Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Click your support

You’ve probably sent all your Christmas cards already, so here’s an idea for next year. A lot of companies these days send Christmas e-cards and give the money they save on postage to charity. But why not take the e-card concept a step further?

I received an email today from fashion etailer Asos that read: “Asos.com will donate 10p to the [Udayan Care] charity on behalf of every customer who shows their support by clicking here”.

If just 5 percent of Asos.com’s registered user base clicks through, the company will raise roughly £13,500. This is such a fantastic idea, and so easy for the consumer. I’d like to see more of this next year, especially from the big players. Smaller companies can get involved too, perhaps a penny for each click, or a sum for every 1000 clicks. How about it? --MT

Monday, 21 December 2009

All the Rage this Christmas

The real winner of this year’s fight for the number-one Christmas single is neither Rage Against the Machine nor Joe McElderry; it’s social media. And any businesses that still fail to see the commercial importance of networking websites such as Facebook are doomed to be mired in the 20th century.

The backstory in brief: Essex music fans John and Tracy Morter were tired of the annual winner of The X Factor--or as they put up, “Simon Cowell’s latest karoake act”--landing the top spot on the Christmas charts, as has been the case since 2004. So they set up a Facebook page encouraging people to buy Rage Against the Machine’s 1992 “Killing in the Name” the week of 13th December so that it could pip this year’s X Factor winner to number one. The campaign worked, with Rage’s not-at-all-festive ditty outselling Joe McElderry’s cover of “The Climb” by about 50,000 copies—or rather downloads, as “Killing in the Name” was available online only.

The obvious moral to this story is that one should never underestimate the breadth of a social network or the enthusiasm with which consumers participate in an online campaign. A sociologist might go so far as to argue that in our far-flung, techno-oriented world, people are so hungry to connect with other humans that they are especially inclined to get involved in virtual campaigns, as a way of sating their need to belong to a group. If this is indeed true, then online grass-roots campaigns will become more, not less, powerful as the internet becomes more a part of our everyday existence.

Leaving that aside, though, there are several other lessons to be learned:

1) Be careful how you respond to social media. After getting wind of the Rage campaign, Cowell told the mainstream media at a press conference that the Facebook campaign was “stupid” and “cynical”. In many cases, you do need to respond to web chatter concerning your brand. By doing so at a press conference, though, Cowell gave the campaign greater play than it might otherwise have received. He also demonstrated that he perceived the campaign as a threat, which of course established its credibility as one. He might have been better off by having the X Factor finalists respond in the weeks leading up to the final and then having winner McElderry launch a campaign of his own.

2) Never assume. “I now realise I’ve taken too much for granted,” Cowell said after the chart results were announced. “I have got to hold my hands up. I accept that there are people that don’t like The X Factor.” If he’d been more diligent in monitoring his brand (the subject of an article in our upcoming January issue, by the way), he would not have been so surprised. Hell, he could have just rung me (and if you’d like to call upon me in the future, Simon, feel free. I don’t like The X Factor, but I’m definitely a fan of Simon Cowell.)

3) People—and especially British people—like to support the underdog. So if you’re being perceived as Goliath, you may want to consider highlighting a few of your similarities to David.

4) Not everyone buys into the force-fed image of Christmas as a time of cheer and group hugs. The fact that the Morters selected “Killing in the Name” (sample lyric: “And now you do what they told you/Now you’re under control”) for their protest, as opposed to a more seasonal or cheery ditty, underscores this. You can’t get much less warm and fuzzy than Rage Against the Machine. Prior to the next Christmas selling season, you might want to conduct some research amongst your own audience to see whether they’ve overdosed on messages of yuletide cheer and, if so, whether you should take a different approach to your holiday marketing.

5) If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em—or try to hire ‘em. Cowell reportedly phoned the Morters to congratulate them and offer them jobs at his record company. So far, they’ve declined.--SC

Thursday, 17 December 2009

What's in a tweet?

