Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Getting Flogged for... Flogging

The power of Word of Mouth Marketing is at the center of all that is "the customer experience." Positive customer experience leads to positive word of mouth recommendations. The difference today vs. 10 or 15 yrs ago is that everyone's a Gutenberg now, with the power to transmit that "Word of Mouth" worldwide... at the click of a mouse.

This power is both inspiring, and in fact scary. The inspiring part is proven each day by the millions of people like that blog, comment, etc. in the various forms of media that are infinitely accessible throughout the world. Never before has our society been give the tools to have a true "voice" in the overall culture as they have today. It is evidenced in political races (in the US, and elsewhere), in product reviews, just a dizzying array of opportunities to "speak up" are available today. The scary part is the attempt by marketers to deceive the public by "flogging;" the practice of writing fake blogs for the purpose of casting some entity (person, company, cause) in a positive or negative light.

As I said... the power of these word of mouth communications are nothing short of amazing, but at this point the principle of "caveat emptor" in the blogsphere has been brought to the forefront with the revelation over the past week that both McDonalds and WalMart have engaged Edleman to Flog on their behalf, without any sort of declaration that these fake blogs were in fact simple propaganda for these entities. The Word of Mouth Marketing Association(WOMMA) has formally put Edleman on probation for their actions. Edleman was one of the marketing entities that co-wrote the code of ethics that WOMMA established in Feb. 2005 to guard against such abuses. Fast Forward to September 2006 and... BUSTED!!!

And don't think for a moment that this type of activity doesn't tempt retailers with product review capabilities, or other ways that retailers and businesses alike are perceived in the view of this new sphere of marketing influence. For years now rumors have persisted that certain retailers are involved in the practice of "jacking up" certain ratings, or perhaps writing their own reviews, etc. In truth, it would take a tremendous effort or a very public admission in order to prove this, and I personally hope that events like this disclosure of these "flogs" will send a chilling effect over the business marketing community... forcing them to think long and hard on how to ethically use this new "power" that we've been given.

I think that for marketers, it goes back to the essential question that should guide all of your efforts: Is what I'm doing... for the good of the customer and her experience?

What do you think? Would love to hear your side... feel free to MEEBOME or comment below.


Monday, November 06, 2006

If the shoe fits... sell it.

Buying a pair of shoes online. It seems to be a topic that when you first turn and tell your neighbor about it... they give you a "deer in the headlights look" and say... "but how can you buy a pair of shoes without trying them on? I would NEVER do that."

Well... someone is doing it... as a matter of fact... a LOT of those people are doing it. Footwear is one of the fastest growing segments of online retail. Growing at 15% the Online Footwear Market is estimated to be a tidy little $5.5billion by 2010. Compared to the rest of the Footwear retail segment, that's pretty significant given that even in the best of times... shoe retailers off line are grinding out 5% store for store gains each year.

There are a LOT of competitors in this space... ranging in age from 7-10 years for the older players... to this month for the latest competitor: Piperlime.com (from GAP.com)

What do they all have in common? They all offer a selection that at this point is impossible to match in terms of depth of sizes, and styles, in an offline shoe store. This is not too unique in terms of any retail experience, Best Buy and Circuit City can't possibly stock all of the electronic goodies they sell, for example. But, shoes are a unique piece of apparel. There is an emotional bond with footwear that is definitely unique, and VERY strong. Consequently, there is a high bar that the online footwear purveyor must clear in order to provide a superior customer experience in the market.

The entry of GAP into this foray isn't really as much of a validation of online footwear sales (zappos.com has done that all by itself thank you very much) as it is a signal, that retailers with adeptly integrated and flexible eCommerce platforms, and a positive customer experience led by those platforms, have a good chance to succeed in niche markets quickly.

You might remember that about a year ago, GAP literally shut down its online operations to re-tool them from the ground up... in order to "get direct right." They caught a lot of flack for it
and for a while... the standard measures of success trended downward but after a while, you know what happened? The success started to come back to them, in multiples. This flexible new platform allowed them to launch a world-class online footwear store in 5 months total. Their entry into the online footwear business is just a case study in re-tooling your efforts around what your customer wants, and having the flexibility to meet their needs in a matter of a quarter, and not a multi-year effort. I think I might have commented on that somewhere :-)

