, such as: “This is you? You are man” and “This is the woman. She is knowing we are looking”.

The use of email is not just tactical, claims Roebuck, who sees it as a brand-building tool. “When we are releasing a campaign video, we will send it out via email,” she says. “We use it for communicating brand as much as sales.”

Search marketing is high on the agenda and the brand is active in both natural and paid search. Roebuck says that having good agency relationships is particularly vital in areas such as search, where numerous changes take place regularly with Google, Bing and Yahoo!.

With a goal to make the most out of generic terms, she is enthusiastic about the functionality that Google is adding. “There are constant improvements in terms of what you can do with your ad,” she says. “As Google does that, our generics are performing much better.”

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Her work with natural search puts an emphasis on link density, link building and any SEO benefit she can build through content. She judges this to be the biggest improvement the brand has made over the past year.

Although French Connection uses affiliate marketing, Roebuck claims the channel does not derive striking results. It has two networks in the UK, and ones in Canada, the US and Europe.

The brand doesn’t do the discounting and coupon offers that affiliates typically find drive growth and get high responses. The leverage it can gain from affiliate marketing is also limited because it is very restrictive about which sites it will appear on from a brand perspective.

“Affiliate and search are important as channels because they are probably the lowest cost of acquisition and of sales in retail, so they can help drive the volume,” says Roebuck. “But they can only help drive so much volume.”

Mobile is an area where Roebuck expects to see some big developments in the near future. Yet she believes there is significant hype in this area. Rather than rely on agencies for mobile know-how, she aims to learn from her peers.

As such, French Connection’s mobile strategy involves keeping the site simple with easy navigation cues, steering clear of too much content and graphics. Roebuck says: “A lot of people looking for your brand on mobile are more functionally minded, looking for things like your store and your opening hours, your product categories, how to buy and how to transact.

“We have an iPhone app and an iPad app, but have chosen not to develop other apps because apart from tablet apps, a mobile site is all you really need,” she adds.

With so many marketing and sales strands to pull together, on and offline, evaluation of digital work is appraised on the brand’s commercial success. Analytics, sales and consumer engagement play a part, as does brand impact.

Increasingly, marketers are looking away from the last-click model to try to ascertain the true value each marketing stage – be it display, social media, mobile – plays in the consumer’s journey.

It can be a challenge, though, to make sense of the data and make it actionable. Attribution modelling is one way, perhaps, of assessing these pathways and an area Roebuck is considering. “I think, long term, it will be useful because as more and more channels develop, you need to see what the consumer interaction is with different channels,” she says. “Large companies with massive budgets are probably leveraging their attribution model for ad exchanges, but most retailers in our space are just starting out with it.”

While French Connection may be keen to display a youthful insouciance to attract its customers, its business operations are heavily backed by data. It may take creative risks, but it is keeping a firm grip on the execution.

Case Study: For your eyes only

French Connection launched a ’preview site’ initiative to help generate loyalty among its fickle 18- to 35-year-old consumer base. It has been using a small-scale technology investment to enable its top customers and Facebook fans the opportunity to get their hands on the 2011 autumn/winter collections before they hit the stores.

The functionality driven campaign went live on 20 July, allowing these certain customers private early access to the collection. People received the preview site log-in after being sent a link to it and then mailed a password.

The site featured a countdown page bearing a ticker that told consumers how many days and hours there were until the collection was available. Then they received another communication when it was live.

The aim was to give customers with access to the preview site a sense of kudos because they had two weeks before the collection went into the main universe of French Connection, where everyone could buy it.

French Connection director of ecommerce and digital marketing Jennifer Roebuck explains: “Part of what we are trying to do is figure out what we can do for our customers to help drive loyalty and make them feel like they are being rewarded in an ongoing way.

“From a retention perspective, we will be more focused on personalisation to ensure we can try and deliver things to our customers that are of interest.”

The perennial challenge for the company is to offer value to the customer without discounting or offering loyalty cards, things that are not considered a good match for the premium nature of the brand.

Roebuck has been measuring the success of the initiative by looking at the sales, average order rate, visits, referral rate and response to the communications that went out containing the preview messaging. One key indicator of the traction gained is the Facebook activity where customers have proved to be more engaged through commenting and participating than they had been with anything else on the Facebook site.

“We performed very well with an average order value that was a lot higher than normal,” says Roebuck. “We also had good engagement levels. Browsing time and viewing of products was much greater than when we’ve launched in the traditional way and there was a very good referral rate.”

Key points

  • Make sure you understand customer interaction with each channel available to your brand.
  • Affiliate and search channels are important because they offer a low cost of acquisition and the lowest cost of sales in retail, so they can help drive volume.
  • Make sure your online experiences are interactive. Online should be just as creative as offline.
  • Use the participation elements of social sites, such as Facebook and YouTube, to engage your most eager customers.
  • Consider how your marketing initiatives can reward loyalty and make consumers feel like they are being rewarded in an ongoing way.

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