Push, and Print, Remains Powerful

When discussing the pros and cons of direct mail and online marketing, the terms push marketing and pull marketing have gone out of fashion. But the distinction remains. By and large, even if you have the greatest ecommerce site in the world, you pretty much have to wait for prospects to come to you. Sure, you can advertise, hone your SEO and SEM, engage in affiliate marketing, and the like, but none of these enable you to push yourself into the prospect’s field of vision the way that a mail piece delivered to a consumer’s home or workplace can.

Of course catalogs, the direct mail counterpart of the ecommerce site, have their own drawbacks: They’re expensive to produce and mail, they can quickly become outdated, real estate is limited. That’s why I was so delighted to receive the Untours Recipes mail piece from vacations provider Untours

The slim-jim brochure devotes the bulk of its 28 pages to, as the title suggests, recipes from the countries in which Untours operates. The inside front cover invites readers to share their own recipes and overseas food experiences on Untours' private social network, Untours Café, or its Facebook page; there’s also a full-page president’s letter, and three more pages (one in the front and two in the back) explaining how Untours differs from other travel providers. The spreads in between are devoted to recipes, brief intros to the culinary heritage of each country, and a map showing the cities in each country where Untours is based, along with a brief blurb along the lines of “Explore the festivals of Buenos Aires, starting at just $749 per person.”

Based on my not-nearly-as-extensive-as-I-wish-they-were travel experiences, the recipes seem authentic enough (though the photo of goulash looks much fresher and tastier than any so-called goulash I came across while in Budapest). By offering a recipe for the lesser-known salmorejo over, say, gazpacho; by casually dropping the names of smaller towns such as L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue; and by sharing such gems as the fact that baklava was once a treat only for the wealthy, Untours deftly uses content to support its sense of authority.

This sense of authority is especially critical for a travel company. You probably don’t care if the seller of a $49 pillow cover knows the history of ikat fabric, but the company you book a $2,500 German vacation with should be able to tell you how potato salad in northern Germany differs from that of southern Germany. (According to Untours, mayo is a key ingredient in the north, while the south favors broth, oil, and vinegar. See, direct mail is educational!)

Just as important, this recipe books is a keeper. My daughter and I have already earmarked the kaiserschmarrn to make later this week and a few other recipes after that, which means the Untours Recipes booklet will remain on my kitchen shelf along with my cookbooks. And that, in turns, means I am more likely to pull out the brochure and head to www.untours.com when planning my next vacation than I would have been had I not received the booklet.

As I am not a customer and did not opt in to receive Untours literature, the booklet was apparently sent to me as a prospecting tool. Given its diminutive dimensions and page count, it’s certainly much cheaper to produce and send than a full-size catalog, yet it achieved the same push-marketing objective as a catalog.

Although I’ve subscribed to multiple travel newsletters and I regularly visit several travel websites, Untours was not on my radar, so I’m guessing that the company rented my name from TripAdvisor or the like. Which points to another benefit of direct mail: Acquiring somewhat targeted names isn’t onerous.

Using editorial to boost sales is really coming into its own among online-only marketers, some of which are spending big bucks to lure well-known writers and editors. But while all that editorial content can help boost search engine rankings and garner some nice PR, if the content remains available only online, a significant amount of pull is still required to get prospective customers to see it. So why not create a print brochure or flyer with some of that credibility-boosting content, then mail it to targeted prospects or insert it into a relevant magazine? It seems a shame not to take advantage of the unique benefits of the print medium simply because the online medium has other benefits. The more media, the more advantages. 

(The above is a photo of my daughter and me in Spain a few years ago, where we did not sample salmorejo but did enjoy some fabulous paella and seafood.)

I'm Cute; Read Me

Two things you should know before you read this post: I love Iceland, to the point that if, say, a job opportunity arose (hint hint), I’d relocate there in an instance; and I’m a sucker for cute. 

So of course I’ve been absolutely charmed by the Iceland Wants to Be Your Friend social media effort initiated by the Icelandic Tourist Board. There’s a blog; a Twitter feed; a Facebook page; Tumbler, Vimeo, and Flickr accounts—nothing too unusual there. What is unusual, at least to me, is that the content is presented in the first person, as if Iceland were a somewhat naïve, eager, friendly person.

