Friday, September 12, 2008

No Easy Answers

Scared off by the costs and delays of traditional research, marketers desperately troll the web for consumer feedback. But even with volumes of data, the answers may still elude them.

There’s a lot of information on the web. There are also a lot of consumers. But information about these consumers? How they feel about your product, and what else they’d like to see from your brand? That’s a little trickier.

Since the advent of the message board, the web has provided truckloads of information about how consumers perceive brands, products, and the marketing that surrounds them. But just as often as not, this information can steer marketers down blind alleys. And no matter how much data you glean from traffic reports, message boards, or even surveys, it can only supplement, not replace, a good marketer’s judgment.
Here are a few of the most popular online research tactics out there, from the very cheap and very fast to the expensive and elaborate. As always, I opine about what’s worth the cost and how it should (and should not) be used.

Skim and theorize:The technique: You (or perhaps an intern) scan the message boards, blogs, and social network sites to understand what consumers are saying about your brand; you may even posit a new product idea, brand extension, or product modification and watch the reaction. Favorite locations are technorati, consumer oriented blogs, Facebook, or your own site’s e-mails and message boards.
Advantages/drawbacks: Fast (can be done in a day) and cheap (meaning, free) ; however, in most cases you get what you pay for – a cursory glance at the consumer polity, dominated by the most vocal , involved, and tech savvy (which can be good or bad).
Good for: Keeping the pulse, fishing for new ideas, bringing up yellow flags before they turn red. This type of research should be done regularly, but is just not robust enough to form the basis for any big decisions.

Skim and Analyze
The technique: see above, but with a high priced agency behind it. Outfits like MotiveQuest will actually monitor millions of online conversations on blogs, message boards, etc. and boil the findings down for you. Mini Cooper recently did this and found that Mini owners were uniquely engaged with each other, pointing to the potential for social network marketing on the brand.
Advantages/Drawbacks: much more comprehensive than “skim and theorize”, and more likely to draw generalizable, and actionable insights. However, at this point we are talking about the same type of money and time commitment you might spend on more traditional techniques, like quantitative studies or focus groups.
Good for: big brands (like…Mini) with enormous marketing budgets – and who are willing to monitor their audiences online, offline and everywhere else to make sure their spending all those dollars the right way.

The Omniture Omnibus
The technique: Deep analysis of traffic reports (which can be provided by Omniture or one of many other providers) can tell you where your consumers are coming from, where they’re going, and where they linger on your site.
Advantages/drawbacks: once again, the price is right - most of this information is probably already available via your standard data reporting package. But this technique can quickly become too much of a good thing. So much data is available, you need to be very clear on your objectives before diving in. Fishing expeditions usually yield more questions than answers. And, the answers you do get tell you the what but not the why: OK, so no one stays on your “games” page for more than one minute – but what, exactly, is the wrong with it?
Good for: an initial diagnosis of issues and for generation of hypotheses – that should be validated or refuted by more detailed research vs. more traffic reports.

Zoom zoom zoomerang –the online survey
The technique: In less than a day and for less than $100, you can build and launch an online survey on just about any topic, and get hundreds, or even thousands of responses.
Advantages/disadvantages: the value of a zoomerang depends on the level of resources you’re starting with. If you have an extensive database that you can send the survey to, and a crack researcher that can write the survey (and eliminate bias), Zoomerand and it’s ilk are a good deal. However, if you don’t, these providers can usually provide all that – for a price that can rise into five figures pretty quickly.
Good for: companies that have the resources to do this cheaply. If you don’t, Zoomerang is fine for smaller decisions – I once worked for a company who used it to get employee feedback on their new performance evaluation system. But I wouldn’t bang out my next brand positioning from it.

