Centralized rich content distribution in the web era

A typical global retail organization will have many points of sale (POS), and will usually require enriched content to be presented to customers. This is especially true in industries such as luxury watches, where it is important to educate customers as to what makes products so special (and expensive). It seems to me that the web is especially well suited to this purpose, as we’ll see.

Constraints

Local subsidiaries and POSes face various constraints that any content distribution system will have to overcome.

Different screen sizes/capabilities

POSes will most likely have various screen sizes with different capabilities. For example, there could be large wall-mounted displays (e.g. TVs), smaller displays in the front window, and tablets within the POS for customers (and sales staff) to interact with.

Localized content creation

Localized content creation is not always desirable, if it is possible at all (e.g. due to lack of qualified personnel). For instance, corporate policies might prevent decentralized content creation to maintain a coherent brand image throughout all POSes. Even when localized content creation is an option, it is not always the best one as it can easily lead to duplicated efforts, wasting productivity and resources (including financial).

Internationalization

Content will need to be internationalized and localized. It isn’t enough that content be served in a country’s locale: customers might want to view content in another locale (e.g. a Brazilian customer wishing to view content is Portuguese, while in a store in Sweden). Provided the content exists in a given language/locale, it should be easily available to any end user.

Ease of use

Any solution destined to be deployed at a POS must be hassle-free. It should require no dedicated hardware or software, and no major involvement to update content.

The web is ideal

With the advent of HTML5 and powerful javascript libraries, the web’s inherent limits are being pushed back every single day. This makes it an excellent medium through which to deliver rich content in a centralized fashion, while addressing the above issues (as it’s been doing since its very beginning):

  • web content runs nearly everywhere, on any display: from huge projectors to pocket-sized smartphones;
  • centralized content management is exactly what the web does: publish code on your server, and anyone can access it (useless you restrict it);
  • qualified personnel is easier to find when leveraging standard technologies such as HTML5 and javascript;
  • web sites have been dealing with internationalization and localization issues for quite some time, and have basically solved the major pain points;
  • the web is inherently easy to use (provided you use competent UX designers): computer users with no browsing experience are a nearly extinct species.

The web is ready

(Naturally, most of these examples will require an up-to-date and modern browser. In other words, anything but Internet Explorer…)

The advent of responsive design gives substance to the “build once, run everywhere” philosophy. A perfect example of this practice is the redesigned Boston Globe website. This allows content creators to focus on content creation and delivery, while delegating actual display to the hundreds of devices that will access the content. The beneficial side effect is that content updates are instantly available across all devices, without any lag (this likely wouldn’t be the case if you had to update a website, an iPad app, an iPhone app, an Android app, and an app for the Samsung tablet…).

With advent of Popcorn.js, web site manipulation can be synched with video playing opening the field to exciting possibilities (briefly discussed here). For example, it only took me a few hours (including learning the popcorn library) to create a demo enriching the content of a basic corporate video. The demo is ugly, but demonstrates some of the functionality that popcorn.js provides, from adding timelines, images, to executing arbitrary code. A better example would probably be Mozilla’s example demonstrating Firefox plugins. (This demo is best viewed with Firefox, as it changes the browser style as the video advances.)

Popcorn.js is also ideally suited to deliver course content online by synchronizing a video explanation with any other content, be it slides, practical examples, wikipedia articles, etc. An example course leveraging popcorn.js have be found here.

Even using only “simple” technologies (HTML5, javascript, and CSS), browsers are able to provide enticing viewer experiences, as demonstrated by Mozilla’s Planetarium, or scale of the universe.

Going even further, we can leverage WebGL to provide interactive 3D experiences to users, such as the web-native documentary One Millionth Tower, or the interactive movie/music video of Rome’s “3 Dreams of Black” (discussed here). The interesting concept behind these (especially the first one), is that they provide guided paths for viewers who just wish to have content delivered to them while they passively consume it, while also providing a means to actively explore content for the more curious users.

In addition, web technologies provide for extensive customization of the experience. The wilderness downtown customizes the experience according to an address (using Street View, and other Google APIs). Another example is Take this lollipop, which dynamically customizes a video story using Facebook account information and injecting it within the video.

Opportunities

Forward-thinking companies will likely transition to web-enabled delivery mechanisms, to leverage the ever-increasing potential provided by web technologies.

Ubiquity and future-proofness

In an age where fridges connect to the internet, it is unlikely consumer electronics released in the coming years will ship without web support. Therefore, content created for today’s devices will more easily remain relevant on tomorrow’s devices.

Build once, run everywhere

The web’s ubiquity comes with many advantages, not least of which the ability to reduce effort and costs related to content development and publication: instead of having to develop and maintain a plethora of native applications, you can focus on building on great platform.

For instance, the enriched content displayed within the store could also be displayed to passers-by. Using a capacitive screen (such as this one) would enable retailers to capitalize on foot traffic even when the POS is closed. This is all the more important for exclusive luxury retailers, where goods aren’t even displayed in the window after-hours.

Increased reach

Since everyone has access to the web, your content will reach more people: end customers, naturally, but this content could also be displayed within retailer’s POS selling your products. By delivering content through the web, there is no need for knowledgeable staff or specialized hardware: anything will do, whether it’s a computer kiosk, an iPad, or the customer’s own smartphone.

Reusable content

When creating content to deliver through the web, ROI can be significantly increased by creating said content intelligently, and reusing it :

  • content created for a product launch could be reintegrated into a digital catalog;
  • events related to specific products could be later added to a digital catalog, website, social network, etc., even once it has launched ;
  • content can be reused for completely separate projects (e.g. by using an service-oriented approach).

Analytics

Analytics is another domain that has seen significant progress in the last years. This work can easily be leveraged within a web delivery mechanism to find out what really interests customers, and how they consume content, or discover products and information regarding the company.

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