Unlike many of the corporate retailers, GAP understands that you have to be centered around the customer's success. What is a more natural combination than shoes with clothes? Zappos.com has talked about it... but not really succeeded. It is hard to imagine them working on it much given the success they've had on footwear only. Bluefly has done some of it but has focused only on footwear that applies to its high-fashion niche. Shoebuy.com has tried bags as has shoedini.com. Marginal success with both of those. Perennial 3rd placer Shoes.com really hasn't tried an integrated approach much, instead focusing on trying to be the an eCommerce engine for the rest of the Brown Shoe Company Brands (like LifeStride, Dr.Scholls, and the soon to be released Bass. ) or niche sites with little or no following (bluefiresports.com, luxuryshoes.com, etc.). Retailers like LandsEnd and cataloger LL.Bean have their niche-related footwear. But... at the end of the day GAP sells everything from Jeans to Dresses, and can now pair the footwear with them to match. They've got the best platform for success in the online footwear market, and really pose the first credible threat to zappos.com's sales juggernaut. If GAP can succeed at integrating its Piperlime with its offline efforts (things like instore returns, etc.) then I think you have the makings of a real challenger in the online shoe market.

Care to comment? Try the MEEBOME widget if I'm online, or post a comment to the blog. They're always welcome.

You can't make the customer the center, until you do it internally first

This topic is a little more universal than just the online retail world, but has so much to do with it that I couldn't resist.

Isn't it funny how long it takes companies to respond to customer requests? From retailers to service companies... any attempt to either offer feedback, get an issue resolved... or in some cases just using their product is nothing short of abject failure.

There are countless people that I admire when it talks about their passion for a positive customer experience... I read Kelly Mooney's blog regularly, as well as the gang over at Grokdotcom and for a change of pace I really like reading Mark Cuban and his common sense at blogmaverick. The folks at Creative Good always have wonderful things to point out... as does Lauren Friedman and the e-tailing group (although I think Lauren ought to start blogging a little more than doing email ;-). There are a number of folks that I think offer retailers, and marketers in general, great advice. There are loyal readers everywhere that diligently soak up this information, forward it on to friends, etc. So, the question I have is... why aren't organizations getting significantly better, QUICKLY?

I think I have a pretty good way to explain it to these organization, and if asked, here's one way I might approach it.

"Left hand, meet right hand. Right hand, meet left hand. Now, which one of you two knows what your customer wants and can do something to change how your organization works?"

I have seen countless groups within companies pay for all of the focus groups, mystery shopping and customer experience studies you can imagine. However, to act on these observations, it comes down to this: Until you align your organization around the success of your customer, you just can't have the type of success that profits both you and serves your customer. It is really that simple.

Having been on both the Corporate side and now the consultative side of this customer experience equation for 10+ years, I've come to the conclusion that most organizations that have to deal with customers on a daily basis... are not structurally equipped to do so.

Whether the barrier is geographically-based responsibility for a given product set, lack of knowledge on how customers use your products/services/retail environments, to artificial metrics for success not devised with the customer's benefit at heart, I really feel probably 50% of the companies you interact with in the US (those let's say with a presence in at least 20 of the 50 states) are organizationally unable to handle looking at their company from their customer's perspective. Or, at the very least unable to ACT on the observations they DO receive/perceive because of some organizational boundary. Good people, with the best of interests in their hearts, are thwarted in their efforts to achieve even the basic of customer experience metrics, because of internal boundaries that are insurmountable.

So... how do you fix it?

Simple, call a "do-over" with your organization. Draw up an organization who's sole purpose is to meet the customer's needs. It can start at the grass roots. Start in your small sphere of influence, and work from there.

I envision a chart... with the customer in the center and every major business function (finance, marketing, operations) intersecting with it. When I get one drawn... I'll add it to the blog... but for now... picture it in your imagination (anyone remember how that little imagination feature works?). I predict that given what we know about customer loyalty... that preference is not based on price alone... but in fact on a holistic experience that surpasses all competitors... if you could accomplish this "do-over..." even if it were within your customer-facing organizations to start... you would see sales increases, customer satisfaction increases, and market share increases.

I invite all three of you that read this blog (LOL)... to submit some ideas on how YOU would call a "do-over" in your organization. Or better yet, examples of organizations you think are already on this path... doing things "right."


Wednesday, September 27, 2006

MeeboMe - Low cost consumer chat?

I've personally been a big fan of online consumer chat for retail sites, both as a user and in past roles as an ecommerce manager. I think that this kind of real-time contact with a knowledgable customer service agent, in context... is invaluable. Most research also backs up my belief, since it is a leading way to reduce the fear inherent in some ecommerce transactions. It also provides yet another one-to-one touchpoint for your organization, something that in our connected economy the consumer is still wanting.