Online Focus Groups
The technique: Usually based on chat, these are like big WebEx meetings where many (often hundreds) of users log in and respond to your questions, ads, positioning statements, etc.
Advantages/Disadvantages: great for recruiting, especially low incidence populations; faster and cheaper than traditional focus groups. And users are less likely to influence each other. But that’s not necessarily a good thing. Sometimes the interaction that happens in a roomful of eight or ten consumers really does lead to a key insight. And even if it doesn’t, sometime body language tells you a lot more than their words.
Good for: marketers that need fast feedback from hard to recruit types – like plastic surgeons, Moms of special needs kids, etc. And those that can’t be bothered with things like body language and subtle consumer signals.

So, now that I’ve highlighted at least some of the drawbacks in all of the above, should we all go back to the traditional, expensive, and offline techniques? Of course not. My real point is that consumers will never deliver the answers on a silver platter. Just feedback that experienced, smart marketers can use, along with judgment, business conditions, and a million other variables, to make the big decisions that justify our big paychecks.

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.


Friday, July 18, 2008

Blogger Rates The Blogs

Corporate blogs are everywhere - but what are they really saying?

Seems like everyone’s got a corporate blog these days. In fact, 11% of the Fortune 500 have dedicated bloggers. Many others have official blogs that are updated on a regular basis by numerous contributors (usually employees). But as with so many new media tactics, some are being used to provide true value to the company and its consumers, while others present a clear case of band wagon jumping.

I took a look at blogs from a very random sample of large, high profile, consumer driven companies, and noted a wide range of approaches to this tactic - in many ways giving insight into the culture of the company itself. Here’s what I found:


What Is It: Their blog, titled “Coca-Cola Conversations”, is essentially a collection of musings by their company archivist, and focuses on the history of the brand, special editions, collectibles, great moments in Coke history, etc.

What I Like: has a specific focus; unlike many other corporate blogs, you pretty quickly know what it’s about. As I would expect from Coke, it’s professionally done and eminently readable. It also focuses on the Coca-Cola heritage, one of Coke’s few strategic advantages vs. Pepsi.

What I Don’t: Coca-Cola Conversations is a perfect reflection of the brand: professional, corporate, and of good quality - but not outstanding, and frankly a little bland. Given the fierce soft drink competition in this country , and the need to stand out, I’d say that this blog could, if you’ll pardon the pun, use a little more fizzle. The readership , through its lack of comments, would appear to back me up on this.

Suggestions: I know (having worked there), that Coke is a bit of a closed, conservative culture, but it might be interesting to directly tackle some of the consumer perceptions that have driven people from Coke into niche beverages: health concerns (e.g., why not a “why our drinks don’t kill you” post?), environmental issues, or simple variety (Coke is always launching or developing some new product – perhaps they could at least give some insight into these?). There’s nothing terribly wrong or offensive with Coca-Cola Conversations, just a lot of missed opportunities.


What Is It: This blog is about “insights from Googlers into our products, technology and culture”. The posts feel quite miscellaneous, ranging from company community efforts to how they create search algorithms.

What I Like: posts are frequent, usually every few days. They also provide a nice forum for Google to talk about new products and initiatives, in a way that the obsessive minimalism of their home page would never allow.

What I Don’t: the random nature of the posts, which range from updates on their “Developer Days” conference in Yokihama Japan, to a 500 word post about the link to their new privacy policy.

Opportunities: The Google forum suffers from an issue common to many blogs. In its desire to cover a broad range of topics, it necessarily includes an awful lot that’s of little interest to anyone. It feels like each post would be absolutely fascinating to a different 5% of their users. Good blogs, like good newspaper columns, are anticipated and pored over by whatever niche they are targeting. I’d like to see a little more focus from this notoriously focused organization.


What Is It: I must say I was eager to look at McDonald’s blog, as it’s been a bit of a lightning rod for criticism since the advent of “Fast Food Nation” and “Supersize me”. Turns out it’s exclusively focused on CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility), and is authored by managers involved in CSR efforts, such as a VP of HR and their National Energy Manager (who talks about efforts to reduce franchisees’ energy use).

What I Like: unlike Google and other blogs, this one does have a single minded focus. Every post is about some aspect of CSR and is authored with some level of authority by a senior manager in the company. The posts are also quite readable.

