Exclusive Q&A: How Retailers Can Escape The ‘Content Trap’

All kinds of businesses have been rocked by the digital revolution: news, music, media, transportation — and most definitely retail. But what exactly has made it so tough for some retailers to adapt to the changed landscape?

Harvard Business School professor Bharat Anand has pinpointed some of the key reasons why traditional businesses, including retail, have found it so difficult to find their footing in a digital-first world. Too many companies fall into what Anand calls the “Content Trap.” In his book of the same name, Anand wrote that rather than focusing on the new world of connections that digital enables, companies remain fixated on the content they produce: a news story, a song, a taxi ride — and in the case of retail, the product they sell.

Some retailers have found their own ways out of the trap: Home Depot by emphasizing curation, advice and inspiration in its stores, and Best Buy by adding strong service components to its product offerings with its Geek Squad.

In this exclusive Q&A with Retail TouchPoints, Anand shares why so many retailers fall into the Content Trap — and what they can do to extricate themselves.

RTP: How do the elements of the Content Trap translate to retail?

Bharat Anand: In the book, “content” is a metaphor for “product.” I drew examples from the information industry, where content is the product. The important point here is the idea of user connections. When digital came along, its power seemed to be about creating reach. Companies could reach hundreds of thousands of people in the old analog world, but digital multiplied that capability. That’s an extremely natural conclusion to draw, and it’s the way most organizations still focus on digital.

But what was different about digital technology versus, for example, television and radio, was that it did more than increase reach; it changed the hub-to-spoke model. Traditionally a company was the hub, producing content (or a product), and distributing it to the spokes — viewers or customers. Digital increased the number of spokes, but now a spoke could interact back with the hub. They could be part of creating content or a product.

Another important insight is that the spokes could now talk to each other. That’s what many organizations still miss: the user connections — user-to-company, or user-to-user.

In my job as a member of a university faculty, think of it as the shift from a lecture mode to a case-based discussion mode. Lecturing is a broadcast model. In the case-based discussion model, however, the lecturer is essentially giving up that role as the “broadcaster” and treating the students as co-creators. Then it becomes about facilitating conversation in a smart way.

RTP: But these aspects of digital…