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."