It’s All Crazy Until It Isn’t

If you were there, you know how great last week’s Datamann catalog seminar turned out – by most accounts it was awesome! If you weren’t there, I’m going to share a few key observations.

Rather Lose The War Than Admit The Mistake

In my presentation, I gave a list of issues, internal and external, that catalogs are suffering. I also gave a list of things which I feel the catalog industry wrongly pursued over the last 20 years, which allowed ecommerce companies to gain the upper hand. Among those pursuits was that as an industry, we became too dependent on the catalog co-op databases.   If you are a steady reader of this blog, you know that I feel the co-ops have been detrimental to our industry – but few of you acknowledged it. You preferred to continue blindly supporting a declining source of names for your customer acquisition purposes, than admit the mistake of that pursuit. Until now.

At the seminar, I had a simple, one question survey asking what two topics attendees wanted addressed for 2018. We had almost 50% participation to the survey (I think that is pretty good, don’t you?).  Guess which option received the least votes?  “Working with catalog co-ops” was in a tie with “PPC/SEO” for dead last, with only two votes each. Five years ago, “working with the co-ops” was number one.

At last, I feel that you understand that your future lies in taking a new path, breaking the mold and going against conventional wisdom. Some of you have been pursuing customer acquisition that did not rely on the co-ops for years, but the majority of the industry did not follow.

Of course, there is one fly in the pudding (old New England term). This is how the people at the seminar ranked the importance of co-ops. It may not match the reality of what they encounter when they return to work on Monday. That’s when they will meet the forces of gridlock within their companies that want to preserve the status quo, and not make any “dramatic” changes. It’s all crazy until it isn’t.

I Don’t Know The Ground Ahead:

Only Kevin Hillstrom could have done this. Kevin designed an incredibly complex, yet simple to understand, business simulation in which all of the attendees took part. Since Kevin will be writing about the exercise in his blog this week, I’m going to defer to his recounting of the experience and the outcomes. I thought it was awesome. The lesson learned: you already have all of the data and metrics you need to make decisions, but your actions are more important than the data.

I also thought the “group dynamics” were great. I’ve never seen a room full of seminar attendees get so involved in a project. It certainly was a bit more stimulating than doing some magic tricks with a piece of newspaper. The photo below is of my team debating our pricing and discounting strategy.

There was one aspect of Kevin’s simulation that was something that many participants probably did not fully appreciate. At the end of each “round” of the simulation, you could see what your competitors had done, and how it worked for them. In real life, you rarely have such transparency into the actions of your competitors.

As General Lee worried on the eve of the battle at Gettysburg, “I do not know the ground ahead”, most mailers today simply don’t have the time or resources to track the activities of their competitors. Some will argue that it is not important, that you have to run your business without the benefit of market research on your competitors. But Kevin’s exercise certainly reinforced that it is easier to take decisive action when you know the ground ahead, and what the competition is likely to do.

Note: Kevin and I exchanged emails on Saturday afternoon, and he is already working on improvements to the simulation based on feedback he received from attendees in Concord! I see a Kevin Hillstrom Business Simulation app in the future.

The Database for Merchandise

Frank Oliver was on. Loud, motivated, animated, funny and dead-on target with his advice. Frank got into the nitty-gritty of merchandise metrics, and the tools he uses to be a great merchant.  Fortunately, the main portion of his presentation echoed one of my key metrics (always good when two speakers agree on something) which was the need to track merchandise performance over time. Frank reinforced that you can’t rely on your ERP system, or mail order processing system for that tracking. Instead, he showed his offline “merchandise database”, of which I’m sure many in the audience were envious.

But it takes time to develop a database as Frank described. Frank shared with me after the seminar that it took him several years to get the data assembled to make that database worthwhile.

A Show of Hands

Every year, I ask for a show of hands on several topics. The results are always telling. I asked how many companies had grown by more than 5% in 2016. I’d say less than 20 of the 160 catalogers attending raised their hands.

About 10 or 12 years ago, I gave a speech at NEMOA, and asked how many people had made a purchase using PayPal, which at the time I used frequently and not just for eBay purchases.  As I recall, only 3 or 4 people raised their hand. I also asked how many people were Prime subscribers on Amazon, and about 5 people (out of several hundred) raised their hand.

Last Thursday, I asked how many were now Amazon Prime subscribers. Almost the entire room raised their hand.

