Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Tired and Wired in E-Commerce

I recently conducted two online purchases online – booked a trip to Florida, and purchased flowers for my mother on her birthday. What different experiences they were.
When booking the trip, I was treated to a variety of services that would help me dodge the many bullets of business travel in 2008 – surprise fees, late arrivals, missed connections, even cramped seats. The flower purchase, conversely, left many mysteries unsolved - like what the bouquet would actually look like, or how long it would last. The experiences could not have been more different – and revealed stark contrasts in how far (or not) some categories have come in the world of e-commerce.
For many categories, e-commerce has come along way since the days when buying something on made you a pioneer. But others still seem to be stuck in 1996

. Here’s my round up of which categories offer the latest and greatest features to make shopping fun, or at least painless – and which ones still feel mired in 1990’s era features and service.


Footwear: They said that people would never buy shoes online – but lately, e-tailers have offered services and features that make it easier to click your way to a purchase than browse the racks at Nordstrom. Timberland (and others) let you design your own shoe. Zappos has a free return policy and has even been known to recommend a competitor’s product. And my favorite innovation comes from Nike+, a brilliant offline/online hybrid that lets geek-jocks track distances run , calories burned and other measurements online, via an embedded communication device on the shoe itself.

Fashion: today, even the highest end couture is now available to anyone no matter where they live, via sites like and; and destinations like make these items (or at least a few of them) available at deeply discounted prices; but new services like Ideeli have made discount shopping into a sport with text and e-mail alerts as soon as a coveted item goes on sale.

Travel: it seems like every time the airlines throw a problem at you, a web site pops up to help solve it. Buying the cheapest ticket humanly possible feels easy with discount alerts from all the major travel sites, and will even tell you whether fare will rise or fall for your particular route. Seat Guru will help you find the best seat, no matter what the aircraft or airline. And vast review sites like TripAdvisor and Yelp give you access to hundreds of reviews for any given hotel, airline or restaurant.


Flowers – This category is plagued by the very problem the “wired” group has solved. Flower recipients rarely get an arrangement that matches the one displayed on the site; there are virtually no personalization options (unless you count adding a margin building Vermont Teddy Bear to your flowers “personalization”); and selections feel dated, limited, and homogenous from site to site. No wonder this category has been suffering from long term decline.

Real estate – despite the advent of sites that feature listings by geography, home price estimates and foreclosure listings, this category still feels woefully lacking. This is especially surprising given the high level of involvement into this purchase. Zillow, whose home valuations are often laughably inaccurate, still feels more like a fun novelty than a true information resource. For Sale By Owner Listings are still listed separately from those controlled by real estate agents. And there is virtually no site that combines everything you need to make an informed decision: listings, foreclosures, value estimates, and neighborhood information. I’m sure there are hurdles, but this feels like a category where someone can still step in and offer a well differentiated product.

Job search - basically, sites like Monster, CareerBuilider, etc. produce too many results, and too many irrelevant results. Things are just as bad for recruiters, who are bombarded with resumes that have no relevance to the position. The result is an ocean of candidates submitting an ocean of resumes to people who don’t have the bandwidth to assess them.

How to go from tired to wired
So how does one wire up these “tired” categories? The answer lies in those cutting edge etailers – it just takes a little creativity and (as always) sensitivity to consumer needs. Below are a few suggestions that could help the categories above or similarly tired spaces:

Address pain points: how about digitally aging a bouquet to see what it will look like in a week – or even three? Or links to on job search sites to find out more about a company, warts and all? It’s not so hard to identify consumer pain points, one need only launch a fast survey or troll the blogs and message boards. Solve these mysteries and consumers will reward you.

Add some sizzle: feature one hour sales on limited stock items to create a sense of urgency, even competition. And spice up the merchandise: Martha Stewart and Vera Wang make flowers from my Great Aunt. But I know some young women that would appreciate a bouquet by Tom Ford or Muccia Prada. Heavy web shoppers tend to be younger and hipper – so should your product.

Introduce personalization: Consider giving users the ability to create their own floral arrangement. Or their own house, with an automatic e-mail that advises when one like it has become available. Personalization has already worked for categories (like travel and footwear) where the product was traditionally dictated by tastemakers. It’s certainly not a stretch to introduce it to the “tired” categories as well.

Get to know the consumer – sites like Netflix have continuous feedback loops that let users rate their choices, so suggestions get smarter and smarter. Not perfect by any means, but at least helpful. The same technology can be applied to jobs (or job candidates), flowers, or condos.

Basic message: give consumers the information they want, make the shopping experience as painless as possible, and occasionally intrigue and excite your users – the same stuff that works in the mall or the car dealership can win people over in the digital realm as well.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Top 5 Digital Marketing Cliches

Once upon a time (say, 2002), digital spending was a negligible proportion of total marketing budgets, and we lived in a world where few marketers would dare go “beyond the banner”. Fast forward to 2008 and in some cases we have the opposite problem. Digital spending is still too low - but in the spirit of wanting to appear current, some marketers have rushed to embrace any and every new digital tactic on the horizon.