When talking about Twitter, the word “engagement” comes up time and again. Twitter isn’t meant to be a sales channel, insist the pundits, but rather a means of engaging customers and prospects with your brand. Of course, the purpose of engaging an audience in this way is to foster a stronger bond between them and your company, a bond that is ultimately expected to pay off in greater customer loyalty, retention, and yes, sales.

In reality, though, how many merchants are using Twitter to facilitate two-way conversation with consumers, as opposed to viewing it as just another means of pushing out their own messages without encouraging response?

In a highly unscientific survey, I looked at the Twitter feeds of a dozen merchants from 10th to 17th December. I was pleasantly surprised by how few of those 12 companies used their posts primarily to talk about themselves.

Electricals retailer Comet, for instance, posted 24 tweets during the week in question. Of those, 20 involved its Tweet the Parcel competition (which colleague Miri assures me was great fun). By naming the various prizes in its tweets, Comet was able to subtly promote its product range—and of course the game itself drove traffic to its website. But by also announcing the winners in its tweets, it created a sense of conversational give and take, and aligned its brand with a sense of fun. I’d say it was a win/win all around.

Compare Comet with nursery etailer Kiddisave, which posted a whopping 156 tweets during the week—that’s more than 20 a day. Just about every one of those posts was a straightforward product advert (“Micralite Fastfold Stroller Black also available in red - Kiddisave The One Stop Baby Shop http://bit.ly/8Ax0ua”, “Great savings on Quinny, Cosatto, Stokke® any [sic] many more big name brands - Kiddisave The One Stop Baby Shop http://bit.ly/3dFrx9”). Kiddisave’s Twitter feed did nothing to distinguish the company as a brand, other than to suggest it was a site to visit when pricing products. But in this era of comparison-shopping sites, using pricing as your primary selling proposition, with “one-stop shop” a distant second, seems short-sighted. Perhaps Kiddisave figures that because it has a high customer churn rate (after all, you only need to buy strollers and highchairs for a very limited span of time), engaging with customers to encourage a relationship is a foolish luxury.

Then again, maternity and nursery cataloguer/retailer Mamas & Papas has a similar issue regarding customer churn, but its Twitter feed establishes a brand persona akin to a girlfriend with whom you might sit at the kitchen table over a cup of tea while leafing through a copy of Heat magazine and chatting about your neighbours. A typical Mamas & Papas tweet: “Congratulations to Zoe Ball and DJ Norman Cook aka Fat Boy Slim on the news their baby is a long awaited girl who will be due in Janaury. [sic]” Of its 19 tweets for the week, only six promoted products, and even these maintained a “just us girls” tone (“The perfect heirloom gift for a little girl's bedroom. How cute is this? Boys version too. http://bit.ly/60znke via @addthis”).

Other retailers that promoted product aimed for a colloquial, soft-sell tone as well. All six of Laura Ashley’s tweets for the week were self-promotional, but at least the brand tried for subtlety or a sense of context: “Did you see Kirsties Home Made Christmas? Get the Novelty Chrismas [sic] Bunting as seen on her fireplace here! http://ow.ly/LO28

Likewise, while two-thirds of Halfords’ 15 tweets were promotional, the auto and cycle accessories retailer injected a sense of humour: “On the third day of Christmas Halfords Twitter gave to me...Three Wiper Blades: http://bit.ly/5nTIEh”. Its other tweets offered vehicle-related news and info, helping to establish the brand as a definitive, qualified source.

A supplier of spare parts for appliances, eSpares is an exemplar of two-way communication. Of its 32 tweets, 22 were responses to the tweets of others, with a heavy customer service component. The remaining 10 tweets were friendly and nonpromotional, along the lines of “Good morning! It's so cold here in London today. I'm thinking I should suggest opening an eSpares branch in Sydney.”