Which brings me to two key comments made about Amazon. During the question period at the end of the day, Kevin stated that he was tired of all the whining about Amazon. He reminded the audience that as marketers and merchants, you get paid to figure out how the deal with the competition, so do your job, and figure out how to beat Amazon.

The other comment came from a mailer who pulled me aside, and confidentially told me what his catalog was doing to take advantage of – not fight – Amazon Prime. I’m going to honor his request and not reveal what they are doing, but as he said “Don’t be afraid of Amazon. Embrace it and own the strategy. It is the future!”

I have always been Amazon agnostic. Some of our clients have done well there, others have not. My point on Amazon has always been that the customer activity on Amazon – which we as consumers now almost universally support as Prime members – was not flowing back to the co-ops, and was leading to the co-ops’ decline. I’m thinking that “working with Amazon” is going to be a theme for the 2018 seminar.

Seminar Tidbits:

I’m always taken aback when I’m giving a presentation and someone uses their cellphone to take a picture of one of my slides. And then I realize that I forgot to post the slides ahead of time. So, you will be getting an email from the VT/NH Marketing Group with a link to all three presentations.

One of those taking a picture of one of my slides told me he had taken a shot of this slide, and sent it back to his co-workers that had accompanied him to a recent conference where every speaker had promised that they would in fact, “transform the enterprise with their disruptive technology”.   Sometimes, vendors just don’t know how foolish they sound.

I want to once again thank my two co-presenters, Frank Oliver and Kevin Hillstrom for their hard work and efforts in making the seminar such a success.

Finally, as I write this Saturday afternoon, it is snowing hard at my house in Dublin, NH. We are expecting a foot of new snow by the end of the day. For the 4th year in a row, we beat a snowstorm by one day, and everyone got out of town safely. See you in 2018!

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by Bill LaPierre

VP – Business Intelligence and Analytics

Datamann – 800-451-4263 x235

blapierre@datamann.com

 

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Time For Questions

With just three weeks to go before our catalog seminar in Concord, NH on catalog metrics, I’m happy to announce that we have over 200 registrations, and the conference hotel is sold-out (but there are other hotels nearby).  I keep getting notes and emails from attendees expressing how much they are looking forward to Kevin Hillstrom’s business simulation.

But before Kevin presents his simulation, I’ll be presenting my annual update on the present status of the catalog industry and my take on catalog metrics. Each year, I start out by asking for a show of hands to reveal how many of the companies in attendance grew the prior year by more than 10%, then 5%, then 1%.

Last year there were only a few that had grown by more than 5%. There is growth out there, among certain retailers. People are still buying stuff. So why is there such little growth among most catalogs?

Let’s forget about the co-ops for a minute and whether they are good or bad, dying or growing. Let’s just focus on one thing – there is not much prospecting for new customers going on at most catalog companies.   Why?

Before I answer that, let me share with you a brief story.  In the early 1990s while working as the catalog marketing and circulation guy at Brookstone, the company hired a new CEO who had no catalog experience.   The company was in rough shape, but the drain on our financial success was not the catalog, it was the 200+ stores. The new CEO turned his attention on the stores because that was the biggest part (80%) of the company, and because the catalog was making plan.

Then one day, my boss, the VP of Marketing hurt his back and was out for two weeks. During those two weeks, every time someone had a question about the “financials” on the catalog, they came to me. One day the CEO called me into his office to ask why list rental income was down.

This was the income we derived from renting our list to other mailers. In the company I had worked at before Brookstone, we did not actively promote the rental of our file. We exchanged a great deal, but had limited rentals. Upper management at that company had “strategic reasons” for this. So, when I got to Brookstone, I continued this “laissez faire” approach to list rental income.

At Brookstone, it was very unusual for the CEO to be quizzing a manager on a specific line item. However, because this CEO had no mail order experience, I thought he would appreciate an explanation from me on my “strategy” towards list rental income, and the fact that I had no control over list rental income, as it depended on other companies using our list, which was dependent on their circulation plans.

Big mistake. HUGE mistake.

For a guy that knew nothing about catalogs and mail order, he started to ask some pretty probing questions. That’s why he was CEO. He knew that Millard Group, located right across the street from Brookstone in Peterborough, NH, was our list manager. “Put some pressure on those guys over at Millard to proactively sell our list. Do some promotions. Get the word out in the industry that you are ready to deal. Change the price. Do whatever you have to do, but get that income up. YOU control and YOU are responsible for this line item – don’t blame it on other mailers.”

