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A lot of iconic catalog brands from the '80s and '90s have survived and even thrived online. Coldwater Creek springs immediately to mind. So do J. Crew, L.L. Bean, and even Williams-Sonoma. These are all distinct brands that smack of quality, unique items, and the stories behind them.

Yet one brand that should sit among their ranks today... doesn't: J. Peterman.

Remember J. Peterman and its colorful, watercolor catalogs? Each item had a distinct story, so carefully and artfully created that it actually spawned a Seinfeld character who spoke in the catalog's unique, film-noir-esque vernacular:

The 1935 Camel Polo Coat
"What are you prepared to do?"
You ease a new '35 Bugatti Type 57 Grand Roadster to a stop.
Tommy Dorsey spills from the Blaupunkt car speakers.
Orange neon lights from Chicago Theatre light up the night sky like a wild blaze.
You toss keys to an attendant and unbutton your coat. Pausing, taking it all in. The cobblestone street is alive with jazz; it's Syncopation week, seven stories and a half-city block of celebration.

How can you fail with copy like that?

And yet, it did. Somehow, somewhere, between Web 1.0 and Web 2.0, the J. Peterman catalog lost its spark.

From the nuanced, carefully penned copy we somehow ended up with Facebook page posts like "Winter Goods Up to 61% Off - Snag Best Dressed at This Year's Hibernation Party."

Really? Shouldn't there be something about searching the far corners of Nepal wearing the "unintentionally flattering" J. Peterman Coat and Shearling Gloves ("hand sewn with warm, natural, curly lamb lining") for those "Winter Goods"?

What happened to the character behind the catalog? Somehow, it got lost along the winding road to the social Web, and it's a tragedy that's costing the cataloger. Compare its 12,000+ fans to J. Crews 1,000,000+, and you can begin to quantify the loss.

J. Peterman would learn a lot by looking at the data it has about its audience. If it would only do a little homework, it could come up with some great strategies to engage its audience.

All those missed opportunities broke our hearts! Here are our ideas to engage the J. Peterman fan base.

Voice: J. Peterman is a brand with far more personality than most. That personality should have been harnessed for storytelling to win over the Facebook crowd, pulling that singular voice from the catalog through the site and onto the Facebook page.

You could almost picture John O'Hurley (the actor who portrayed Peterman on Seinfeld) sitting at his laptop (still nestled in its weathered, hard-side, tan leather case) responding to all the Facebook comments.

Engagement strategies: The missed opportunities are too many to count! Its Facebook page could have been set up as a travelogue—like Peterman's Eye, a standalone community site owned by the J. Peterman company.

Peterman should consider moving this travel-focused community to Facebook, where it can enjoy a broader, more engaged audience. Right now it boasts intelligent original content (if not totally Peterman voice) that would fare really well on Facebook! Certainly the cultured content is more appropriate for its Facebook fans than the jarringly generic "On Sale Now" verbiage on its Facebook page.

Partnerships: Another strategy Peterman might consider would involve developing a partnership with the likes of Foursquare or Instagram, sending its staff and fans to check in on their journeys and share what they've found.

To take it even further, this approach could have been evolved into contests very naturally:

  • Most Remote Instagram
  • Where You Were, What You Found—a "haul" video competition sharing international finds
  • Best Peterman Story—Fans submitting stories in the style of J. Peterman, sharing an adventure during which they were wearing their Crushable Outback Hat or other garment

The possibilities are endless.

Content from Peterman himself or the cast of Seinfeld would also have been really effective. Videos and photos of John O'Hurley and Julia Louis-Dreyfus showcasing and discussing catalog items could have had an enormous impact in the social space.

Measurement and competitive analysis: I hope the Peterman team is using analytics to track the success of its social efforts. Its fans are not engaging as much as they could be, so I'd recommend they do more. A recent post on "Peterman's Eye" had 75 comments; the same day, its Facebook post had 5. Clearly there's a lesson to be learned there. It should be looking at its competitors in the catalog space—from L.L. Bean to J. Crew—and study what those companies are doing right in social.

There's still a chance for J. Peterman. The "Uncommonly Good Stuff" it sells on its site and in its catalogs has such a unique character and personality, it can still translate into the social space. It's not too late.

Continue reading "Wherefore Art Thou, J. Peterman? The Quest for Social Engagement" ... Read the full article

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image of Dilip  Venkatachari

Dilip Venkatachari is the CEO and co-founder of Compass Labs.