Dolls House Emporium follows a similar tactic. Not one of its 26 tweets touted product; one linked to a blog post, 15 were responses or retweets, and the remainder were simple observations. The closest its Twitter feed came to self-promotion was with this tweet: “It's very very busy here. We're not complaining, in fact we're quite excited about it :)”

The upshot? If you’re using Twitter solely as a push mechanism, and the only things you’re pushing are your products, you’re not taking full advantage of the medium. Failing to take advantage of its pull capabilities—by inviting followers to participate in giveaways and promotions, say, or by posting nonpromotional snippets as conversational gambits—is akin to kitting out your lounge with the latest wide-screen, HD television set and surround-sound speakers, then using the gear solely to watch decade-old reruns of Last of the Summer Wine. Why bother, really?--SC

Monday, 14 December 2009

Silly propping

If you sold key rings would you photograph them hanging on an exterior wall? This photo, taken from the Frances Hilary by Post catalogue is almost an open invitation to burglars.

The copy reads “make finding keys that little bit easier”. Hmm... not just for the occupants!--MT

Friday, 11 December 2009

Gifts I don’t get

Having a robust imagination, I can empathise with the intent of just about any Christmas gift. Those cheesy kitchen aprons designed to look as if the wearer is revealing his six-pack and just about everything else? Yeah, I guess someone, somewhere finds them funny. Loo seats decorated with “humorous” cartoons and poetry about game hunting? Well, the loo is a popular place to catch up on one’s reading.

A few of the items I spotted in Christmas catalogues recently, though, had me shaking my head and wondering who the hell would buy them—and who the hell would they be intended for?

Take the Monkey Nail Dryer from Hawkin’s Bazaar.

Hawkin’s has a host of brilliantly off-kilter gifts: Crime Scene Loo Roll; the Giant Wine Glass, which holds an entire bottle of vino; the Incredible Expanding Bunny (I can’t begin to explain it). But the Monkey Nail Dryer is, to my mind, just bizarre. I can accept that some people might feel the need to hasten the drying speed of their manicure with an air blower. But why is it in the shape of a cartoon monkey? I just don’t get it.

Then there’s the Furrari dog bed from Pets at Home:

I love dogs. I especially love my dog. But my dog is not going to have a swankier vehicle, plush or otherwise, than I do.

Gifts for the Girls sells Onion Goggles. These aren’t a gag gift, not at £14.99 and with a “comfortable foam seal” and “anti-fog lenses [for] maximum clarity”. But you’d need to chop an incredible amount of onions to justify the expense. Besides, who really wants to receive a gift whose sole purpose is to make it moderately less uncomfortable to carry out a tedious task?

Which sort of brings me to the Tweeze battery-operated tweezer from the Original Gift Company. I’m not saying this isn’t a great product; according to the copy, “it’s estimated to be 30x faster than ordinary tweezing” and is “ideal for facial hair on upper lip, chin and cheek areas”. But woe betide the man who presumes to surprise his honey with an implement for removing her moustache.

When it comes to truly naff gifts, the British have nothing on the Americans. Case in point, from the US catalogue Things You Never Knew Existed: Jingle Jugs.

From the product copy: “This anatomically correct mounted pair performs to the hit song ‘Titties and Beer’ by Rodney Carrington. Molded in soft vinyl with real bikini top! Mount these jiggly jugs on the wall or use the included display stand.”

And people wonder why I left the States for England.--SC

Thursday, 10 December 2009

What we learned from one day’s worth of pre-Christmas emails

In the summer I had the bright idea of logging in every marketing email that Miri and I received for a week. It made for one of our most popular blog posts, as well as for an exhausting several days. So since I couldn’t eke out the time to repeat that experiment (I have prezzies to buy and latkes to fry), I decided to instead home in on the emails we received on 9th December, two days after the so-called Mega Monday. At this point merchants should have had a solid grasp of which products, if any, they needed to push to meet sales goals, so it seemed as good a time as any to take a snapshot of their marketing efforts.

During the week in July that I tallied up the emails, we’d received 150. On 9th December we received 51, not counting duplicates (which makes me even more glad I decided to limit the experiment to one day!). Of those 51, nearly two-thirds—33, or 65 percent—offered some sort of discount or sale. That doesn’t include the email from fashion retailer Warehouse, which promoted a 25 percent discount voucher in the current issue of Grazia magazine.

