Online storytelling: how to engage customers through e-commerce

30 March 2021, 08:32 AM
  • With food retail increasingly going digital, independents can stand apart from the multiples by finding new ways to tell the stories of their products online
Online storytelling: how to engage customers through e-commerce

Online food and drink sales have soared since Covid-19 first struck the UK, and the number of people buying online is still rising, according to the latest research from the Office for National Statistics (ONS). For food and drink retailers, showcasing products through online channels will continue to be an important way to gain traction with consumers in post-pandemic life.

Bringing products to life

Consumers are faced with a huge array of choice when it comes to food and drink today, so Mark Smith, social media strategist and content producer at Double Up Social says storytelling is an important way to differentiate your business and connect with potential customers.

“With consumers more conscious about their habits, as many as 63% are choosing to shop with brands who also share their values, meaning it is important that food and drink brands highlight their story, staff and values to appear more authentic and relatable,” Mark explained. “86% of consumers now say that authenticity is a key factor when deciding what brands they choose to buy from.”

“Anonymous mass consumption is being rejected by a growing number of consumers,” added Wouter van Dongen, founder of The Hyper Localist, an e-commerce platform that focuses on showcasing local European heritage products. This is a trend that has only increased since Covid-19 hit, he said. “The pandemic has highlighted our longing to connect with people and places even more.

“More than ever, consumers are keen to buy brands that feel authentic and they can identify with. This is where storytelling comes in,” he said. “After all, it is through storytelling that retailers can demonstrate authenticity and build a connection both with consumers and with the brand’s environment. Storytelling is a tool to bring a product to life and make it more than just a consumer good.”

Tell your story online

In February, online retail sales grew by 4.6% compared to the previous month to make up more than 36% of the total online spend – the highest figure on record, according to the ONS. Meanwhile, Barclaycard’s data found that online grocery spending in particular was up 115% year-on-year in February.

And this trend is expected to last, with almost six in 10 Brits saying they will continue to buy at least some of their groceries online after Covid restrictions end, Barclaycard found.

As retail increasingly moves online, specialist shops that are known for bringing products to life in store will have to shift this strategy to online selling, too. How can this storytelling element be implemented online? “Whilst it can sometimes be difficult to get that personal touch, social networks like Instagram have made it easier than ever to tell stories online,” Mark said. “Whether it be through going live and answering customer questions, doing a live cooking demonstration, all the way to showcasing behind the scenes of your business through ‘Stories’ or ‘Reels’, there are lots of ways to tell your story.”

Being an e-commerce platform, Wouter has worked to bring the stories behind local products to life to “allow customers to experience local heritage from up close. From sweets that have been made in Turin since 1857 or a historic café in Vienna – these are all products and places with a story that is interconnected with the local history and culture,” he said.

Via The Hyper Localist, Wouter looks to tell the stories of products “in a way that is engaging and interactive”. He continued: “We do a lot of research on Instagram and we share some of our favourite local European discoveries with our followers, using both our own content, but also that of others. On our blog we write more detailed articles about certain ‘hyper’ local products and places, providing more historical and cultural context. And finally, we’ve recently started using TikTok to create short fun-fact videos.”

Even products that are not from such far flung destinations can be brought to life using these same tactics, by featuring an interview with a cheesemaker whose products you stock on your website or showing a behind-the-scenes look on Instagram. And this is something shoppers will be wanting to see more of. “Consumers are already coming to expect these efforts, which have been strengthened because of Covid, and those who don’t will likely fall behind their competitors,” Mark said.

He pointed to Innocent drinks as an example of one brand which does social media storytelling well. “Their informal and playful approach to their storytelling grabs you and engages you in their brand values,” Mark said. The restaurant chain Wagamama has also brought life to its brand by “re-creating the in-store experience at home by showcasing recipes cooked by their chefs, student-focused mental health initiates and more,” he said.

“I also like’s digital storytelling. Every other day they showcase product recipes, host Q&As with their audiences and showcase their suppliers, all keeping the consumer engaged and inspired – the key of what good brand storytelling should be,” Mark told Speciality Food.

For food and drink, storytelling can also be a vital way to showcase ingredients and artisan techniques. “Are your products locally made? Are they handmade? By showcasing the story that goes into making each product, consumers get a deeper sense of understanding and trust in your product and brand, likely turning them into life-long customers,” Mark said. The art of storytelling is something fine food retailers have perfected over the years – by translating these skills to their online channels, businesses open the door to new opportunities to spread the word about great food and drink.

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