July 20, 2008

The Failure Of The Catalog/Multichannel Marketing Model

"The internet is the wild west. I keep advertising, only to send my customers out into the wild west. And they never return." Catalog Merchandising Executive, 2007.

When we conduct the post mortem on the failed experiment known as multichannel marketing, we'll look at this quote as being a key piece of the puzzle.

Back in 2001, it was a good idea to be "multichannel". We sent catalogs to customers, like we always have. Our analytics suggested that customers used our catalogs to shop on our e-commerce enabled websites. Woo-hoo!

And then Google took command of e-commerce. Ever since then, we've been leaking customers and prospects.

This manifests itself in the phrase I hear nearly every day ... "catalog customer acquisition performance continues to get worse".

Many smart people correctly point out that catalog marketing "creates demand". In other words, many customers do not intend to buy anything, but will buy something if advertised to. The catalog creates demand for an item. Paid search, in general, does not create demand --- it simply intercepts demand that is looking for a home.

Our industry mistakenly went down the multichannel path, believing that this form of demand creation was good. And in a pre-Google world, it was really good!

Today, demand creation is usurped by demand interception.

Go to Quantcast, and view the profile for Orvis. Notice that customers who interact with Orvis also interact with companies like RiverBum. To my knowledge, RiverBum does not have a catalog or stores.

So here you have the good folks at Orvis, doing the multichannel thing, sending paper out into the catalog ecosystem. They do a good job of creating demand for dry attractors.

But the customer isn't 100% sold on buying dry attractors on the Orvis website. He goes to Google and conducts the following search: Dry Attractors. Lo and behold, look who comes up #1 ... RiverBum!

Orvis creates demand for dry attractors. Google intercepts the demand, and funnels it to RiverBum. The customer places the order at RiverBum. The circulation manager at Orvis looks at the metrics, noticing that response continues to decrease.

Catalog marketing still works ... especially for the folks at RiverBum, folks who are not executing multichannel marketing the way the pundits told Orvis to execute it.

Sure, you can criticize Orvis for failing to capitalize on an obvious search opportunity (they don't appear in the top ten for the term dry attractors and did not appear in paid results either). But that criticism misses the point entirely.

The point is that traditional multichannel marketing, executed via catalogs and stores and websites, is a leaky bucket that can never be fixed in a world dominated by Google. No matter how effective you are at catalog marketing, no matter how hard you work to optimize page counts and stimulate demand via enticing copy and manage trim size and use recycled paper and send remails and remails of remails, you will constantly send customers to Google. And Google will send customers to your competition.

E-mail marketers ... you're in the same boat.

This is the grand failure of the catalog/multichannel marketing model, a failure nobody in our industry wants to talk about. When we get away from over-thinking catalog productivity, when we focus on executing the nuts and bolts of online marketing, we begin to view the world differently. And maybe, we can stabilize the leaky bucket problem we face.