This, for instance, is the confirmation email you receive upon opting in to receive its enewsletter:

Halló there --
and takk for being my new best friend.
I look forward to having you as a friend, and maybe sending you emails once in a while telling you about my places and my people, and the things that [are] happening on me.
(Don't worry, I am not the kind of clingy friend who is always sending you messages when you just want some peace and quiet. And if you ever want to stop being friends, I am very uncomplicated about it. You just click a link and poof.)…

Its Facebook posts are written in the same style. Following Saturday’s eruption of the Grímsvötn volcano, Iceland—yup, that’s the organization’s Facebook moniker, “Iceland”—posted messages such as “My people usually keep calm and carry on when I have volcanic eruptions. (They are used to them, and they know what to do)” and “Are you flying to me in a flying machine today? For updates, follow…” with links to several sources of information. 

I can’t recall any other instance in which the product or service being marketed was anthropomorphized in this way. I’m not talking about the logos but the actual subject of the marketing itself. It’s as if instead of the Ty-D-Bol man exhorting the toilet cleaner’s virtues, the Ty-D-Bol container itself began talking.

While I think the initiative is absolutely delightful, I did wonder if it was perhaps a bit too twee for the mainstream. Then I noticed that it has more than 67,000 Facebook friends (compared with less than 52,000 for a similar venture, Inspired by Iceland) and nearly 7,500 Twitter followers (compared with 2,300 for Iceland Naturally, dedicated to promoting Icelandic companies and events).  

What’s more, people who post on Iceland’s Facebook wall often respond as if it were, indeed, a person. “Hello Iceland, I think I'm in love with you. Even though I did not have the chance to see you in realtime yet. Let's call it something platonic maybe, if that's okay with you?” wrote a young woman from Belgium. A male university student from Scotland posted, “Hi Iceland, Myself and a friend are about to come and walk across you from the far south to the far north.”

The effectiveness of social marketing, according to the pundits, depends on how much of a personal connection people feel with the brand, product, or service being marketed. By portraying Iceland as an individual, one with a distinct and quirky personality, Iceland Wants to Be Your Friend has made that connection with followers. It’s as if the usual intermediary between consumer and product had been removed. 

That perception of greater closeness between consumer and product, or between reader and writer, is why so many novelists used first person instead of third for particular books. Can you imagine Catcher in the Rye or Portnoy’s Complaint or Huckleberry Finn written in the more distancing third person?

Though, of course, not every book could or should be written in the first person. By its nature, first-person narration is limited and unreliable. Iceland Wants to Be Your Friend gets around the latter stumbling block by making the character of Iceland somewhat childlike. But a childlike tone wouldn’t work for most products and services. I know I wouldn’t want to buy, say, my dog’s heartworm medicine or an office desk from a company that positions itself as simple and inexperienced.

So yes, the approach of Iceland Wants to Be Your Friend is difficult, if not impossible, for most other marketers to pull off. But it does indicate that consumers do respond to appropriate whimsy and that injecting an unexpected voice or personality into a brand’s social marketing efforts can not only set the brand apart but also increase response. And it shows that I’m not the only person who responds to cute.  Which is why, in a bald attempt to attract more readers, I opened this post with a photo of the cutest dog I know.

Where's My Post-Rapture Discount?

As of Thursday evening, 385,566 of us heathens had RSVPed to attend the Post-Rapture Looting. As per the Facebook invite, “When everyone is gone and god's not looking, we need to pick up some sweet stereo equipment and maybe some new furniture for the mansion we're going to squat in.”

If you think that nonbelievers are the only ones looking to reap some earthly benefit from the so-called Rapture—believed by some to be occurring this Saturday, with the end of the world slated for October—think again. Back in 2008, a Christian named Mark Heard launched You’veBeenLeftBehind.com: For $14.95 a year (or less as the number of participants increases), subscribers can store documents online that, thanks to the wonders of automation, will be sent six days after the Rapture to those sinners Left Behind.

According to the site, Christians are supposed to use the service to send their Left Behind friends and family emails persuading them to “receive Christ one last time” so that they can take advantage of “a small window of time where they might be reached for the Kingdom of God.” I guess storing documents that say something along the lines of “Ha ha! Told you!” would be frowned upon as un-Christian.

I’m surprised, though, that no marketers are offering Rapture promotions. Granted, I wouldn’t expect a mainstream retailer like JCPenney or Macy’s to advertise 20% off for all those Left Behind. But what about a brand like streetwear etailer Karmaloop whose target market, it’s safe to say, isn’t fretting about having to cancel plans for Saturday night, or brands that already pride themselves on being “edgy” and “in your face” such as American Apparel and Abercrombie & Fitch?

