November 23, 2021

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You start to see a trend, and you wonder if the trend is real, or if the trend is astroturfed.

See if you can identify common themes in these articles, or common quotes from the same people, or the same people being referenced repeatedly.

Read the articles and jot down on a piece of paper the individuals cited in the articles.

You'll quickly be forced to confront the fact that somebody hired a PR firm to spread a message at a time when the catalog industry has never been on more unstable footing (and that is saying something, dear readers).

And the PR firm is really good at getting articles published. This trend is, obviously, astroturfed. And if I worked at an agency responsible for catalog marketing, I'd be working my rear end off to get as much exposure as possible right now - you can't blame folks for hustling.

We are required to be honest. I realize that's not a popular position in 2021, the best practice is to lie and mislead and earn clicks and mindshare and all of that. Look at politics and discussions about a pandemic for a starting point on this topic. 

What has happened in the past fifteen or twenty years?
  • Digital Ad Spend continues to grow at a mind-boggling rate (click here). Meanwhile, Catalog Ad Spend is about 1/20th or less (yeah, that's right) of digital ad spend (click here).
  • Can I state this again? For every dollar spend mailing a catalog, between $20 and $25 are spent on digital marketing.
  • I know, I know, you'll debate that the sources aren't appropriate. Fine. Go get your own sources, and tell me that the ratio isn't $1 in catalog to $20 in digital.
  • Mills have been closing for the past fifteen years, greatly constraining paper supply. Mills have not been closing because catalog marketing is making a comeback. Mills close when demand is contracting.
  • The pandemic ... not actual merchandising and marketing brilliance ... taught customers to buy online, often out of necessity for a period of time. As a result, catalog-centric brands saw an increase in the number of twelve-month buyers.
  • The increase in twelve-month buyers means that catalog brands asked for more paper in 2021 and 2022 ... at the very time when supply had been constrained too much (oops). Less capacity paired with more names to mail created a paper shortage.
  • The logical response to a paper shortage is not to let your Widgets sit in a warehouse, but to find a marketing alternative to move the Widgets out of the warehouse. This is where "digital" comes into play. "Digital" terrifies the catalog vendor community. I was in the meetings at Eddie Bauer in 1998 when e-commerce exploded and you could feel the tangible concern for a catalog career path. That was 1998. Those concerns never went away, and for good reason. I experienced how catalog professionals reacted when we shut down a $160,000,000 net sales catalog division in 2005-2006 and instead saw a net sales gain the year after. Even as sales INCREASED, catalog professionals were very uncomfortable. Very uncomfortable. Can't blame them, either.
  • Notice that the articles attack Apple and Facebook. It's their fault, and the response is to go back 20 years in history for a solution. Wrong. If a digital marketer is dependent upon Apple, Facebook, and Google ... then the digital marketer is "doing it wrong". The best digital marketers do not depend upon 1-3 platforms. The best digital marketers understand the creative and merchandising processes in the digital realm, regardless of platform.
Notice that the articles really hammer home the retail side of catalog marketing. This is for good reason, because the metrics on the retail side are shoddy. It's easy to convince the Executive Vice President of Global Brand Direction to make a fashion statement with a catalog. It's hard to convince the CFO at a catalog brand that catalogs are making a comeback, because the CFO has evidence that says otherwise. We're coming out of the pandemic and many housefiles are starting to contract. CFOs and CMOs at catalog brands understand what is really happening. Talk to them.

Should you dive into catalogs and help the channel make a comeback? If the metrics say yes, why the heck not??!!

Make sure you are looking at comparable metrics, of course.

Ignore matchbacks - that's pseudo-science designed to lie to you about the real impact of print. Use your mail/holdout test results to understand incrementality - and if you aren't comfortable giving up sales from 25,000 customers for six months via a holdout group, well, then you shouldn't be comfortable with your paper rep & printer canceling your January catalog altogether or shrinking your contracted circ by 100,000, right?

Let's say you mail a catalog to an average twelve-month buyer. During the month the catalog is mailed, customers who received the catalog spend $10.00. Those who are in a holdout group spend $6.00. Your organic percentage is 60%, your catalog drove $4.00 of incremental sales. Not a bad result.
  • $10.00 customer spend.
  • $6.00 would have happened anyway.
  • $4.00 is incremental.
  • 35% of sales flow-through to profit.
  • Catalog cost is $0.75.
  • Profit = $4.00 * 0.35 - $0.75 = $0.65.
Now, you also execute mail/holdout results for email marketing, right? You send five campaigns a week, you generate $0.12 per mailing, and 60% of sales are organic and would have happened anyway.
  • $0.12*5*4 = $2.40 customer spend.
  • 60% would have happened anyway, meaning $0.96 is incremental.
  • 35% of sales flow-through to profit.
  • $0.002 is the cost per email delivered, or $0.04 per month.
  • Profit = $0.96*0.35-$0.02 = $0.30.
If that's your result, then yes, catalogs are generating a better return ($0.65 vs. $0.30) than email marketing. You are winning - and go ahead and mail some catalogs and have fun. Notice, however, that the math illustrated above is never cited in articles. That should cause consternation on your end. Why won't anybody ever share favorable math with you via mail/holdout results?

Do the real math. Execute the tests ... both for catalogs and for email marketing.

Do not focus on astroturfed trends generated by smart PR firms being paid to get articles published.

Focus on performing an analysis that proves whether something is making a comeback, holds ground, or is in decline.

Does that make sense? Believe your metrics, not what you read.

P.S.: I'm ok with the authors and those who were interviewed and the PR folks promoting the content pushing their agenda. That's fine. I'm focused on you. Do the work. Make good choices based on facts.

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