But, the question has always come up... how can you cost justify the expense of putting in a system for this, when a lot of the "benefit" is "perceived" or "soft." I think I just found my answer to that question in the form of my favorite "Web 2.0" tool: MEEBO.

For those of you who don't know, MEEBO is a great tool to log into all of the major instant messaging networks, from one browser window. While other pieces of software like Trillian and GAIM do the same kind of thing, MEEBO does it all from a Browser Window. You don't have to install anything on your machine. Go to MEEBO.com, login (or not!) and go. A little over a month ago MEEBO introduced a little widget called "MEEBOME" that you can embed into your site, and start an instant chat session with the "host." I saw on the MEEBO BLOG today a note where one retailer is using this as a way to do online chat with their customers... brilliant!!!!! This gives you the proof of concept any retailer would need, provides you with a cost effecient way to reach out to your customers within the context of the shopping expereience... and did I mention that its free?

If you're a smaller retailer online, or any smaller business that's online for that matter... what a GREAT way to "expose" your "experts" to your customer base. I could envision SO many ways to use this tool. If you have some ideas, post them in the comments or better yet MEEBOME in the column to the right!

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Playing "Fair"

Life in the online retail and apparel business CAN be fair. At least that's the premise that Bill Bass, former Lands End eRetailing expert thought when he decided what to "do next." Bass and some of his former Lands End co-horts have debuted a new brand/site/catalog called Fair Indigo which is selling Fair Trade clothing and accessories for Men and Women.

Bass was the driving force behind both the discipline and innovation that the eCommerce team at Lands End was famous for. This overwhelming success in converting Lands End from a nice sized cataloger to a Multi-channel powerhouse started with Bass' vision of how people prefer to shop, and carried through from there. This was the key reason why Sears decided they needed to buy Lands End and adopt many of the online tactics that Lands End had used to grow... in order to make Sears a major online retail player.

His new venture is interesting. After leaving Sears, he formed a group called Black Wolf Group and invested in a moving company in the Southwest. All the while however, people were talking... they knew that he wouldn't go too far from the online apparel space and at some point, you knew that he'd have an original idea. Now the proverbial cat is out of the bag; Fair Indigo has debuted not with a large national ad campaign... but a website and some interviews. Grass roots. I doubt seriously you'll ever see a Fair Indigo ad on the superbowl show but, I do think you might see Fair Indigo take the "red bull" route to marketing and commercial success. Viral marketing, email, sponsoring events that are eco-friendly, all aimed at a market that is growing and growing.

And... his first generation site... nothing to sneeze at for sure. A PHP-based site (imagine that... a new world company using open source) with all kinds of AJAX tricks. Great zoom, wonderful product photography, a really cool conditional text/back order feature... overall a very concise and easy experience. I predict that Fair Indigo will "Fare" well. I know for one, I'll be buying one of their tee shirts to support the cause (As soon as I can get it in a Large...).

Wanna learn more? Check out these links:

Fair Indigo.com
Fair Indigo Foundation
Wisconsin Business Article (09/15/06)

Thursday, May 18, 2006

It's one... multi-channel world

Okay... this blog's a bit on heavy on the academic/theory side. I promise though... there's a point at the end.

Here's my main question: Have you ever wondered why people continue to silo their marketing efforts, yet spend millions of dollars building a seamless brand?

Connectedness is pervasive at this point in the society of the consumer (for the purposes of this discussion, I define consumer as... everyone). Information and experiences are increasingly interrelated and there are tons of discussions going on about how the "next generation" of consumers... workers... whatever it is you want to describe them... live in a completely connected world. Google knits together information for them... as John Battelle (in his book The Search) describes into a "database of intentions." The text messages and streamed video to their cell phones... it is all about being connected. So it stands to reason that for your brand to stay with this group, it needs to be connected too.

Yet... Organizations are still aligned around specific market segments that sometimes really limit thinking on a "multi-channel" scale. An example of this limited thinking might be a statement like this: "what reaches a retail consumer isn't the same as what reaches a small business owner." Are we saying that the consumer couldn't be a small business owner too? In our new "connected" world, the answer is probably... yes they are a member of both groups. So that begs the question, do you market to them differently with tailored messages, or do you try to reach them in a manner that is consistent with your brand position... across whatever "role" that consumer currently is "playing" (owner or retail consumer in this case). The answer is, you need to bring it back to your brand first. Your brand is the same brand... no matter what role you're trying to reach in our increasingly connected society. Once you have the solid brand position, you can then extend it via the most effective medium (email, text message, print ad, direct mail, or a combination of all) using the traits inherent in that medium that will most effectively deliver the message.