Presumably companies fear that offering discounts to those of us Left Behind is somehow insulting to Christians. Personally I don’t think it’s any more denigrating than offering similar promotions in honor of the birth and resurrection of Christ.

Which is why the whole “Put the Christ back in Christmas” campaign simultaneously amused and appalled me. If I were a devout Christian, I wouldn’t want the commercial pile-on that has become the Christmas season to be associated with Christ. Don't get me wrong: I love Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and the Waitresses' "Christmas Wrapping" and building gingerbread houses and surprising my daughter with gifts as much as the next person. But I’d want the relentlessly pushy TV adverts and the focus on "buy buy buy" to be considered “the holidays” so that “Christmas” could remain focused on its original meaning.

Then again, I’m not a believer. So if the Rapture does occur on Saturday, I’d really like to be able to take advantage of some nice discounts between then and the end of the world so that I could live it up for a few months before being relegated to the torments of hell. 

Hail the Conquering Catalog Hero

Damn if L.L. Bean didn’t make me fall in love with an Adirondack chair.

To give you a sense of the unlikelihood of such an action, consider this: 1) I try to spend as little time outdoors as possible, and 2) I’m not a fan of New England style (but out of respect for those who are, I’ll refrain from stating that New England style is itself oxymoronic).

Yet in its Summer 2011 Home catalog, Bean made me long for an Adirondack chair, especially the cheery orange or bold red one found on page 10, though the sunny blue one on pages 14-15 would do.

How did Bean manage this feat?

* It treated the chairs—and the other styles of outdoor furniture in the pages leading up to them—as heroes. The objects in question dominated not just the main photographs on each spread but the spreads themselves. The others items for sale on those pages were relevant accessories to those heroes: coordinating seat cushions and outdoor lanterns in the same festive colors, for instance.

* The products differed just enough from similar items available elsewhere to be a novelty—and to distinguish Bean from the other merchants. Remember the old commercials for Trix, where the rabbit waxes orgasmic about the cereal’s vivid colors: “Cherry red! Lemon yellow! Orange orange!” That’s almost how I felt upon coming across those orange, red, and blue chairs. Having lived on the Eastern Seaboard most of my adult life, I’ve seen and sat upon scores of Adirondack chairs in my time, but never in such bright, glossy hues.

* Yet in key ways, the products were no different from other Bean merchandise. I could, of course, just pick up a cheap imitation Adirondack chair and spray-paint it a glossy color myself. But leaving aside the fact that I already have major DIYs project to take care of (anyone want to help me paint a deck this weekend?), this chair boasts the much-vaunted Bean quality that makes its products worth paying more for. According to the copy, “Our All-Weather Furniture is built in America—and built to last a lifetime. It will not rot, warp, splinter, absorb moisture or ever need painting.” Never need painting?! Does L.L. Bean make decks? 

And on the off chance that after ordering the chair I didn’t like it, Bean has its famed iron-clad, unconditional return policy.

Ooh, look, on the back cover, there’s another gorgeous photo, of matching side tables in the same fabulous colors! Bean gets me coming and going.

The May 2011 Ballard Designs catalog arrived in my mailbox the same day at the Bean book. The front covers of both catalogs showed furniture on a porch or deck overlooking water. And in terms of decor styles, I have more of an affinity to Ballard’s somewhat lyrical, European-influenced furnishings than Bean’s Yankee utilitarianism.

Yet nothing in the Ballard catalog struck me the way Bean’s Adirondack chairs did. One reason is Ballard has no real hero products. That’s because the page layouts are denser than Homer Simpson.

One could charitably say that Ballard aims to make the room, rather than any individual piece, the hero. That would be fine, if Ballard were selling the room rather than the individual items within. There’s such a thing as creating a mise-en-scène in order to persuade the customer that by purchasing one or several of the items in that scene, he too could achieve that glorious abode—nay, lifestyle; it’s what Pottery Barn does so well, in its stores and its catalogs alike. 

And then there’s cramming a lot of merchandise in a room, photographing it, putting it on a spread with several other cluttered photos, and then littering said photos with letter keys to correspond to the copy blocks plopped in the scraps of remaining white space. I contend that Ballard veers much closer to the latter than to the former. 

Clutter in my home drives me mad (which is why I spend most of my waking hours in a state of semi-rage). So I’m certainly not inclined to purchase from a home furnishing catalog whose pages are nearly as jumbled and crowded and overflowing with stuff as my husband’s bedside table.  