What I Don’t: it’s good to have a focus, I’m just not quite sure that CSR in general is the right one for McD’s. Let’s face it, with all the flak they’ve been getting, it’s going to take a lot more than a few warm and fuzzy posts to change minds and not come off as simply defensive. Speaking of defensive, I did notice some of the same soundbites we’ve been hearing for years from these guys, like “serving more and more salads” in the face of accusations that beef speeds up global warming and coronary disease.

Opportunities: I’d hardly suggest that McDonald’s just throw its hands in the air and accept the mantel of Large Evil Corporation. But I think they’re biting off more than they can chew. How about just tackling a single topic head-on? The focus on reducing energy usage is a good start – it’s believable since it saves them money, and it’s good for the earth, America, etc. Or perhaps they can talk more about how they are trying to squeeze more productivity out of less land in a world facing more food shortages? I just think they have a ways to go before they can author Mother Teresa’s blog, which feels a little like what they’re trying to do here.


What Is It : “The Lobby” reads like a mini travel zine, with separate sections on restaurant recommendations, places of interest, activities, and events taking place around the world. The only blatantly commercial area is the “Inside” section, which pretty much just touts new Starwood products and specials.

What I Like: With topics ranging from the shrines of Kyoto to the Columbus Jazz and Rib Festival, The Lobby positions Starwood as a brand for the world traveler seeking new experiences - vs. a collection of crash pads with cheap room rates and free bagels in the morning.

What I Don’t: there’s nothing particularly offensive about “The Lobby”, but that’s the problem. It doesn’t seem to provide any true inside information, or make me gasp, chuckle, or provoke any reaction except perhaps a yawn or two.

Opportunities: there’s a lot of competition in the online travel space; Conde Nast’s Traveler, Travel and Leisure, not to mention the New York Times’ weekly travel section, offer more compelling content written by professional writers that’s just as free. Entries in The Lobby could use more of a distinctive voice and POV, vs. the current press release-esque writing style they all too often take on.

General Motors

Here’s a company with not one but eight blogs. I took a look at “GM Next”and “GM Fast Lane”, frankly because they came up first in my Google search. I also decided that instead of evaluating each separately, I’d combine the two into one assessment.
What Are They: GM FastLane describes itself as is a “forum for GM execs to talk about current and future products”, while GM Next feels more R & D focused, with entries about fuel cells, new engine designs, etc.

What I Like: GM Fast Lane- this blog delivered on one criteria that is most important to me: relevance. In one sample page, virtually all of the posts were compelling, even buzzworthy: an update of the highly anticipated Chevy Volt, pictures of the latest Camaro, even an acknowledgement that yes, they may sell or discontinue the Hummer brand. The public seems to agree, with posts regularly receiving upwards of 100-200 comments.

What I Don’t: GM Next – in their effort to give readers a glimpse into their technology, with a focus on green efforts, this blog produces nothing but yawns. I couldn’t decide what I cared less about: their participation in a child seat safety program, or an intern gushing about the“remarkable achievement” of the LS9 engine (it still didn’t sound that remarkable to me, even after reading her breathless accolades).

Opportunities: I think GM can use some blog pruning. Are eight blogs really necessary? Stick with Fast Lane for the reasons listed above, scratch Next, and take a hard look at destinations like Tuner Source, a blog about racing and drifting events whose posts generated, on average, about zero comments each.

Blogs I’d Like to See

Interestingly, there are a few companies out there that don’t yet appear to have blogs, but who I think would be perfect candidates:

Starbuck’s: any company that feels the need to have a “rumor response” section on their corporate site might want to think about a blog to share their side of things. Beside, Starbucks still has millions of diehard fans. This is one blog that would get read.

Disney: another blog that could build a following pretty quickly. This company has so much to talk about, just a new products focused blog could easily be updated daily without a stretch. Besides, there are already plenty of Disney blogs out there “by and for” Disney fans. Does the Mouse House really want the blog that appears at the top of Google search to be one that announces their latest lawsuit against mom and pop copyright infringers (which it is now)?