Free postage and packing was appreciably less popular: Only nine of the emails, or 18 percent, offered it. For the most part the free P&P was tied to an order deadline (Neom Luxury Organics, womenswear cataloguer Gray & Osbourne), a spending threshold (toys cataloguer Letterbox, A Hume Country Clothing), or both (outdoor gear mailer Patagonia), though home-entertainment merchant Play.com and womenswear retailer Wall London offered unconditional free P&P.

Although these emails were sent just two weeks and a day before Christmas, only one in four notified recipients of the order deadlines for Christmas delivery. Orvis, for one, specified the date in its subject line (“Order by 14th December for guaranteed Christmas delivery”).

Gifts retailer Past Times spelled out last order dates not only for the UK but also for Continental Europe, US and Canada, and “rest of the world”. Granted, those overseas deadlines had already passed, which Past Times duly noted by striking through them, but by including them on the email it subtly reminded customers that it does indeed delivery worldwide.
Snow and surf gear seller Blue Tomato went one better, specifying dates for both standard and expedited delivery to EU and non-EU countries. I was confused, however, by the addition of dates for delivery to “AT” and “DE”. After a bit of sleuthing Miri deduced they meant Austria and Germany. (Since when did those countries drop out of the EU?)

So engrossed were marketers in their Christmas promotions, they for the most part neglected to follow email best practice. Take personalisation: A scant 8 percent of the emails (those from toys cataloguer BrightMinds, Conrad Electronic, wine merchant Vintage Roots, and pet supplies seller Zooplus) had any degree of it, and even these limited the personalisation to the salutation. Fewer than one-third—31 percent—of the emails included some sort of “forward to a friend” link. Only 27 percent included a link to their Facebook or MySpace page, their Twitter feed, or some other social-networking site, though that was an improvement from July, when just 17 percent of the emails we tallied offered such links.

In terms of subject lines, few really stood out. There was Orvis’s previously mentioned reference to the ordering deadline, and several others that also emphasised urgency (“Christmas gift ideas--Special Offer--One day only SAVE 20%” from gardening gifts merchant Primrose, “Wild Wednesday--Up to 80% off for 24hrs only” from general merchandiser Sendit.com, “20% OFF EVERYTHING--Ends Midnight Friday!” from fashion retailer Evans). Others simply stated their offers (the awkwardly punctuated “25% Off Everything and Get Ready for Christmas, shop now!” from Laura Ashley, “25% off all purchases at The Body Shop”). I did like “Stuff Those Stockings—Gift Ideas” from fashion brand White Stuff and “Christmas gifts? Ask the experts!” from gadgets merchant Firebox.com because they were somewhat different.

Only two subject lines really stood out, though. One was from cosmetics brand Space NK, and that caught my attention because of the typographic error: “Limited Time Offer: Receive #10 Off Your Purchase”. As an American, this made sense to me: What is called a hash tag on this side of the Atlantic is known as a pound sign on the other side. But I’m sure it baffled many other recipients.

Then there was this: “Christmas Tree Almost Ruins Christmas--A Case Study from The Healthy House”. C’mon, you have to open an email with a subject line like that. Apparently the writer of the email once had a genuine Scotch pine for the family tree, but the kids ended up being allergic to the attendant dust, mould spores, and terpene (yeah, I had no idea what that was either). The moral, according to Healthy House, is to be conscious of people’s environmental sensitivities and other allergies, and if you’re going to opt for a real tree, click through to the Healthy House website to buy an antiallergy spray.

On a happier note, here are my picks for the most aesthetically pleasing emails. The vast majority featured a broad selection of the merchants’ product ranges, which was quite practical. After a while, though, they blurred together in my memory. These didn’t:
Patagonia didn't eschew its creative trademark--fabulous action shots--and it also tied its copy to the photo: "Don’t be cast out in the cold because you didn’t get your gift there on time. There’s still time to pick up great Patagonia presents and get them there on time..."

The simplicity of this message from fashion brand Howies is refreshing. Plus Howies was one of the few marketers to promote gift vouchers, which are always popular to give and to receive.
Okay, I'm a sucker for puppies. Want to make something of it?--SC

Monday, 7 December 2009

Blogs, break-ups, and dead sharks

It’s over. I have broken up with one of my favourite blogs.