So... what's the moral of the story? I think that organizations that are NOT looking at their structure... especially retailers but also businesses in the B2B market, and figuring out how to structure marketing planning and even operational planning, so that they can service each market's individuality while at the same time maintaining that consistent presence across all channels, are going to miss opportunities in the new "connected economy." The organizations addressing this now... or that have addressed this, will be the ones you want to buy stock in (if you don't have it already...). Which one will you be?

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

new APPLE v. PC ads - look outside your window

If you haven't seen them yet... the new commercials for the "getamac" campaign are causing moniors all over our office to receive water-soda-coffee power-washings... Check them out here:

My personal favorite is the virus version but... we DO have a report of the first official virus for a mac this week. Here are two views on it:

From CIO magazine (predictable corp slant here)
From MacDailyNews (defending the apple)

You decide what you want but... the Mac is going to become a more popular home computing platform over the next year... because it is simple to maintain. The iPod has been the perfect lead in to it.

What does that mean for you? Make sure your sites work in Firefox. Make sure that you're focusing on "ease of experience" learning a lesson from the ease of iTunes, and the iPod... in everything you do. These matter to the consuming generation of now, and if you're not watching this trend here... you won't see the wave when it swamps you.

This is another in a series of reasons why I think it is imperative for retailers to look outside of their vertical... and outside of the industry... to better understand how they can improve their overall experience.


back in action

Hey fellow online consumers and purveyors... after a bit of an absence... I'm back and ready to blog-away.

I've switched a bit of the focus personally as I've moved to a new firm that does more b2b marketing/interactive. However, I'm still watching the online retail space VERY CAREFULLY as 2006 is a watershed year for a lot of the major players. I will be "redefining" what online retail means a bit (if att is trying to sell you a new cell phone and some DSL together, that's retail too ya know) but, we'll still be in the trenches looking at the trends and commenting as we see fit. Also, now that I'm in a different place, I'll be able to reveal a little more about "online retail guy" in the coming weeks as well.

So, hope you're reading this... welcome back if you are and I'll have a new post up about some interesting developments in online retail, coming soon.


Thursday, February 02, 2006

Time to invest in online operations

Greets all. Well the first of the year is off with a bang and by almost all accounts major retailers were effected by online retailing for the holidays. There are numerous reports of how much online retailing grew in 2005, but I think that this article from eMarketer and this one from Internet Retailer sum it up pretty good.

With the future so bright that you're gonna need shades (ewww... corey hart 80's reference) some of the forward thinking retailers have seen their investments in their online/multi-channel retailing efforts pay handsome dividends. BestBuy's Sam Taylor for example just told Internet Retailer this week about their 2005 Gift Card and Gift Center efforts driving significant holiday gains. Circuit City's "24 minutes or $24 gift card" promotion brought to the forefront their multi-channel abilities, and has been a key in a positive. And of course, the darling of the online world Zappos.com smashed even their own estimates for 2005 by posting $370 million in online sales.

What all of these have in common, along with many other retailers is that they made significant investments in their online operations and infrastructure starting as far back as 10 years ago. They also continue to shift resources ($$$'s) from their traditional business and marketing efforts to where their significant growth is: Online and multi-channel retailing. There's no better example of someone "getting it" than what Federated announced this week. They are going to spend $120 million over the next two years to open a new "direct business" distribution facility, and completely revamp their online/direct retailing infrastructure. Federated realizes that their core business, the department store, is fading fast and if they do not transition to a full multi-channel model, they will be completely left behind.

So... what is the lesson to be learned? If you're planning to succeed in retailing, the double-digit growth is online not offline. The combination of both (multi-channel) is even more efficient and is increasingly they way for traditional brick-based retailers to go. Your marketing, your merchandising and your technology infrastructure need significant investment now, or you will be passed by. Does your budget reflect supporting this double-digit growth potential or are you still spending the vast majority of your budget on traditional and slower growth efforts?

Good luck in 06, and happy retailing.

PS: to any of you who were in Atlanta for Shop.org's First Look at the last minute, I was unable to attend. More on that later, but I hope that all of you who did attend havd a great show.