In conclusion, I’ve seen the usual range of quality for any hot new media tactic. Interestingly, corporate blogs in many ways reflect the culture of the organization authoring them. Sometimes that can result in a fascinating, informative blog that only reinforces a positive brand image. Sometimes that culture is best left within the corporate campus, and a blog can be an exercise in too much information.


Monday, January 28, 2008

The Siren Song of Cheap Marketing Tactics

Sometimes, in the world of web marketing, you get what you pay for…

Their siren song is hard to resist… get big and famous by spending next to nothing on marketing. Just SEO the heck out of your site, for example, and you’ll appear at the top of Google, which is all you’ll need to attract a huge audience. I recently spoke with the CEO of a web based consumer company who ticked off his preferred marketing tactics like a shopping list at the dollar store: Search Engine Optimization, Search Engine Marketing, Partnerships, “Viral” marketing.

And there’s nothing wrong with any of these. In fact, I have utilized them all, sometimes with great results. But all too often, managers stop at these tactics without recognizing their significant limitations. And perhaps more dangerously, they ignore the big potential business drivers that they should be focusing the bulk of their resources on. Here’s a look at these seemingly magical tactics one by one:

SEO – search engine optimization.
The promise: Load your site up with enough links, pixels, and key words, and you’ll float to the top of any search engine, including Google, MSN and Yahoo. Search engines are consumers’ first stop when looking for any product online, and SEO costs are minimal –so why wouldn’t this be the cornerstone of your marketing plan?
The reality: Many sites do commonly have issues that interfere with search engines’ ability to spider them properly, such as an overabundance of flash content. Removing these hurdles can raise your rankings, so it’s more than worth looking at. But most search engine methodologies are highly propriety, and the first sign of “gaming” the spiders can get you blacklisted from search engine results. And, most search engines factor traffic rankings heavily into their algorithms – so this tactic can only take smaller and newer sites so far.
The bottom line: A good baseline tactic, but this should supplement (not replace) your marketing plan.

SEM – Search Engine marketing
The promise: You can’t game the search engines so you’ll simply buy your way to success, bidding on keywords like a day trader until you have crafted the perfect acquisition machine.
The reality: I have used SEM and it was actually one of my most efficient marketing tactics. But there’s a real natural limit to how much you can devote to this tactic. The more words you buy, the more expensive the “clicks” as you buy out the most efficient keywords and widen the competitor pool. And at some point (often early on), it becomes cost inefficient. Example: I consulted for a company paying $5 per click for keywords, who only made a variable margin of $25 per purchase. Thus, 20% of their “clickers” would need to make a purchase just to break even – and their purchase rate was less than one in ten.
The bottom line: a great tactic that suffers from a similar drawback as SEO – it can get very inefficient very quickly.

Viral Marketing
The promise: you seed a blog, a UGC, or some other hot 2.0-ish destination with a piece of content promoting your brilliant product. Millions discover it, view it, pass it on and turn it into the next Facebook, Second Life, etc. And, you didn’t spend a dime in media placement.
The reality: a good idea if you have the type of product or content that truly inspires buzz. Some good candidates for this technique might be Britney Spears’ agent, the producers of that last indy flick that barely squeaked by with an “R” rating, or the campaign manager for a presidential candidate that has a lot of indiscreet rivals.
The bottom line: very difficult to generate without a naturally sexy product or message. One exception is a boring product with something interesting to say: Dove’s campaign for real beauty,for example, which featured a provocative video that received millions of views on YouTube.

Affiliate Marketing
The promise: cut a few deals, or a few hundred deals, with more popular ecommerce providers, paying them on a “bounty’ basis for every buyer they send to you. Shell out a few bucks, but only pay when you score a sale.
The reality: There are some deals to be had, but this sales channel often tends to be very expensive and even margin busting. And these deals can be a lot more high maintenance than they appear. Contracts must be negotiated, assets delivered, relationships managed to insure productivity. They can be a drain on resources that can be better spent elsewhere (more on that later).
The bottom line: Another B+ marketing tactic with as many limits as merits.