The reasons, for this post, aren’t important. One element, though, had to do with what I (and apparently many other of the blog readers) perceived as a scolding by the blog editors regarding what they felt were off-topic responses to their posts. It could probably be boiled down to a classic case of both sides talking but neither side listening—and who hasn’t had a relationship that suffered to some degree from that?

The upshot is, whereas I used to be a big fan of the women’s-oriented blog Jezebel—visiting it several times a day, posting periodically, recommending it in articles, linking to it via this blog—a few days ago I decided to end our relationship. Okay, I did visit it once or twice during the weekend, but I didn’t click through any of the posts; it was more in the way of phoning an ex-boyfriend just to hear him pick up the phone, then hanging up when he says hello. (Come on, I’m not the only one who’s done that... am I?)

If I’m discussing my relationship with Jezebel in the same terms as one might a personal relationship, that’s because in some ways it felt like a personal relationship to me. Indeed, that’s one of the virtues of blogs and other forms of social media—and one of the dangers.

When venturing into social networking, it’s easy to focus on the upsides: creating and reaffirming customer loyalty, strengthening the bonds between consumers and brand, the potential for word-of-mouth marketing. But bear the potential pitfalls in mind as well. I emailed Jezebel with my concerns prior to breaking up with the blog, and in its defence one of the editors promptly emailed me back. But for every consumer you disappoint who makes you aware of his chagrin, there are sure to be others who simply drop you—or worse, drop you and then proceed to complain about you in his own blog posts or other conversations.

So remember that the opportunity for greater rewards usually comes with greater risks, that you need to listen as well as speak, and that you should never become complacent with your relationships with customers, any more than you should with your significant other. Which brings to mind a quote from Annie Hall: “A relationship, I think, is like a shark… It has to constantly move forward, or it dies. And I think what we got here on our hands is a dead shark.”--SC

Friday, 4 December 2009

Most popular posts: November

Originally a standalone site, the Catablogue e-business blog was rolled into our relaunched website in November 2009. New articles are posted to our website as well as to the standalone site for archiving. Here is a tally of the most popular posts of November combining the top stories from both sites:

1. The big book isn't dead yet

2. The October Catalogue Log

3. Compare and contrast: L’Occitane

4. Striking while the iron's cold

5. Huh of the day: Hyperdrug

6. Vive la difference

7. Season's e-greetings

8. Catalogue we love: Bravissimo

9. Quick ecommerce takeaways from Amy Africa

10. Comfort and joy

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

"It's a magical world, Hobbes..."

For every avid fan of Twitter and Facebook, there seems to be an equally vociferous social-media sceptic. This little case study should give the doubters reason to reconsider.

A few months back one of my favourite blogs, the Comics Curmudgeon, briefly mentioned an upcoming book about one of the best comic strips in the history of the medium, "Calvin and Hobbes". Author Nevin Martell was offering everyone who emailed him a free copy of the first chapter of his book, Looking for Calvin and Hobbes. I emailed, and several weeks later received my free chapter.

I wasn’t the only one. In an interview with the Robot 6 blog on the Comic Book Resources website, Martell said that more than 4,000 people requested the chapter. “My publishers told me that super successful versions of this kind of promotion in the past had garnered a couple of hundred requests. But then the offer got written up by BoingBoing and NPR, not to mention a slew of comic-related blogs and the Twittersphere, so suddenly I had hundreds of requests pouring in.” The success of the promotion spawned additional blog posts and articles, which in turn generated more publicity for the book.

Martell doesn’t have a deep-pocketed publishing house behind him (if such a thing as a deep-pocketed publishing house even exists anymore). And because his book appeals to a niche market, he wisely targeted niche websites with his offer. In fact, for all that pundits have said that ecommerce levels the playing field for smaller merchants, because of the lower cost of entry and whatnot, I think that social media have levelled the field even more (except, of course, that a field cannot be levelled “more”—it’s either level or it’s not. But I digress…).

