Editorial: This holiday season, may the best direct win

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A troubled 2009 has seen cutbacks and ad budget freezes across all industries. Both consumers and executives have dithered in purchase decisions, absorbing information, coupons, custom content, product reviews, free trials and freebies before signing the check or invoice.

As retail marketers face the holiday shopping season, the competition promises to be no less intense. While indicators show that fall sales may improve — Thomson Reuters, Retail Metrics and Forrester each estimate 1%-2% gains in coming months — consensus is that those dollars will only go to the most agile, appealing and customer-centric brands. Increasingly, that buying and researching activity is happening online. No wonder there were such long lines at Ad:tech New York.

In this week's main feature (page 12), Chantal Todé took a look at the ways in which some brands, including Columbia Sportswear, are refurbishing their online marketing and e-commerce stores to stay ahead of the pack. The best online presence in 2009 does not mean the flashiest. In fact, a savvy Web site is more about merchandising, usability and relevant content that will be picked up in search engines, social networks and on blogs.

Marketers I've been speaking with are more focused on understanding who is already buying their product, why they buy it and where they go to interact with their peers with similar interests.

Sounds basic enough, but what's challenging is tracing the connections that will actually lead to a relevant buying group. I'm reminded of a Philippines government study in the 1950s, which found couples who owned toasters were also most likely to use birth control. A misguided conclusion would be to begin handing out free toasters in order to reign in family size. Marketers and economists alike understand there are underlying causes to such bizarre correlations that explain human behavior — in this case, couples with expendable income and interest in new technology are willing to invest in both toaster ovens and birth control.

The take away? In order to sell to your target audience, you have to be able to step outside of the numbers and draw some human conclusions to explain behavior. Why is it that visitors are bouncing back from your microsite but buying the product at Amazon.com? Many of you have started your own holiday lists — marketing insights for your brand are probably lurking behind your own shopping behavior.

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