This has resulted in a scenario where some digital tactics are dangerously close to “jumping the shark”. Everyone is doing them, so they’re not original anymore. They generally are not done well (i.e., in a way that builds brand equity, awareness or sales). And they may be so commonplace, they have the opposite effect of making a brand seem current or hip.

Here are my top five:

The Social Network Page:
The offense: In 2006 every brand had to have a MySpace page; now they have an equally urgent need for a Facebook page. The result is usually the equivalent of an online ad hidden within the vast reaches of a social network, adding little value to consumers or the brand.

The offenders: A look at a few major consumer brands (Sprite, Skippy Peanut Butter, Gatorade) show Facebook pages with little more than a boilerplate brand description and a link to the corporate url. It looks like some marketing departments have been on a friend collection tear, though. These dull profiles mysteriously seem to attract thousands of “friends”, though wall posts number in the low double digits – suggesting very low engagement.

They might try: Building a profile that reflects their brands’ unique provenance, personality, or benefits. Brand groups agonize over building and evangelizing the perfect brand persona. Here’s a chance to showcase all that hard work.

The Second Life Storefront
The offense: Countless companies have set up storefronts in this media-genic virtual world. But high developments costs ($100k to as much as $5 million), high maintenance and low overall usage (about 30,000 visitors at a given time) have produced lukewarm results. Hence, Second Life’s recent ranking by marketers as the most overhyped trend of 2007.

The offenders: Apparel retailers like American Apparel, Nike and Reebok, auto companies (Nissan) and hotels (Starwood/Aloft) have all jumped in. even hired a specialized agency to market their storefront, but still garnered fewer than 1000 visitors.

They might try: Incorporating their brands into much simpler, mass market digital activities like casual games. Some are played millions of times, and let you measure engagement more specifically than ever.

The Online Ad Contest:
The offense: Who needs creatives, or even a creative strategy, when you can crowd source your ads? Aside from the obvious strategy and quality issues, the tactic suffers from ubiquity and anemic entry numbers (rarely more than a hundred or two).

The offenders: Budding commercial auteurs must be feeling pretty exhausted these days, after entering videos for Doritos, Chevrolet, The NFL, Country Music Television, Nikon, Malibu Rum, Heinz, Dove, Firefox, Converse, MasterCard, Sunkist and Coors Light- to name a few.

They might try: Using those masses to get feedback on a spot that is at least on strategy, regardless of where it came from. Anyone who’s sat through a focus group knows that consumers are much better at responding to marketing than creating it themselves.

The Social Network
The offense: Why have a Facebook page when you can have a Facebook? Marketers attempt to build fanatical followings for their brands by establishing their own social networks around them. Problem is, social networks don’t create brand passion – they can only leverage passion that already exists.

The Offenders: Do you have the need to build a profile around your menstrual cycle? Kotex thinks so, and responds with not one but two social networks (one for girls, one for women). You can also build a profile on Neutrogena, Saturn, and watch out LinkedIn: HSBC Bank lets you build a profile to “tap into the expertise of your fellow entrepreneurs”. Even the mega-brands rarely generate more than 1000-2000 profiles (HSBC has about 300), so users should expect to be a part of a pretty tight little clique.

They might try: First building passion for the brand through dull, old school tactics like stellar customer service, product innovation and compelling marketing. Then marketers are permitted to build that social network. For a good example, see Mini Cooper. Until then, most brands can make do with simpler tactics like message boards and e-newsletters.

The Online Branded Entertainment Series
The offense: Since 30 second spots haven’t worked for years, marketers have decided to create their own entertainment with online webisodes, series and animated shorts, subtly or not so subtly weaving in their brands. Trouble is, even entertainment made to entertain (e.g., TV shows) more often than not misses the mark - so it’s doubly difficult to create something that will be compelling and sell your brand. As a result, most of this entertainment fails to entertain.

The offenders: BudTV decided to pull back after a very costly investment in it’s own branded entertainment portal. Toyota’s series makes me long for the Toyotathon spots of yesteryear.

They might try: I’d suggest either integrating your brand into something already interesting (e.g., Stride Gum’s sponsorship of the Matt Harding dance video) or just giving proven creative types free rein (BMW film series) and see what happens.

Here are a few tactics that may seem new today, but are quickly being embraced by marketers…. to the point where they too may soon move into the shark jumper category:

Twitter: From JetBlue to Whole Foods, companies are signing up to bombard their users with marketing messages using this infectious new service. But they better have something valuable to say (special one hour sale announcement- yes; our new website layout –no), or this could become the latest twist on marketing spam.

The Company Blog: 10% of the Fortune 500 have their own company blogs, and some, like GM, have as many as eight. Some (GM Fastlane) do provide the latest updates on what people are talking about, but others (coincidentally, GM Next) are little more than a series of gushing press releases with little or no “insider” info.

Mobile marketing: eventually, marketers will crack this code. But to date, there have been too many banner ads (if users won’t engage on the big screen, why would they bother on their cell phones?) and place based Big-Brother-ish spam tactics.

I applaud the spirit of experimentation and no doubt all of the above “offenders” have learned something from their efforts. And there’s really no such thing as a bad marketing tactic – just bad timing, bad execution, or simply a bad brand fit. All good things that marketers might want to think about before plunging into the next digital marketing trend.