Let’s say you sell something niche like pig collectibles (don’t laugh—I used to have an extensive collection of porcine novelties… okay, laugh if you must). Ten years ago you would have had to target general collectibles magazines and forums to promote your products. Now after just a few minutes online you can find websites, Facebook groups, newsletters, and the like for pig owners, pig fanciers, and yes, collectors of pig memorabilia. By setting up a blog on your ecommerce site, linking to other relevant sites, and striking up relationships with other bloggers, you could home in on pig fans without wasting resources reaching out to, say, guinea pig collectors or casting a wider, costlier, and perhaps unprofitable net to include collectibles buyers in general.

And people who participate in niche hobbies are, judging from anecdotal evidence, more engaged with social media than those favouring more-mainstream pursuits. Those of us who are really interested in something as fairly specialised as comic strips or pig figurines or Bronteana (hey, I have very catholic tastes) are usually so excited to come upon others sharing our same arcane hobby that we email and post and forward relevant links with virtually no encouragement.

Which is one reason I've included links to both Martell's book and the Comics Curmudgeon site in this post.--SC

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

November Catalogue Log

Christmas came early for our posties, in the form of far fewer catalogues to deliver in November than the previous two months. Catalogue e-business logged in 140 catalogues for the month, down nearly 24 percent from the 184 received in October and down 34 percent from September’s 212 catalogues. No doubt some of the decline in volume was due to fears of continued postal strikes; it wasn’t until 5th November that the Communication Workers Union agreed not to strike against Royal Mail at least until after Christmas.

Catalogue volume wasn’t the only element to decline from October to November. So did the percentage of catalogues touting promotions. In November, 31.4 percent of the catalogues offered sales and discounts, down significantly from 41.3 percent in October. While 14.3 percent of the November catalogues promised a gift with purchase, 16.8 percent of the October catalogues had.

The percentage promising free delivery slid to 19.3 percent in November from 21.7 percent in October. Most of the free P&P offers were unconditional, incidentally, with only a handful (Baker Ross, Hawkins Bazaar, JML Direct, Lands’ End) tying it to a specific spending level.

Overall, nearly half of the November catalogues—49.3 percent to be precise—did not resort to special offers, compared with 41.3 percent of those received in October.

It appears that more merchants are trying to wring maximum margins from the all-important fourth quarter. Email and social media make this decision somewhat less risky than it used to be: If a cataloguer finds that full-price sales are falling short of goal, it can easily and quickly put together a promotional email and spread the word via Facebook and Twitter of special offers.

Among the more notable offers was a free upgrade to a Louisiana alligator watch strap with the purchase of a specific watch from Christopher Ward. The watchmaker also has what is one of my favourite slogans: “Time on your side”. Toys catalogue Letterbox had a nice tiered-discount scheme: 10 percent off orders up to £150, 15 percent off orders over £150. My only quibble with that promotion was the typography and wording of the message; I had to reread it nearly a half-dozen times before the words “up to” versus “over” jumped out at me. Maybe if they’d been in bold I wouldn’t have been so confused. (Or maybe I just need new glasses…)

Boden offered a 10 percent discount, plus free shipping, plus another £10 off. “I owe you a huge apology,” read the covering letter. “It took us far too long to realise that the catalogue you requested had not been sent to you. To atone for this blunder I’d like to give you a free tenner. You can use it on top of the offer printed on the cover.” To quote my colleague Miri, “Is there anything Boden doesn’t do right?”

Several of the October catalogues made a point of highlighting the cut-off dates for Christmas delivery, and as expected, more of the November editions did so. Some were refreshingly specific: Children’s furniture brand Aspace stated on page 3 “Order before 4pm on 22nd December for Christmas delivery”; apparel cataloguer Lands’ End has a deadline of 10pm on 21st December; Montezuma’s Chocolates gives a deadline of 21st December for standard delivery and 22nd December for express.

But let's not end a blog post concerning Christmas shopping on such a matter-of-fact note. Here are two of our favourite catalogue covers that adorned our inboxes this month:

All together now: Awwww--SC