Still Time to Plan for the Holidays

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Holiday planning time has arrived for catalogers. In a season where so much is on the line, it is especially important to focus on the "fifth quarter." Especially now, when so many catalogs have had lackluster first halves, we should be preparing the most aggressive creative strategies possible.


The following are my top 10 suggestions. I guarantee that following them will help you to improve holiday performance.


1. Offer development. The development of incentives is a must even in the most basic marketing planning. We have trained consumers to expect and respond to offers. Catalogers that miss the boat on this one will lose business to the competition. If you do not have a testing track record, perhaps you can still get some response now, during your spring, summer and even fall catalogs.


Define your goals ... make them realistic. For example, there is a big difference between getting a higher response rate from prospects (easier) than getting a higher average order size from customers (harder). And, do you know which requires a stronger incentive: reactivating an old customer or getting an earlier order in at holiday time? The more information you have, either through your experience or through industry/competitive information, the more successful you will be at making offers work.


2. Differentiate your offer presentations. Hand in hand with the offer is its presentation. The biggest mistake a cataloger can make is minimizing the presentation of an offer (often the result of the creative talent "winning" a battle over presentation). Small, illegible or unobtrusive messages on the front cover are almost as good as not having them there.


The second-biggest mistake is not investigating a new, exciting and dramatic manner of presenting your offers or incentives. There are so many creative solutions that dramatize an offer and support a catalog's position. Unfortunately, marketers only know the "dot whack," and creatives typically do not want to "mess up" a cover. Thinking out-of-the-box will help you devise new and exciting executions using type, words, images and design executions that will help your catalog stand out in the mail and call attention to the offer.


3. The fantasy gift. Neiman Marcus is not the only cataloger that can carry a "fantasy" gift. Offering an over-the-top gift is a great way to differentiate your catalog, call attention to yourself in a crowded mailbox, create additional interest in (and, therefore, time with) the catalog and emphasize the season. A great fantasy gift also can emphasize your positioning and authority.


Fantasy gifts should have elements of whimsy and aspiration. They should support your positioning in a big way. A few years ago our firm put a $10,000 jukebox in a Columbia House catalog. It came complete with a personal selection of 100 compact discs. And, if you preferred, a Columbia House music expert would make the selection, after discussing your taste in music.


4. Speak to your customer representatives. How often do you speak to the people who might have the best insight into your customers' preferences? Probably not often enough. Talking to order takers now, about holiday, may help you prepare better. What are your biggest challenges, and have you anticipated them? What are your biggest opportunities, and how can you make them happen?


Have you had a brainstorming session lately? It may be worth bringing in a person from the outside to lead the discussion. Thinking out-of-the-box and being politically correct do not often go hand in hand. Internal people also easily fall into a lot of "We can't do that" or "We tried that already."


5. Run for (the) cover! If ever there was a time you were fighting to stand out in the mail, now is it. This is perhaps your biggest opportunity area. Do not leave cover planning to the last minute - start planning now. You should be thinking of your covers as a campaign, with fall and holiday (main, remail, sale, best of, etc.) covers planned in advance to take advantage of the season, products and photography.


Since it takes a recipient all of three to seven seconds to decide if he will keep or trash your catalog, you need to make your covers as compelling as possible. My rule: "Make the prospect see REDD." Relevance, emotion, drama and differentiation are the essentials of creating successful covers. And achieving this takes time, planning and thinking. Do not expect a great cover in an afternoon.


And do not forget, there are many elements that should be pre-discussed regarding the cover. Part of the planning is evaluating whether you present lifestyle or product, or both. Will you have a separate cover targeted to customers, who are often more responsive to lifestyle or imagery? Or, are you planning a separate cover for your prospect audience, those who might rather see product assortment, as they are less familiar with your catalog offering and often respond better to a cover showing a variety of products? You also will want to discuss whether you call out information on the cover and how, or whether, you present an aesthetically clean cover.


6. Offer gift certificates. A client once told me that "selling gift certificates is like printing money." Now maybe that is not exactly the way to look at it, but, at the very least, it can be very profitable. And, if treated correctly, presented gift certificates can be seen as a high level of customer service. Face it, you can do some great business if your gift certificate program is prominent, very clearly described and presented beautifully. Most cooks would be delighted to get a gift certificate from Williams-Sonoma, Chef's Catalog or Penzeys Spices. A gift certificate from Tiffany's is super for a client, and what woman wouldn't love a gift certificate from Neiman's?


7. Clarify delivery. It is not enough to put ordering information on your order form ... ease of ordering should be upfront. This is especially true for a catalog that offers strong gift offers (e.g., a food or jewelry catalog) or may have some additional delivery demands (e.g., gift-wrapping or refrigeration).


This information belongs on the opening spread and needs to be presented in a clear, concise manner. If a reader is not getting it at a glance, you are not doing it well enough. Often this means managing the information, be it through bullets or numbering steps, or the use of icons for immediate comprehension.


8. Highlight gift-giving throughout. For most catalogers, the winter holiday season presents a big opportunity in gift business. Be aggressively helpful. Call out best gift items throughout the catalog. Use design, photography or type treatment to bring the readers' eyes to best bets or solutions for friends and family. Creatively "package" items. Put together kits or baskets of products that are sold separately for a more impressive giftable. Offer price breaks when you buy more than one ... or delivery breaks when you send to more than one address.


If you are not a gift cataloger, make sure you point out the self-purchases that will enhance the season through home or wardrobe improvements/additions. Add hints of seasonality and/or entertaining throughout the catalog.


9. Send e-mail before catalog receipt. To avoid immediate trashing and to maximize retention, plan timing and frequency of e-mail arrival according to your customers' needs. Choose the right words for "subject" area, making sure they are concise, meaningful and friendly. And make sure the content of the e-mail is easy to access; it should not require the download of all sorts of software to read it. It should be friendly, easy to comprehend at a glance, interesting, relevant and actionable.


10. Do something different. "Be first or be different" - one of the key "immutable laws of marketing" from "The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing: Violate Them at Your Own Risk!" by marketing consultants Al Ries and Jack Trout. Few of us are first in our category, so we need to be different. Even if we are first, we need to keep on developing or reinventing ourselves to keep ahead of the competition.


Invest in creating differentiation. This is not a last-minute assignment. It takes time and needs to be planned. Strategic discussions and concepts usually precede the most successful creative executions. And differentiation has to make sense within your catalog. Differentiation for the sake of differentiation is meaningless. The best form of differentiation does three things: It supports your positioning, builds brand and improves performance.


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