To that CEO’s credit – whose name was Hank Kaminstein – he never raised his voice at me, never uttered a swear word, never spoke to me in a sarcastic or demeaning way. Instead, he taught me the value of taking action.

That is what we are going to focus on in three weeks at the seminar – taking action. You wanted to learn about which catalog and ecommerce metrics you need to know and use to grow your business. You wanted to know how merchandise analysis could help you grow. But in reality, you need to see that metrics really don’t help you if you are unwilling to change, and unwilling to take action.

To answer my original question – there is so little prospecting for new customers because you won’t take action and you don’t want to change the way you acquire customers. Carpet bombing with prospect catalogs with names sourced from the co-ops is not working to the degree it used to, but you are reluctant to try other options. Hopefully by the time you leave our seminar, you will have the ammunition you need to impart that sense of urgency for change at your company.

There are four parts to our seminar – my presentation, Kevin’s business simulation, Frank Oliver’s presentation on merchandise analysis (which he has been hinting will include something on “merchandise warfare”), and our closing Q&A session, which in years past could have lasted twice and long, and we still would not have gotten to all the questions.

So, if you are registered to attend, start thinking about your questions for Kevin, Frank and me. If you send them to me before the seminar, they will get priority at that session. I’ve already had a few submitted, which I will share:

One for Frank – My boss keeps telling me that our merchandise needs to be a “curated collection”.  What did catalog merchants do before they became the equivalent of a museum curator?

One for Kevin – A while back, you asked in your blog if it was better to have 100 potential customers that were “engaged” with the brand, but who had not ordered, or one customer that had placed an order. What is the answer for my company?

If you have not already registered for the seminar, click here to visit the VT/NH Marketing Group’s website.

Registration costs for this all day event:

  • $135 for VT/NH Marketing Group members
  • $200 for non-members
  • Registrations are accepted until March 28, 2017

If you are not already signed up for emails from this blog, click here.

by Bill LaPierre

VP – Business Intelligence and Analytics

Datamann – 800-451-4263 x235

blapierre@datamann.com

 

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I Get It, They Don’t

Who in your company “gets it” and who doesn’t? More important, who in your company is never going to “get it” with regards to how their work must evolve to keep pace with the changes our industry is facing?

Years ago, I sat through a day-long meeting for a client that wanted to make a major creative overhaul to their catalog. It was a hard goods catalog (home furnishings and products for around the home), that had a fairly basic design.

The meeting was tedious for me. The “creative” staff, who were overly polite to one another and democratic, listened to everyone’s idea, and did not offer judgment (traits I have been slow to master). They discussed every little nuance of the existing catalog design.

The head of the Creative Department was doing a good job getting everyone to understand that they had become too comfortable in their work, and that change was needed. They came up with a long list of changes they were going to make, some of which the customer would never notice, some of which were a major departure from the way the book presently looked. All of these creative changes were intended to drive response.

Then it happened.

At the very end of the meeting, the Art Director, the person who would actually be making the changes in the catalog, said “Well, what about the gutter line? Is that staying?”

This catalog had an ultra-thin line that ran up either side of the gutter (the center of the spread where the two pages meet), about a 1/8th inch from the edge of the gutter. It was a design element that someone had inserted years before, for no apparent reason. It was not important.

But the fact that the Art Director still thought she needed to ask permission to do away with this trivial design element showed how little she understood of what had happened that day. It showed either how untalented she was, or how insecure she was in actually making changes.

I bring this up because last week a subscriber to this blog told me that he would not be coming to our seminar in March because he “gets it”. But, he was encouraging his boss and several other members of upper management to attend because “they need your medicine”. “I get it, they don’t”.

The medicine that I have been dispensing in this blog, and that my co-presenters – Kevin Hillstrom and Frank Oliver – will be dispensing on March 30 at Datamann’s seminar is that the catalog industry has fundamentally changed, and you have to change too.

I had another email recently from a company CEO commenting that one of his key staff people – a person that could significantly help bring some much needed change to their company – was not working out as well as they had originally hoped, and that he was a “work in progress”.

Numerous times I’ve had members of upper management at companies tell me that they plan to do some new initiative – launch a new catalog, introduce a new product category – and they tell me that their existing staff is just not up to it. “They can’t think creatively” or “they are not very strategic”. So, upper management brings in someone new, who knows nothing about the company, but who holds the promise of “thinking outside the box”.

