Having just spent three days with 400+ top online and catalog marketers, there are a few things that really stand out from my conversations with these folks. Here are the major topics in catalog/online multichannel marketing, based on discussions folks had with me at the conference.
Topic #1 = Colliding Forces. There was a lot of discussion about the USPS increase, set for May 14. For many smaller online and catalog businesses, this results in an approximate 25% increase in postage. This force will cause many small businesses to reduce circulation, especially among marginal housefile and prospect names. This force will eventually collide with the inevitability of online marketing. Customers under the age of forty-five are shifting their behavior away from traditional media (television, radio, catalogs too) to online media. The colliding force of the USPS increases and customer transfer from traditional media to online media will require a change in mindset and skillset among those in attendance.
Topic #2 = Allocation Of Advertising Dollars. Those in attendance are frustrated with our new marketing world. We have more metrics than ever to measure performance with. Almost none of the metrics are relevant in telling the overall story about what caused a customer to purchase something. Ten years ago, we argued about how to allocate those pesky fifteen percent of orders that came into the telephone channel without a valid source code. Today, we realize we have no idea how to properly allocate orders, when a combination of three catalogs, six e-mails, and two Google searches and one price comparison on mySimon truly caused the customer to order. Seriously, how do you allocate this order across these twelve advertising vehicles? It was obvious that the attendees did not trust Abacus to do this for them, as some badgered the company during a presentation (I would say that Abacus has better thought leadership on this than most). This is going to have to become an organic field of experimentation --- I strongly advise non-competitive catalogers and online marketers to work together on knowledge exchange, in order to come up with allocation methods that make sense for our industry. Heck, give me a call, I'm very willing to help out on this topic!!!! Getting even more theoretical, some of the big companies are struggling with allocating orders, when not all catalog advertising produces incremental sales (i.e. a customer spends just as much online when receiving seven catalogs as when receiving ten catalogs). That's a really enjoyable, really theoretical project to tackle.
Topic #3 = Strategy: I saw this repeatedly at the conference. Attendees were asking so many questions about the first two topics that true business strategy was rarely, if ever, discussed. I heard several CEOs discuss the problem of having a unique merchandise assortment --- that as soon as a unique and creative product is created and marketed, folks like Target (and even small competitors) can create their own product, with equal quality, at a lower price. Since there aren't a whole bunch of new, original ideas just laying around out there, it makes "staying alive" very challenging for the smaller online/catalog business. This is one place where online marketing and catalog marketing can make a significant difference. E-commerce is a TERRIBLE storytelling platform. However, blogging and cataloging are BRILLIANT storytelling platforms. There is a lot of opportunity to morph the catalog into the primary storytelling vehicle, as a way to keep paper viable.
Topic #4 = What Happens When A Catalog No Longer Exists? This was the question I was asked the most, during the conference. Folks wanted to learn, in detail, what happens to the online channel, and to catalog customers, when paper is taken out of the mail. Having lived through the experience during the past three years at Nordstrom, I have a unique perspective on the topic. Obviously, I can't be liberal in my discussion of those events. That being said, folks were VERY interested in hearing what happened to employees who spent their lives growing the catalog business at Nordstrom. Attendees wanted to know if these people were able to move into online marketing, if they were laid-off, if they became disgruntled and quit, or if they happily made the transition. Obviously, all of those things happened. It was the most fascinating and painful experience of my professional career, I wouldn't trade it for anything. The experience will allow me to help others as they go through this process.
Topic #5 = Google Is Getting Too Much Credit For Online Orders: This came up over and over again, and is closely tied to Topic #2. In an instance where a customer receives three catalogs, six e-mails, conducts two Google searches, and does one shopping comparison on mySimon, why should I pay Google twice for sending the traffic to my site? There's no doubt that Google and mySimon are partners in this process. However, the catalog/online marketer is now forced to pay for three catalogs, six e-mails, two paid searches and one shopping comparison affiliate commission. Ten years ago, three catalogs would have sufficed. In the next ten years, you will see an evolution in how Google and affiliates get paid. Search and affiliate marketers have taken advantage of the ignorance of all of us who have a catalog heritage. It's time to make things more equitable, and this can only begin to happen if non-competitive catalog/online marketers band together as a unified force.
Topic #6 = "Multichannel" Doesn't Mean Executing The Same Across All Channels: The vendor-speak and pundit-speak of the past eight years (all channels should execute the same) has been rejected by those actually practicing multichannel retail. While everybody generally agreed that items should be the same price across all channels, the attendees generally agreed that the strengths of each channel should be readily exploited. If one wants to do free shipping in an e-mail and not in catalog, then by all means, do so --- but be willing to honor the promotion in other channels. If one wants to keep clearance items off the internet, go right ahead! If a brand wants to have a different look and feel in advertising, creative execution, merchandise assortment, you name it, go right ahead and do so. There was an absolute groundswell of consensus on using each channel appropriately, so that the customer ultimately chooses our brand over somebody else's brand.
Topic #7 = E-Commerce Is "Cold", Catalog And Retail Are "Warm": This was the first time I've heard multiple people tell me that they are frustrated with the lack of warmth in E-Commerce websites. Many felt that the E-Commerce experience lacks humanity, is clumsy, and often breaks down from a technological standpoint. Marketers must take their most important marketing vehicle, a website, from the information technology folks that currently dictate what gets done in online development, and dictate when things get done. If you are a fan of the catalog advertising channel, this is your chance to create great creative execution via print --- your chance to show others how to market with warmth, and in the process, win over some of your marginal customers.