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ERA’s 17th Annual Conference Plays to a Full House

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The Electronic Retailing Association’s 17th Annual Conference, which took place in Las Vegas this week, was an impressive affair in many ways. With 3000 attendees and 118 exhibitors, the event surpassed previous headcounts among its traditional constituency of DRTV marketers while attracting a growing number of major retailers as well.

The ERA has always had a flair for show business, and this year was no exception. The conference took place at the gargantuan Venetian hotel, where gondoliers plying their way through the man-made canal in front of the hotel serenade their clients with arias from Puccini, and the gilded meeting rooms have names like Galileo, Marco Polo, Titian and Bellini.

In keeping with this show business orientation, the Opening General Session featured advertising maven Donny Deutsch, who interviewed a panel of divas including Cindy Crawford, who talked about the origins of her unique line of beauty products called “Meaningful Beauty;" Leesa Gibbons, who talked about the origins of her unique line of beauty products called “Sheer Cover Story;" and Susan Lucci, who talked about the origins of her unique line of beauty products called “Youthful Essence." (It’s all about empowerment and bringing out one’s inner beauty.)

But even more impressive to me than the growing attendance and the show business flair was the fact that the ERA and its members have recognized the impact of the Internet and the multichannel nature of marketing. And as a result, they are seeking and finding new ways to reconfigure their DRTV campaigns with Social Networking, search and email marketing and other Internet-based opportunities. The focus was strikingly evident both in the conference programming and the services being offered by the exhibitors and sponsors at the show.

One highly informative session was called “Increase your ROI with new technologies." Moderated by Brett Goffin, Vertical Manager of Retail at Google, the session pointed out that the DRTV field is different from pureplay Internet, because two-thirds of search activity for DRTV products are driven by offline media – providing a competitive advantage for DRTV marketers. Another tip was that the marketer’s Web site is not just an order taking vehicle. In fact, it’s just as important as DRTV for getting leads and cross-selling.

This session also focused heavily on Social Networking as a marketing tool, pointing out that MySpace has posted 72% year over year growth, while FaceBook has posted a 270% increase and 14 million professionals have joined LinkedIn. The next wave of growth at MySpace, by the way, is expected to be among adults, not kids. Web analytics have further revealed that a number of major retailers are crediting MySpace as their number two source of referrals.

Another technique recommended in the session was the use of blogs by retailers. According to panelist Angus Glover Wilson of Digital Commerce Agency, the public is seeking authentic engagement with marketers, and blogs provide a way for marketers to have a dialogue with their customers and find out what they want. Responding to a question from the audience, Wilson indicated that his biggest surprise in the last year was how fast online video has become ubiquitous.

A second worthwhile session, moderated by Johnny Mathis, CEO of Livemercial, provided additional insights on the topic of Social Networks. A few nuggets from this session:

Marketers have to get beyond the old paradigm of advertising on videos. The Online Publishers Association recently studied the effectiveness of video ads and found that 50% of people who saw video ads took some action. A whole new phenomenon in shopping is pre-shopping – either offline or online. But all of this is not about marketing spin. “You have to prepare for honesty, because people are going to be honest with you." If you’re trying to control things, you’re fighting with the way the Internet works. Advertisers are finding that 5-7 second videos are getting a lot of attention, rather than the old 30-60 second ads. Educate your customers by chopping up ads into little pieces, as Burma Shave used to do with its highway signs sixty years ago.

Terrific stuff. But what about the tools being offered to electronic retailers (and other direct marketers) by their suppliers who were exhibiting at the conference? I’ve selected two whom I considered to be emblematic of the way that electronic retailers have embraced the new world of marketing.

“If you build a neat, single offer Web site for each and every advertiser, you will get better results." That’s the firm opinion of Ken Osborn. And that’s the basis of his full service ecommerce and interactive marketing agency, Liquid Focus. Osborn doesn’t believe in shopping carts, because “99% of shoppers abandon their carts without ordering," and “the sites give too much information and too many choices." So Liquid Focus offers turnkey Web sites featuring flash as the streaming video platform. This works both for high-speed and dial-up. Osborn indicates he is so certain of the design, software and order entry features of his microsites that he prices his services on a strictly performance basis.

“Bottom line," he says, “the model works."

Another noteworthy exhibitor is the aforementioned Livemercial, which I wrote about two years ago in connection with its ability to use Flash-based video to stream online video, television spots or testimonials within a brand-focused email creative. Today the company also provides its 80-plus clients with a lead generation platform, back-end research surveys, natural search optimization, paid search, contextual targeted media, Omniture Site Catalyst reporting and a seminar portal that generates millions of dollars per month for seminar marketers.

The company is also one of only a few U.S. agencies currently allowed to utilize Doubleclick’s Advertising Exchange, and is a Google Certified agency, utilizing Google’s programs to bid on banners and text link inventory on a CPM and CPC basis. According to the company’s brochure, “There is simply no larger contextual advertising network in the world," and Livemercial has a six-day-a-week staff of industry veterans managing campaigns on such sites as the New York Times, Food Network, About.com and Lycos.

According to CEO Johnny Mathis, the company’s clients include Guthy-Renker, Sony, Bath and Body Works, Murad, Body by Jake, Rug Doctor, SAS Group and many others. He adds that Livemercial has maintained a 90% renewal rate with its clients.

Great information, great show. One veteran exhibitor recalled that there were only 75 attendees at the first show. The ERA has come a long way since then.

--Posted by Adrian Courtenay
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