In my 30 years of experience, I have found that the existing staff at most companies had the talent, had the initiative and had the strategic view, but those talents were hidden from upper management because management had slapped down those staff members in the past every time the staff had dared raised that hand to propose a change. We are, at times, our own worst enemies.

I will confess that earlier in my career, I was not good at “brainstorming” sessions, as I tended to be the one who would say “That’s a stupid idea”. I like to think I’ve gotten better in that area, although as a consultant, I walk a thin line between not wanting to insult a client vs. not wanting the client to go off on some wild scheme that you know will lead to disappointment and disaster.

But, if that type of “slap down” environment exists within your company – no matter how subtle and nuanced it might be – then your staff probably is NOT going to rise to the occasion and help you evolve. It isn’t that they don’t want to – they just aren’t sure that you really mean it. They suspect that deep down inside, YOU are the one that doesn’t want to change.

Going back to the Art Director with the question on the gutter line, I don’t fault her for asking that question. I knew the players in that meeting. I knew that the Creative Director that was trying so hard to appear magnanimous and open-minded in that meeting would just as quickly tell the Art Director, when everyone else was gone, to design the book the way he instructed.

Here’s an exercise for you: how many established catalog companies, ones that have been around for more than 25 years, can you think of that have re-invented themselves, and turned their business around? It’s probably a pretty short list. It’s tough for any company – regardless of industry – to reinvent themselves.

There really is something to be said for new companies simply because they have less baggage, and new ideas flow more freely. That is just the way of it. That’s why we are not still driving Packards, Ramblers and Pontiacs. Some companies just don’t evolve.

But we can’t all work for new companies, can we? We have to make the changes needed where we are. We need to go beyond discussions about “gutter lines” and focus on the catalog growth strategies that really matter, and that will move the needle. Those are the things we will be discussing on March 30th.

So, if you “get it”, but your boss or your staff don’t, send them to our seminar on March 30.

2017-seminar-brochure-cover

Our seminar last year sold out a full month before the event, so please plan on registering early. Seating will again be limited.

To register for the seminar, click here to visit the VT/NH Marketing Group’s website.

Registration costs for this all day event:

  • $135 for VT/NH Marketing Group members
  • $200 for non-members
  • Registrations are accepted until March 28, 2017

The Marriott Courtyard/Grappone Conference Center, Concord, NH is located at 70 Constitution Ave in Concord, NH – just north of the intersection of I-89 and I-93. Special room rates of $119 are available for attendees of the seminar for the night of March 29, if you book your room with the Marriott by March 1, 2017. You must mention your attendance at the seminar to receive the special rates, or reserve your room directly at this special link: http://cwp.marriott.com/mhtcn/vtnhmarketinggroup/

If you are not already signed up for emails from this blog, click here.

by Bill LaPierre

VP – Business Intelligence and Analytics

Datamann – 800-451-4263 x235

blapierre@datamann.com

 

 

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Only $200, What A Deal!

Last fall, I gave you a detailed explanation of what Kevin Hillstrom would be speaking about at the Datamann catalog seminar, which we host for the VT/NH Marketing Group, on March 30th. (Click here if you missed it – “What Is Missing Is Not Metrics, But How We React To Metrics”)

Yesterday, Kevin’s blog gave a description in his own words of what he will be presenting (VT/NH On March 30 – A New Way To Foster Growth).

There are very few seminars or conferences left that focus on catalog and merchandise issues. Our seminar is one of them, and at only $200, you won’t find a more cost effective and affordable option.

If you are debating how to spend your limited Conference T&E budget, and you are looking for the most value ($200, what a steal!) coupled with the best content and great speakers – the choice is easy….

Join Frank Oliver, Kevin Hillstrom and me on Match 30th in Concord, NH for Reacting To Catalog and Ecommerce Metrics to Change Your Business.

Our seminar last year sold out a full month before the event, so please plan on registering early. Seating will again be limited. Our host hotel, The Marriott Courtyard/Grappone Conference Center, is almost sold out. But there are plenty of other hotels in Concord.

To register for the seminar, click here to visit the VT/NH Marketing Group’s website.

Registration costs for this all day event:

  • $135 for VT/NH Marketing Group members
  • $200 for non-members
  • Registrations are accepted until March 28, 2017

Our host hotel is almost sold out! The Marriott Courtyard/Grappone Conference Center, Concord, NH is located at 70 Constitution Ave in Concord, NH – just north of the intersection of I-89 and I-93. Special room rates of $119 are available for attendees of the seminar for the night of March 29, if you book your room with the Marriott by March 1, 2017. You must mention your attendance at the seminar to receive the special rates, or reserve your room directly at this special link: http://cwp.marriott.com/mhtcn/vtnhmarketinggroup/

If you are not already signed up for emails from this blog, click here.

by Bill LaPierre

VP – Business Intelligence and Analytics

Datamann – 800-451-4263 x235

blapierre@datamann.com

 

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And That is The Point I Reach for my Cellphone…

Registration is well under way for Datamann’s annual catalog seminar, which we host for the VT/NH Marketing Group. This has become the largest one-day catalog event in the country. This year’s event is Thursday March 30 in Concord, NH. (There is a link to the registration at the end of this posting.)

2017-seminar-brochure-cover

At last year’s seminar, I surveyed the attendees, asking one – only one – survey question: “What topic do you most want discussed next year”? The top two topics requested were:

  • marketing analytics (how to use your data);
  • merchandise analysis.

 

As I was planning the 2017 event, I realized I was too vague in defining what I meant by “marketing analytics”. I needed to know what the attendees thought it meant.   So last summer, I contacted all of the attendees that had checked off this topic on their survey and asked for additional clarification of what they needed related to Marketing Analytics.

Almost every reply included a reference to some problem unique to that marketer such as determining the impact of seasonality, LTV by channel, or creating extended personas.

But, there was common ground too. Almost every response I received included a reference to wanting to know one of the following:

  • What are the most important metrics/cutting edge KPIs we need to be following to run our business?
  • “What metrics does everyone else look at”?

Almost everyone asked for the same thing, in one way or another – what were the metrics that everyone else was using, and what is the “best” method of calculating it?

I saw this as a problem.

Everyone is looking for a short cut. They want a list of the best “metrics” to look at (“you know, the ones that your best clients use)”. They want to reduce their business to a dashboard that refreshes in real-time, telling them exactly what the response rate is for today’s allocation of a mailing that was sent 12 weeks ago.

They want that list for one of two reasons. First, they believe there is some elusive statistic, which if they were aware of, and tracked it, they could fundamentally change their business. They just haven’t discovered it yet.

Second, they want it for that all-important weekly sales meeting where the CMO, CFO and CEO all ask “how are we doing”? They want to say “based on the most advanced, cutting-edge methods of performance measurement, we are doing fine”.  Sales and response may be 20% below plan, but they are hoping that there is some magic “metric” they can throw on the table that shows they are doing their job above average.

That is, of course, if they can get anyone’s attention long enough to make that declaration.

One respondent had a very interesting comment, but for a reason different than he probably intended.  He wrote “I’d like to learn what are the best practices in data visualization.  Most marketing analysts are great at assembling piles of data, but don’t know what to do with it after that.  The problem with data visualization is the fine line between representing the data in a simple yet effective way, but making it sophisticated, inspiring and able to hold the attention of a room for more than 8 seconds before they reach for their cell phone.  I’ve sat in on some best practice presentations on data visualization in the past and am always amazed at how lacking it is in examples of best practice.  More often than not it is all gum flapping about why it is important to show context and how it is both an art and a science…and that is the point when I reach for my cell phone…”

His comment summed up another problem. Mailers want the short-cut, but they also need a way to communicate it – so that everyone understands. And they want specifics – not more generalizations about “showing content”.

Years ago, when I worked at Potpourri, it was a family-owned business. Everyone spoke the same “catalog” language, meaning everyone knew what I meant when I referred to SPB (sales per book) and CPNC (cost per new customer). Plus, everyone at Potpourri at the time was focused on one thing – the catalog.

Then I went to work at Brookstone, where I was the only cataloger, and I was competing with 200 stores for the attention of upper management. No one understood me when I referred to SPB or CPNC. Even when I explained these metrics, and showed the math, there was no inherent understanding by upper management. Additionally, since these guys all thought they were God’s gift to retailing and accounting, they assumed I must be the one who did not know what I was talking about.

Consultants know something that most mailers don’t appreciate. We realize that every client is different. The metrics that are important for one mailer may be meaningless to another, depending upon whether they are in a growth mode, they are mature, they are big or little, etc. Further, there are no “averages” for response rate or conversion rate.  Clients don’t want to hear that. They want concrete benchmark numbers and metrics to which they can compare themselves.

This is NOT what I want to present at the seminar. I could have found a dozen speakers that would stand before you and give their list of the 38 Irrefutable Most Important Catalog/Ecommerce Business Metrics to run your business. I could have found dozens of vendors that would talk to you about the importance of big data (“sign up today here at the seminar, and get 10% off your Big Data starter kit”).

I want this seminar to give you something different. I do not want you reaching for your cellphone after you get the list of 5 important metrics. I want to challenge you to think.

So, if you are signing up for our seminar because you are hoping/expecting to get a list of the five most important metrics to add to your dashboard to increase productivity by 20% as you run your company, well, you are going to be disappointed. That’s not what you’ll get.

Instead, the three speakers are providing a combination of insight, options and a mirror.  You don’t need more metrics (beyond a few basic ones I’m going to discuss).  You don’t need fancy reporting. You need to simply take an overall view of your business. You need insight into your merchandise and what your customer thinks of it – which Frank Oliver will be presenting with his merchandise analysis.

Kevin Hillstrom’s business simulation is the mirror. Kevin will not be presenting hundreds of ideas and having hundreds of people say ‘no, won’t work, next idea please’. He is flipping the script … and put accountability on you instead. His business simulation will have you making decisions, and seeing whether your decisions work or don’t work. You’ll see that you already have enough information to make good decisions; you are simply not using information with confidence.

You’ll be looking into the mirror, realizing that the fate of your company does not reside with data, or metrics, or Tableau, but with your decision to take action.

Our seminar last year sold out a full month before the event, so please plan on registering early.  Seating will again be limited.

To register for the seminar, click here to visit the VT/NH Marketing Group’s website.

Registration costs for this all day event:

  • $135 for VT/NH Marketing Group members
  • $200 for non-members
  • Registrations are accepted until March 28, 2017

The Marriott Courtyard/Grappone Conference Center, Concord, NH is located at 70 Constitution Ave in Concord, NH – just north of the intersection of I-89 and I-93. Special room rates of $119 are available for attendees of the seminar for the night of March 29, if you book your room with the Marriott by March 1, 2017. You must mention your attendance at the seminar to receive the special rates, or reserve your room directly at this special link: http://cwp.marriott.com/mhtcn/vtnhmarketinggroup/

If you are not already signed up for emails from this blog, click here.

by Bill LaPierre

VP – Business Intelligence and Analytics

Datamann – 800-451-4263 x235

blapierre@datamann.com

 

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A Canary In The Catalog Coal Mine

Here is a wake-up call for the new year: Catalog reporting is gone.

Have you noticed what is missing lately from your mailbox?   When was the last time you saw a magazine focused on catalogs?  Catalog Age long ago evolved into MultiChannel Merchant, but now even that title is gone. Catalog Success evolved into Total Retail, which carries virtually no news or information for catalogs. I’m not even sure whether DMNews still mails – I haven’t received one in ages, and their website only allows for email sign-ups. A quick search on their website for articles on catalogs produced a listing for a few articles on postage rates from early 2016.

I contacted a former editor from MultiChannel Merchant last week who confirmed that if that magazine publishes in the future, it will most likely only be once annually.

catalog-age-cover-1989

Sure, these former print publications still have websites and daily emails. But they only report “fluff” stories, such as these from last month:

  • Communicating with Millennials: Why Messaging Apps Matter
  • Retail Brands Use Augmented Reality to Reinvent Customer Expereince
  • Email Metrics to Watch This Holiday Season

These are the king of “fluff” stories meant to capture attention through SEO, allowing the publisher to sell online ads.

There is no longer any in-depth catalog reporting. It’s gone. It gives me the same sinking feeling I had when I was at the last DMA Catalog Conference and the exhibit hall was the size of a high school gym, and they were only using half of it. I knew we were in a different time when I realized the Quad/Graphics truck wasn’t even there.

Think about this for a minute. If there was still money to be made from publishing a print magazine on catalogs, or even reporting on catalog news and trends, someone would be doing it. Certainly, the folks behind the publications mentioned above had the expertise and the heritage of strong catalog reporting to make a go of it – if there was still a go to be made.

 

Magazines rely on advertising to survive. But there is no need for catalog vendors to advertise anymore. There are only four major printers left, and they are just stealing customers from each other, primarily based on co-mail savings. (In the old days, this was called “gaining market share”, now it’s just stealing). There are four (maybe only 3) co-ops, and they never advertised anyway. There are remnants of the list management business, but they stopped doing print advertising years ago. All the online vendors switched to advertising in publications like Internet Retailer. Since there are no catalog suppliers left to advertise, the catalog print publications disappeared.

Here is another canary in the catalog coal mine: when the industry is no longer viable enough or competitive enough to support print media because of a lack of advertisers, you should realize that the industry has fundamentally changed. Moreover, fewer viable vendors leave you with limited options.

This is also not a publishing issue as in “magazines are dead”.   I live just outside Keene, NH, population 23,000. Our county, one of 10 in NH, only has 73,000 people. Yet, the county supports its own business magazine, published bi-monthly. The states of NH and VT each have their own monthly business magazines, and the page count remains healthy in all these publications. If rural little Cheshire County, NH can support a business magazine, while the catalog industry cannot, that should tell you something.

Here is why this is such a problem. In the past, you never read the catalog magazines for the ads. You read them for insight on the catalog industry. There were columns from such industry sages as Max Sroge, Stan Fenvessey, Arthur Middleton Hughes, Katie Muldoon, Bill Dean, Herschell Gordon Lewis, Don Libey, Ernie Schell, and Curt Barry. A few of these folks are still around and still actively consulting, but with the exception of a few online articles from Curt Barry, I don’t see any of them sharing their expertise with the industry anymore. Unless they had a blog, how could they?

We are now an industry without a media voice, or at least a formal one. Those aforementioned publications have been replaced by blogs such as this one. And I certainly do not put myself in the same league as the previously mentioned authors/consultants, all of whom I had the pleasure of meeting at least once. I’m also not a reporter or journalist. So when I wrote last fall about LL Bean’s colossus catalog that mailed in the early fall, I did not have the luxury of being able to talk to anyone at Bean for their input.  I was writing strictly on my impressions of their effort, as both a catalog professional, a catalog consumer, and a longtime LL Bean customer. You, the reader, missed out on LL Bean’s side of the story. However, you did get more of an unvarnished view from me than you ordinarily would have gotten from a more formal reporter.

In theory, those magazines of yesteryear vetted their authors, and found ones that actually knew what they were talking about. Plus, for the most part, those consultants wrote some pretty insightful material – although back when most of them were writing, the catalog industry was much less complicated than today. Response rates were 4 or 5 times what they are today. You captured the specific source code on over 90% of orders, so you knew exactly which list or mailing segment prompted an order. There were no co-ops, no Amazon, no Facebook, no algorithms.  It’s a little easier to offer advice when an industry is growing. There was little need to be critical of the status quo.

Today, there is no vetting by an editorial board of blog authors. Anyone can have one. It cost Datamann less than $1,000 to have someone set up our blog six years ago. That’s a pretty low cost of entry to be a voice in the catalog industry.

I like to think Datamann’s blog offers some substance. Certainly Kevin Hillstrom’s MineThatData blog does. Yet, most of the blogs in our industry today push out a constant thread of pabulum on such topics as “how to increase response to your emails this holiday by 5%”. The authors of most of these postings like to show how smart and well-read they are by citing numerous other articles and studies. With the exception of Kevin and me, few others are willing to go out on a limb and say anything original, or offer any meaningful insight.

Of course, the reason they won’t take a stand, or say anything of any value, is because they don’t want to risk offending any existing or potential clients. What they don’t realize is something which I learned a long time ago – most mailers, certainly the ones who want to improve – don’t want sugar-coated advice. Many of Datamann’s newest clients that have contacted me as a result of this blog did so after I tore apart their catalog in a posting. It’s always refreshing to hear a reader say “Everything you speculated on was true at the time, and everything you predicted would happen, did happen. We need your help.”

Without a true “catalog press” that reports on general catalog news, there will continue to be a gap in what you know, and what is happening in the catalog industry. For example, I did not know that Taylor Gifts went out of business last year, until I was preparing the mailing for our seminar, and saw on the NCOA report that it was closed.

Yes, the catalog media canary is lying at the bottom of the cage. But keep reading this blog, Kevin’s blog, and the others that resonate with your needs, which offer true insight, and you’ll be keeping up as best as can be expected.

Welcome to 2017.

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by Bill LaPierre

VP – Business Intelligence and Analytics

Datamann – 800-451-4263 x235

blapierre@datamann.com

 

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