For more than a decade, buying and selling of products online has transformed the way consumers interact with brands. From the comfort of home, on the daily commute, or even over a lunch break, consumers turn to e-commerce as a platform that meets the fast-paced, time-restricted demands of 21st century living.

Innovative e-commerce brands such as Amazon and Alibaba have transformed shopping online and have redefined what we understood as possible. More than the exchange of goods or services between online stores and individual customers, the customer preference for convenience, ease of payment, rapid delivery and emotional satisfaction has made e-commerce one among the fastest-growing sectors of the world economy.

According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, the percentage of retail sales in the U.S. that have come from the e-commerce industry has increased by nearly 300% over the past ten years. However, even with this significant growth, e-commerce still represents less than 10% of all retail sales in the U.S. market (source). Though these statistics initially seem shocking – given the sheer breadth of exposure to online shopping in daily life – they represent a significant opportunity for the continued growth of online retailer brands.

While these figures are not representative of all countries, referencing the current largest retail market in the world as an example can serve as a benchmark for considering the challenging market forces that are changing the way consumers communicate, interact, buy, and sell with online retailers:

Proliferation of brands: Consumers are inundated by brands today. Online retailers are hunting for attention and seeking greater exposure across all channels and aspects of daily life. Media networks are integrated directly in to social media and track consumers’ personal digital behaviour in order to showcase the most relevant product ad, from the highest bidding retailer, at the exact moment with the greatest tendency for purchase. Consumers’ lives are already saturated with thousands of marketing messages. And it is becoming increasingly difficult for individual online retailers to pierce through that cluttered landscape.

Greater consumer control: No longer is it possible for online retailers to simply shout from the mountain tops and be heard. The time and place of brand interactions has changed hands. Control has shifted from a push to a pull. Ever-more fickle consumers are commanding and controlling when and how brands engage with them online—their preferred methods, modes and moments. Consumers now choose the time, place and medium for the interaction.

Technological advances: By its very nature, technology is innovative and world-changing. Mobile phones have reduced the gap between online retailers, brands and customers, and new cash-less payment options, methods and currencies are entering the market each year. But technology is also a double-edged sword that can hurt online retailers as much as it helps. Amazon regularly curates customer reviews and ratings, removing fake postings that are designed to propel one product over another, increasing the likelihood of purchase. This inadvertently creates skepticism and hesitation with this third-party validation, and can act as barriers within the purchase cycle if not handled delicately.

Emotion affects decision making: This is perhaps the greatest force currently at play. Behavioural scientists have proven that humans are not as rational as we might like to think. When staring at a screen, browsing the veritable toothpaste section of an online retail site, it’s not just a rational choice that drives customers to select one brand over another. No matter how many times a customer studies the marketing jargon and the ingredients list, emotion plays its part in the process of choosing one brand over another.

These forces suggest that the existing thinking, models, constructs, and methodologies that have been used throughout the last decade to drive marketing and communications efforts are not as well designed for today’s realities and are therefore not as effective as they could be for online retailers.

However, a common trend across each force is the need for brands to grow closer to the customers; to reach them through the noise, be available on demand and in the way they want, and to inspire trust in the platform and the purchase. Ultimately, to combat these forces, the goal of online retailers should be to forge stronger and deeper emotional relationships between their brand and their customers.

Creating strong emotional connections is key to building ultimate brand relationships, and is the foundation of building brand intimacy with customers online. The greater the emotional connection between a brand and a customer, the more powerful their relationship will be.

Bonding fusing sharing.

This connection can be determined by the degree of overall positive feelings a customer has towards a brand and the extent to which he or she associates the brand with key attributes. Measuring this degree of intensity in a brand relationship can be thought of in these 3 stages: Sharing, Bonding and Fusing:

  1. Sharing: When knowledge is being shared, with the customer understanding what the brand is all about. At this stage, initial emotional bonds are formed through reciprocity and assurance.
  2. Bonding: When a significant attachment is created between a customer and a brand, and an establishment of trust takes place.
  3. Fusing: When a customer and a brand are inexorably linked and co-identified. In this stage, the identities of a person and a brand are able to merge and become a form of mutual realisation and expression.

So how do you create a more intimate online retailer brand? Focus on building emotional bonds and establish reciprocity with your customers — Build relationships, not transactions.

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