Despite Emailers' Efforts, I Still Dislike Mother's Day

For reasons I won’t bore you with, I’ve always hated Mother’s Day. Even though I’ve been a mom myself for more than 10 years now, it’s not a holiday we really celebrate in our household, other than to take my mother-in-law out for dinner. (Though my daughter and a friend of hers who slept over Saturday night did surprise me with a wonderful Mother’s Day breakfast in bed—thanks, girls!)

So given that I consider myself immune to the Mother’s Day hoopla, I figured I’d go through the marketing emails I received tying in to the day and see if any of them would have moved me to make a purchase were my mother still alive.

One of the first Mother’s Day emails I received was from Amazing Clubs. I’d purchased several of its beer club gifts for my husband, which he enjoyed mightily, so it was savvy on the company’s part to send me an email on April 13 reminding me that it offered much more than beer. On the left-hand side of the email it listed all 36 of its “of-the-month” clubs, from barbecue sauce to wine, with desserts, dog treats, lobster, neckties, and peanut butter among the selections in between.

The subject line was pretty compelling: “Free Shipping & 10% Mother’s Day Gifts.” What’s more, the copy emphasized practicality over smarm—“…With Mother’s Day only 3 ½ weeks away, now is the perfect time to save big on her extra special gift  (and get it off your to-do list!)…”—which I consider a point in its favor.

But the email was visually unappealing—a handful of not-very-enticing product photos and one of a smiling blonde woman and her smiling brunette daughter. 

I expect gifts merchants to put together attractive marketing pieces. If they can’t even put together a crisp, modern-looking, pretty email, I’m going to assume that any present they send on my behalf is going to look equally uninspiring and cheap.

DineWise, which I’d also ordered gifts from in the past , sent me its first Mother’s Day email on April 21. As with Amazing Clubs, the subject line was an attractive offer: “Place Your Mother’s Day Order Now and Save 15%.” And I liked how the copy began: “We are taking Mother’s Day orders now,” as if there’d been a crowd waiting for the virtual doors to open. It subtly created a sense of desirability and immediacy—Ooh, better hurry, before they run out! And the bottom of the message included last-order deadlines “to avoid additional shipping charges,” which came across as very thoughtful.

But also like the Amazing Clubs email, the DineWise message was unattractive. Let’s make that downright ugly. 

Even the photos of the meals looked dull and bland, akin to the photography you see on faded, 10-year-old diner menus in Queens. And why not show one impeccable hero photo of a sumptuously styled, beautifully propped meal instead of the stock photo of three generations of blandly smiling blue-eyed females?

VivaTerra opted for the hero-photo treatment in its April 18 email, with the subject line “VivaTerra: Shop our Mother’s Day catalog for over 50 distinctive gifts.” (I’m not a fan of having the merchant’s name in the subject line when it’s already in the from line, but let’s not quibble.) 

Above the lovely main photo of flowers in a glass pear set against a rich, serene blue and white background was the headline “Shop our online catalog of over 50 great Mother’s day [sic] gifts—there’s something for every Mom from exotic plants to comfy pajamas to picnicware.” And below the main photo, in case recipients still didn’t get the message that VivaTerra offered more than flowers in glass pears, were three smaller, but equally well styled, product shots, of items ranging from practical (colorful, cleverly designed handled bowls) to quirky (the Moulin Rouge Succulent Shoe, which appeared to be a planter in the shape of a shoe holding a cactus).

If my mum were still alive, I would have clicked through this email. As it was, I clicked through anyway, just out of curiosity (okay, I admit it: to shop for myself). Although clicking each of the three smaller product shots took you directly to that item’s product page, clicking the hero photo led you to a 35-page virtual catalog of delights, in a broad range of product categories and price points. On the last page was a link that read “Still haven’t found the perfect gift? See even more Mother’s Day Gifts [sic]” that directed you to a dedicated Mother’s Day section of the core website.

Having bought from VivaTerra in the past year, I regularly receive its print catalogs, but I don’t recall getting one tied to Mother’s Day. Perhaps the company sent this special email to some or all of its print file instead. If so, I’d love to know how it performed; even if it pulled a lower response than a print mailing, because it cost so much less to produce, VivaTerra might still have ended up with a greater profit. Though I do hope it continues its print catalogs; my daughter and I love to leaf through them together, something we don’t do with virtual catalogs. (Which reminds me: I promised to order her the River Stepping Stones from the most recent catalog. And maybe when I do, I’ll order one of the Succulent Turtles I saw in the virtual catalog for myself—err, I mean, for the living room.)