So what’s a marketer to do if these bargain basement tactics only take you so far? Well, you can focus on the basics, for one thing, like site design, buying process and messaging. Watch for part two of this post for a deeper discussion of these less sexy elements, and how a focus on them can even make the cheapest tactics a lot more efficient.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Branded Ecommerce in the Age of 70% Off

How can ecommerce providers drive sales without resorting to free shipping and deep discounts?

As everyone knows, online retail sales continued their meteoric rise this past holiday season – but at a price. Free shipping was epidemic and discounts more aggressive than ever – some etailer home pages dedicated more space to their “70% off” banners than the merchandise they were trying to sell. But though everyone discounts at least occasionally, there are a few ecommerce providers that dare to differentiate in other ways. As an avid online shopper, I’ve noticed that this differentiation seems to be clustering in a few broad strategies:

Become a destination – have you ever gone into a store just because it looked cool and fun, even though you really never intended to buy anything? And maybe you did indeed end up buying something, or at least coming back later when gifting season hit? Some online stores are trying to stand out by just providing an opportunity to take a break or window shop in a new way. Here are a few I’ve seen:
Brookstone – they have taken the concept of “browsing the shelves” literally with a new interactive feature that lets you view 3D shelves in a virtual store, viewing hundreds or even thousands of items at once.
Trip Advisor – I just wasted 30 minutes on their incredibly fun “World Challenge” game. Other raging time wasters include chatting with other travelers via their social network, or posting on their message boards.
Diesel Denim – has a section called “the cult” with articles and videos about performance artists, cutting edge music festivals in Europe, etc. True, it doesn’t make me instantly shell out 200 bucks for jeans, but does serve to reinforce Deisel’s street cred in an image obsessed category.

Become the ultimate helpful sales clerk – today’s most advanced ecommerce sites do everything a sales person can do, with the possible exception of telling you how great your butt looks in those jeans. Web 2.0 tactics are especially helpful in achieving the virtual shopgirl effect, as is bonus content from “experts” real or perceived. Some favorites of mine:
New Egg –this lesser known electronics site now includes an “eggspert” forum – basically an wikipedia created by nerds to help simpletons like me differentiate between 1080p and 720i.
Travelocity – like any good travel agent, Travelocity’s recently launched Road Trip Wizard lets you enter your travel interests and preferences, then spits out a complete itinerary, with maps, hotel recommendations, etc.
Barnes and - want to get a better feel for a book you’re considering buying? Barnes and Noble now features video interviews with authors to help you go beyond the inside cover.
Lancome just overhauled their site which features beauty tutorials and suggestions for alternatives to discontinued products.

Make it especially for you – personalization, in some form, has been around since the dawn of ecommerce. But recently, some business have been taking it to the next level, giving users access to products that are truly custom made, even one of a kind: goes well beyond just letting you create your own T-shirt. In a triumph of 2.0 democracy, they only sell user generated designs. Apparently, some of the more popular user-designers have achieved near “Project Runway” fame for their designs., a recently launched men’s clothing site, has installed body scanners in airports around the country to measure users; clothing recommendations from various well known brands, including Nordstrom, Levi’s and Land’s End, are then sent via e-mail based on your body type.
• And though it’s been around for awhile, can guarantee that no one will be wearing the exact same shoes as you ; choose your heel color, your swoosh color, your shoelace color – and top it off with your very own written ID on the back of the shoe (as long as it doesn’t say “sweatshop”).

Maybe all this is a waste of money and resources. Most people go to an ecommerce site to point, click, buy and get out of there. But the same can be said of offline retailers, and that group has not hesitated to enrich the shopping experience with grand piano players, free beverages, or even (in the case of Home Depot) classes on DIY home improvement. They know that the extras are what bring people back, develop those coveted positive brand associations, and maybe even let them run those 70% off sales just a little less often.