Back to the Future: ‘Old-School’ Technologies Drive Innovation

We live in a time when technology can literally change the world we live in. Take tablets for example. Prior to the first iPad release in 2010, desktops and laptops dominated personal computing.  According to NPD DisplaySearch, tablet shipments are expected to outpace notebook PC shipments in 2013. Despite this changing landscape, it is still rare to find a person who relies solely on a tablet.  As a result, companies interested in growing their e-commerce presence need to consider the online experience that they deliver across the entire range of devices.

For businesses, keeping up with such fast paced innovation is not easy. To stay technologically competitive, the issue is not just adopting the newest tools, but integrating them with existing systems. Ask any CTO, and he or she will tell you that the latter is just as difficult, if not more, than the former. 

To demonstrate how integration of new and old-school technologies can lead to innovation, let’s look at three historical marketing disruptors, examine their relevance still today and illustrate how companies can integrate them with new technologies to produce a seamless customer experience.

Paper catalogs

We may not think of paper catalogs as “technology,” but when Sears issued the first “printed mailer” in 1888, they were groundbreaking. Today, we browse catalogs and then go directly to our tablet or PC if something catches our eye.  Compare that to pre-e-commerce days when you had to physically mail in an order form and wait weeks or months for delivery.  However, paper catalogs are still used by the majority of retailers and a large segment of consumers. In fact, the 2012 Baynote Holiday Survey found that paper catalogs influenced twice as many consumers than Pinterest and Twitter combined for in-store and online purchases.

So how can companies optimize their catalog and online efforts to produce business results? Start by ensuring that one, clean product database supports product descriptions in the catalog as well as those online so that customers can easily toggle between the two channels with consistent information. This will also streamline your SEO efforts so they are reinforced across channels. Next, utilize QR codes so that consumers can scan products they fancy using their tablet or smartphone. Once customers scan an item, they will be brought to your mobile app where they can find additional information such as product availability and nearest store location.


Much has been written and researched to demonstrate the staying power of email campaigns. According to Forrester analyst Sucharita Mulpuru-Kodali, “email remains very much alive, and to thrive, companies need to continue to focus on e-mail acquisition as well as e-mail optimization.” But if you’re like me, your inbox is flooded every day by emails with “special offers” and “exclusive discounts.” Most go straight into my trash folder.

Email technology is much more sophisticated today and capable of capturing a shopper’s attention than it has been in the past.  To start, retailers should move away from email blasts in favor of personalized emails. While this requires more work upfront, there are a variety of big data analytics and machine learning technologies available that reduce the resources needed to make true email personalization happen. If I am on the Nordstrom website browsing for a black sport coat, wouldn’t it make sense for them to email me specifically about a sports jacket that is on sale? Better yet, email me a list of black sport coats available at the Nordstrom in my neighborhood along with a coupon or discount code. Add a subject line detailing the level of personalization, and I am much more likely to click ‘open’ than ‘delete.’

Product recommendations

Amazon added product recommendations to its platform in the 1990s, and the e-commerce industry followed suit. Although recommendation technology is mature, it is still common to receive product recommendations that are irrelevant to what you are browsing at that moment. If I bought a mattress on your site three weeks ago, is it really appropriate to show me mattresses recommendations today? Probably not.

Since the advent of product recommendations, powerful data architectures and tools such as Hadoop give retailers the ability to provide in-the-moment product recommendations based on the context of your shopping visit, not history or profile data. Now, when I am searching for dress pants, retailers can provide me with real-time product recommendations such as a matching sweater. True omni-channel retailers now integrate product recommendations into their stores as well.  A sales associate armed with a tablet can type in the items that I am trying on and immediately be served with “complete the look” products recommendations available in store. Bringing online recommendations into physical stores is another way retailers boost revenue, service and deliver an experience that keeps customers coming back.

Using the strategies detailed above,  the consumer gets a more personal and more fulfilling experience that blends the best of old-school technologies with modern ones.  While some of these examples may seem idealistic, they are happening all over the Web with top retailers taking the lead in omni-channel e-commerce.  So before you throw away your catalogs, emails and recommendations in search of the next big thing, be sure to evaluate how well you are integrating them with your current IT and marketing strategies. Doing so will allow you to get the best out of technologies, old and new.

Dan Darnell is VP of marketing and product at Baynote.

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