The most prolific Mother’s Day emailer was, not surprisingly, 1-800-Flowers.com. Its emails were certainly gorgeous: This is one company that knows the importance of a hero photo and that, for gifts merchants, style is substance. The headline of its April 29 email struck me as a bit tone-deaf, though: “Show Mom how much you care & save big.” In other words, "show your mom that you care enough to wait for a great discount"? Granted, when my husband and I exchange gifts we often do boast about which special deals we took advantage of and how much money we saved, but I recognize that most families do not adhere to Woody Allen’s philosophy: “In my family the biggest sin was to buy retail.”   

Then again, the following day’s email from 1-800-Flowers carried the headline “Free Shipping/No Service Charge (Mom will be so proud),” so maybe there are more families like Allen’s and mine than I’d suspected. And to tell the truth, last year, when I had to live with my mother-in-law for five long (very long) months while my husband, daughter, and dog were overseas (another story I’ll spare you), I did succumb to one of 1-800-Flowers’ discount Mother’s Day emails, so apparently they do work.

The oddest Mother’s Day email was from Chinese Moods. “New arrivals for Mother’s Day,” read the subject line. Nothing odd about that, you say? It arrived on Mother’s Day itself. This is one of those instances where I don’t think “better late than never” really applies. 

Check, Check, No

A look at two apparel merchants that avail themselves of the web’s advantages over print, and one that doesn’t.

* On its online product pages, Boden includes not just the wealth of alternate images, zoom functionality, cross-sell suggestions, reviews, and detailed measurements that used to be considered niceties but are fast becoming de rigueur. It also includes, when applicable, updates to the product descriptions that appear to be in response to customer service questions.

For instance, the copy for the Pool Party Tunic adds, in a font different from the rest of the description, “Please Note:
 Please be aware that the Yellow Loopy neck embellishment should have yellow beads as the internet shots [sic] not white beads as the catalogue depicts.” The Twist Jersey Top copy cautions, “Poppy option (RED) is much brighter and slightly more coral in reality.  Please note Cream option (CRM) is cream although appears white in photography.”

Most of the products do not have such addenda. And while ordinarily I’d been shaking my head at the typos and errant coding in these messages, they do support the ad hoc nature of the notes, as if an empowered customer service rep had taken it upon himself to add them to the site in response to multiple queries he had fielded.

Adding this sort of information is in fact a customer service enhancement, one that no doubt helps reduce calls to Boden’s contact center—saving it some money in the long term—and minimize returns.

* A growing number of ecommerce sites are adding videos of their products in use. Apparel etailer Asos, however, is the only one I’m aware of  that includes brief videos of its clothing worn by a model on the vast majority, if not all, of its product pages.

Like Boden, Asos has multiple photos of each item on its pages as well as zoom capability. But seeing a product on a model sashaying down a runway is the only way to determine exactly where a blouse billows and where it clings, how fluid or stiff the fabric is, if the trousers are likely to give you a cameltoe or odd bulges when you walk.

The videos have dissuaded me from a few purchases, which is to Asos’s benefit. If I had made those purchases, I would have been dissatisfied and returned the items, and as Asos offers both free shipping and free returns, it would have incurred a sizable loss on my order. Not to mention that I would probably never trust the company’s merchandising enough to follow up with subsequent purchases.

* Victoria’s Secret doesn’t offer any alternate images on its product pages, nor any zoom functionality, let alone video. You’ve got one photo, the same basic product description as probably appears in the print catalog, and that’s it.

Of course, lots of other apparel marketers follow the same lame, user-unfriendly practices as Victoria’s Secret. So why single out this company?

Because, as readers of the Photoshop Disasters blog well know, Victoria’s Secret is notorious for doctoring its images, and doing so poorly. Certainly the image on the landing page for its Clothing (as opposed to Bras, Panties, or Sleepwear) section does not instill confidence in the accuracy of its photos (unless that red lace top really does cause some sort of weird dislocation/swelling of the hip, in which case I wouldn’t want to buy it anyway).

If it’s obvious that Victoria’s Secret manipulates its photos to the point where seeing isn’t believing, and I’m presented with only one photo to gauge what a product looks like, I’m certainly not going to assume that the product does indeed look like its photo. Nor am I going to take a chance and order the product for the hell of it. If I wanted to take a gamble based solely on blind faith, I’d do something really crazy, like invite people over for a barbecue next weekend on the assumption that by then my husband will have mowed the lawn so that it no longer resembles an abandoned potter’s field.