Sometimes "gut" trumps ROI planning

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Last week's eTail conference spurred a number of talking points, many of which appear in the pages of this week's DM News, as well as on our blog (blog.dmnews.com).

But while I was initially drawn to comments made by Tony Hsieh, the CEO of Zappos, on building e-commerce loyalty (thanks to his model of putting marketing dollars into free shipping my AutoFill, credit card and closet are more than familiar with Zappos), it was a comment from John Lazarchic, vice president of e-commerce at Petco, that really stood out when I reviewed the coverage.

In a session on e-commerce tools, he talked about his company's recent foray into putting customer reviews on its Web site - a practice that retailer after retailer is pursuing with great gusto. He explained that his chief impetus was "to enhance customer trust and the Web site experience" and that "ROI was not the main objective."

I love this thinking for two reasons. First, it's pure genius. There are few social phenomena more democratizing than pet ownership. As Lazarchic rightly pointed out, pet owners talk to one another and, if you can give a home to that dialogue, you have instant access to a staggeringly varied demographic that comes down to the single common denominator of loving their ball of fur.

But the other reason Lazarchic's words really grabbed me was the concept of a marketer going with his gut, and figuring out ROI later.

Many marketers (and CEOs) may recoil at this, and I admit it does go against my own innate interest in all that can be measured. But when I read the comments, I was reminded of a conversation I had around two years ago with the CMO of a major health and wellness company aimed at women. Back then, everyone had started podcasting, and he was telling me of his desire to do so. He knew it would make sense for his brand; he just hadn't, and I quote, "figured out a way to measure it yet."

I understood his point of view - I still do. But when you have faith (OK, proof would be good, too) that your brand is one that can genuinely create communities of like-minded advocates, and you know that tools exist that have been shown to do that, then marketers should be permitted to go with their gut, at least for a limited time, to prove that if you build a compelling program ROI will likely follow.

Social networking developed in part outside the commercial realm, but there are retailers now who know that if you can build it into the existing e-commerce model, you're offering a lot more reasons for the consumer to spend time on your site. It doesn't mean competing with "old school" social-networking sites, such as Facebook or MySpace. If you can provide a one-stop shop for both the emotional ("look at how fat and happy Mr. Fur is") and the purely pragmatic ("I need to buy a 25-pound bag of kitty litter"), it's your brand that's going to stick.

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