Well into the second decade of the Internet, many of you reading this — if not all of you — have a pretty good recollection of the “Wild Wild West” days of the Internet early on. It actually still is the Wild West, but in a much different way. And, having sat in on a number of sessions at the e-Tail conference in Washington, D.C., earlier this month, I noticed the breadth of knowledge that’s permeated the catalog/multichannel community and helped give it an entirely different character than it had 10 years ago.
For one, consider how the language has changed. In the mid-’90s, I recall it taking me months to understand what “Internet,” “World Wide Web” and even “online” all meant. At one point, I thought the whole thing was “America Online,” because early on, I used AOL to dial up and get online — whatever getting online really was.
Today, I think even my mother gets it (although she still can’t seem to figure out the cut-and-paste concept — drives me crazy). As for you, as a catalog merchant, understanding the pulse of the Internet goes hand in hand with doing your job today. Just about everything you do has to take the Internet into consideration.
At conferences like e-Tail, Shop.org and countless others that focus on all things online, attendees and speakers are no longer a bunch of computer geeks. They’re “ordinary” direct marketers who’ve graduated 10-plus years worth of on-the-job Internet training.
Combined Catalog/Online Department
Earlier this month, we posted a poll question asking whether catalogers have separate e-commerce and print catalog marketing divisions or if they’re both run in the same department. We got a breakdown of 65 percent running them together and 35 percent separate. (Speaking of which, I hope everyone reading this takes part in the poll questions we run on the top-right corner of our Web site. If you don’t, please bookmark this page and skip over there now and place your anonymous vote. It’s quick and painless, I promise.)
For catalogers, the role of the Web has been clearly defined over the past few years. That’s why a growing number of catalog/multichannel companies have combined what used to be separate catalog and Web units. In essence, the Web has become one-part alternative to the catalog combined with a one-part alternative to the toll-free number. Pretty simple.
Of course, it’s way more than that. But if you’re a catalog marketer by trade and have a clear understanding of those two key roles that the online world serves for you, you have a handle on it.
So we’re all experts and we all get it, right? A-ha, wrong! Just when it seemed so simple and easy that even a caveman could do it (don’t sue me Geico), the whole Web 2.0 concept rolled in. So guess what, the next 10 or so years, you’ll have a whole new regimen of on-the-job training. Although search, e-mail marketing, affiliate marketing, blogging, RSS, social networking, etc., are hardly new concepts, their roles are just now taking shape for catalogers.
Who Really Knows Web 2.0?
By a show of hands, how many of you consider yourselves experts in Web 2.0? One, two, three … anybody else? There’s your new challenge. We focused a good portion of the July print issue of Catalog Success on Web 2.0, but admittedly, we only scratched the surface. There are ways to make Web 2.0 help you make money, but many of them are still evolving.
If you’re, say, a VP of marketing, how comfortable would you feel telling your CEO — who’s still trying to figure out how to tweak your catalog circulation so you can afford those crippling postal rates implemented last May — that your company should invest more in blogging and customer interaction entertainment features for your site? “What’s the bottom-line payoff?” your CEO will ask. “Um, well … just trust me,” you’d say. “Trust me, there’s a payoff to be found somewhere. Besides, it’s the thing to do; more and more companies are doing it.”
Hardly a convincing argument, but in reality, there’s always a payoff of some kind. Build an interesting blog and they will come. But will they buy anything when they do come? Consider this example:
Do you sell plus-size garments for women? Start a blog on weight-loss or other issues of interest to overweight women. Take the approach of the Charming Shoppes-owned LaneBryant.com, which has a rather neat Web feature called “Speaking Woman to Woman.” (I found very little aside from basic product selling on the former Lane Bryant, now called Woman Within, that’s owned by Redcats.)
The Lane Bryant blog is written by Charming Shoppes Chairman/CEO Dorrit Bern. She writes about women’s issues and clearly is talking directly to her customer (see http://lanebryant.charmingshoppes.com/pagebuilder/chairman_letter). Most recently, she blogged about a nervous system ailment called fibromyalgia. (FYI: Fibromyalgia is a chronic condition characterized by widespread pain in your muscles, ligaments and tendons, as well as fatigue and multiple tender points.) And she encourages questions and feedback.
Like trying to get to the customer service counter in the back of a store, customers who regularly read her blog need to pass by Lane Bryant’s merchandise when they go to read Bern’s blogs. Certainly, there’s a portion of them who buy something along the way.
When it comes to entertainment value and customer interaction on a Web site, check out Alloy. There’s so much for the teen girls this cataloger/multichannel marketer targets to do on the site, and, of course, plenty of cute clothes to be bought.
A ‘BFF’ or a ‘Beeyatch?’
One particularly amusing feature on Alloy is “BFF or Beeyatch,” in which you can vote on whether a girl acted as more of a best friend for life or a “beeyatch” (a generation Y-ism for “bitch”) in a given situation (see http://alloy.com/4/23/4508/1/ref/1/1/4667/1/whats_new_module_spot_1_link). There are countless other features, such as daily horoscopes, slide shows and videos on dorm room designs, contests and globs of celebrity gossip. Oh, and plenty of stuff about “High School Musical 2.”
For catalogers, this is only the tip of the iceberg. Certainly not all catalogers can turn their sites into virtual amusement parks, as Alloy has done. But there are myriad ways to engage customers so they’ll buy more of your products. And plenty of ways nobody knows about yet.
You might not have the ammo in actual numbers yet to prove to your CEO or board of directors that investing more in Web 2.0 features is going to yield dividends, but that kind of numerical proof will soon come. Keep educating yourself. You’re in on-the-job Internet grad school now.