May 16, 2010

Dear Catalog CEOs: Hearts

Dear Catalog CEOs:

Have you ever played the card game called "Hearts"?

Four people play the game. Each player gets thirteen cards. One player leads out with a card (say the four of spades). If you have a spade, you have to play a spade. If you don't have a spade, you can play any card (including a heart). The highest card among the suit lead wins the trick, collects all of the cards played, and leads the next trick. If you collect any hearts, you get a point for each heart. Hint ... you don't want to collect any points! Worst of all is the queen of spades ... this card is worth thirteen points. You cannot lead a heart until "hearts are broken", meaning that a heart can only be played when one cannot follow suit.

What does any of this have to do with catalog marketing?

For the past decade, catalog marketing has been a craft of "avoiding hearts". Many of the folks who are good at playing hearts are good because they avoid collecting seven or eight or nine hearts in any hand, and they consistently avoid collecting the queen of spades, worth thirteen points. These folks play a game of damage control and risk avoidance, they are satisfied if, at the end of a hand, they accidentally picked up two or three hearts.

There's one quirk in the game of hearts. If a player captures every single heart and the queen of spades, then the player doesn't earn a single point ... instead, the other three competitors all earn twenty-six points. This is called "going for them all", and is one of the most exciting aspects of the game. It is a very risky strategy! You have to have just the right combination of cards in your hand, and your competitors have to make a few stupid plays early in the game.

You never announce to your competitors that you are "going for them all". You have to be clever, you take a few tricks early on that have a heart or two in them. Your competitors think 'good, he just took a few hearts, glad I didn't take a few hearts'.

And then, all of a sudden, you lead out with the Jack of Hearts, and the entire table is shocked. Somebody will say "oh oh, he is going for them all".

At that point, the three competitors work together to defeat the individual who is going for them all. The three competitors will gladly take on five or six hearts if that means that they avoid being penalized with twenty-six points.

If you are "going for them all", there is nothing more satisfying than "getting them all"! Your competition feels burned, and you feel an adrenaline rush!

For the past decade, catalog marketing has been all about capturing as few hearts as possible (hint, double-meaning there). Everything is about risk avoidance. We'll cut four pages from the catalog to save some expense. We shift from list organizations to co-ops to save a few pennies. We change the trim size to save a few pennies. We put the shopping cart in the upper right hand corner of the home page because we're told that it is a best practice. We offer 20% off and free shipping in e-mail campaigns but not in the catalog because we're told that e-mail has the best return on investment and e-mail customers simply won't shop without a promotion. Everything is safe, everything is without risk

Meanwhile, some companies are "going for them all". They are employing new and innovative strategies. Take for example. This is not a traditional catalog business model, is it? Syndicated blogs, product development from ideation to sale in just a few weeks. This is "going for them all"!

When the other players realize that somebody is "going for them all", the instinct is to gang up on the individual going for them all. We decide that this risk taker must be vanquished, that more damage must be done to the risk taker than is done to us by the risk taker. We all defend our turf against the risk taker. Most of the time, we defeat the risk taker ... and that furthers our belief that what we are doing is right.

In the past five years, non-catalogers began to "go for them all". Our reaction has been to play it safe, to believe that we have to team up and work together to beat the risk taker.

Maybe, just maybe, it is time for us to "go for them all".

1 comment:

  1. Maybe time is coming...


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I See Dead People

From LinkedIn, where I wrote this on Sunday: