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I haven't heard a lot of pundits compare today's multichannel catalog/online environment to the county fair. Given that we are in the dog-days of summer, it seems reasonable to draw comparisons.

The signature ride of any county fair is the Ferris Wheel. This ride was invented by George W. Ferris for the 1893 World's Fair, in Chicago. Around the same time, Sears and Wards were expanding their fledgling catalog businesses in Chicago.

The Ferris Wheel is outdated in the world of modern amusement park entertainment. It is a two-dimensional ride, with the passenger going up, and down, up, and down. The first time down, the passenger gets that ticklish feeling in her stomach. By the thirty-sixth revolution, the passenger is ready to get off, and find a new form of entertainment. Catalog is similar. Catalog is not digital, it is analog. The in-home day of a catalog is filled with anticipation and excitement. Thirty-six days after the in-home, the employee is ready to move on to another challenge.

The Ferris Wheel is the signature ride at the fair. Without the Ferris Wheel, the fair loses its identity. Multichannel marketing loses its identity without the catalog.

After enjoying the Ferris wheel, it is time for a bite to eat. The fair offers all sorts of tempting treats that won't be found on the appetizer menu at your local Applebees. When was the last time you enjoyed an elephant ear? Or a cream puff? Or a hot dog on a stick? For just four dollars, a fair employee will roast an ear of corn over a hot fire, insert a wooden stick into the cob, dip the ear in a molten vat of hot, drippy butter, then generously shake grains of salt on the piping-hot ear of corn.

We willingly fork over our hard-earned money for this unusual snack that provides the carnival workers with a 90% profit margin. Fair food is a lot like the special services we offer our customers, services like monogramming or gift wrapping, the gift with purchase, or the free phone with two-year contract required. The food tastes good while you are eating it, but you later realize you didn't need the pork sandwich that was as big as your head. The same goes for so many of the promotions we offer our customers.

After our stomach is full, we decide to visit the midway. Game operators hawk us at every turn. They'll guess our weight for just a dollar, they'll allow us to whack-a-mole, they'll give us a chance to achieve a score of five-hundred in skee-ball. Sirens are constantly going off as lucky contestants reap the benefits of victory. We empty our wallets trying to achieve victory. If we are lucky, we score a 390 in skee-ball and earn the right to take home a small, stuffed snake with poorly glued-on paper eyes.

In today's multichannel world, the midway represents the series of pundits who hawk us at every turn, offering solutions to all of our multichannel problems. They are selling CRM systems, Web analytic software, on-demand printing solutions, or consulting services that promise to deliver the same look and feel, the same brand experience, across all channels. Sirens, in the form of press releases, go off every time there is a successful implementation or marketing campaign. We eagerly research these solutions, because we simply "cannot afford to lose an existing customer in today's highly competitive landscape."

If we are lucky, we push our annual retention rate from 61.4% to 61.6%, but cannot prove it was because of any of the multichannel software, solutions, or services we championed. Worse, our wallets have been emptied, with money transferred to the multichannel game operators. At least we have the small, stuffed snake with poorly glued-on paper eyes to show for it.

Finally, with twilight descending upon the fairgrounds, we visit the roller coaster. The roller coaster is only for the young, or those who are healthy enough to ride. Experienced fair-goers sit on benches, watching the young invest all of their remaining coupons on this flashy ride. For the longest time, the ride goes up, up, and up even further. But inevitably, the ride levels off, then comes shooting down at mach three, curving left, then right, looping upside-down, then right-side up. After a few harrowing corners, where the rider is literally out of control, the ride returns to the station, to the same place where the ride started.

In our multichannel marketing environment, the roller coaster is the online channel. Catalog veterans lined the benches to watch young direct marketing experts master search engine optimization, email marketing, and portal advertising. These online marketers, and the sales attributed to their efforts, have been going up, up, and up even further, without an end in sight. Of course, those of us sitting on the benches know how the story ends. When we were young, we rode the roller coaster. Eventually, the ride will level off, and then the ups and downs, the left and right turns, the upside-down and right-side up loops, will provide thrills to today's online marketers. We all hope that today's online marketers are safely bucked-in and have secured all loose objects.

Nighttime has set-in, and we make our way to the car to head home. Walking past the livestock pavilion, we smell the odors associated with hard-working youngsters trying to earn a blue ribbon for the lamb they groomed all spring for the 4-H contest.

Similarly, behind the scenes, behind all the glitz of an integrated marketing campaign or price parity across channels or a million-dollar inventory management system, are the customer service representatives and those working in the warehouse. They pick, pack, and ship orders, they take calls from disgruntled customers, they make customers happy each and every day. With luck, they earn a salary increase from $9.00 per hour to $9.25 per hour, and maybe they earn a blue ribbon for great customer service.

On the way home, we look back at the fair through the rear window of the car. We're happy that we spent the day there, we're equally happy that the fair comes around only once a year. In multichannel marketing, we head home for the weekend, happy that we contributed to the success of our company's multichannel initiatives, equally happy that the weekend, and maybe our county's fair, await our leisure time.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kevin Hillstrom is a database marketing executive with two decades' experience and the author of Hillstrom's Database Marketing: A Master's Complete Method for Success. Kevin's blog (www.minethatdata.com) covers topics in database, multichannel, catalog and online marketing.


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