Curing Holiday Dot-Com Clutter

When this column reaches you, we’ll be smack dab in what’s predicted to be the peak of the online holiday shopping season. Throughout this period, CEOs across the country are huddled with their numbers people trying to divine their future from a fistful of transaction reports.

That’s because what you’ve read is true: This holiday season is do or die for online commerce companies. Those that don’t bring home their share of the Christmas pie – estimated to be anywhere from $6 billion (Jupiter Communications) to $9.5 billion (Harris Interactive) – will shrivel and die. Those that get a hearty helping will live to sell again. Call it survival of the fattest.

What will differentiate the holiday heroes from the also-rans? When we look back at the holidays from the other side of the season – after the smoke has cleared and the final numbers have been tallied – I believe the companies that emerge victorious won’t necessarily be those companies with the biggest media budgets or the flashiest e-commerce sites. Instead, it will be the companies whose marketing departments understood three basic things:

• When it’s this noisy, don’t brand – sell. Yes, I believe that ultimately your brand means as much as (if not more than) the products and services you sell. And I believe you have to take the long view. But you also have to play smart and you have to understand the sandbox in which you’re playing.

In the current mad scramble for e-commerce crumbs, media buying is reaching heights I have never before seen. Dot-coms that didn’t even have a business plan six months ago are now spending $10 million to $15 million in the fourth quarter alone. Just try to snare a radio spot sometime before the end of the year. The result of this buying spree has been a cacophony of ads and messages.

When it’s this noisy, attempting any kind of fancy branding campaign is downright suicidal. The winning strategy this Christmas is a marketing plan focused on sell, sell, sell. The companies that successfully snag the short-term sell will be the ones that survive to do a long-term branding campaign in the first and second quarters of the new year.

• Getting the short-term sell means working from the bottom up. The companies scoring this season’s online ka-chings are those that took a disciplined, tactical, bottom-up approach to meeting their sales goals.

These are the companies that early on figured out the sales volume they needed to be successful, gauged their visitor-to-buyer conversion rate, and are now busily corralling the number of visitors they need to achieve their numbers. They are luring these visitors with aggressive promotions advertised through media buys that are concentrated like a laser on highly targeted audiences.

The companies that are falling flat are those taking a shotgun approach, assuming that if enough ammunition goes in enough directions they’ll eventually hit their target.

Substance and precision will get you everywhere this season; amorphous sloppiness will get you booted from the game.

• The best antidote for clutter is killer creative. In a market this noisy, even your most tactical marketing communications have to use creative that kills.

By killer creative, I mean two things: creative that is clever, with a certain out-of-box, zinger quality that makes your audience sit up and take notice – but also creative that hits the message mark.

Shock creative, which gets attention but nothing else, may work in a branding campaign (that debate could be the subject of its own column), but it won’t help you make your sales goals this season. The companies that win will be those whose creative was not only singular enough to slice through the me-too stuff out there, but that also delivered on a clear, simple, sales-motivating message.

Of course not even companies that nail these three things can win if their site doesn’t deliver once people get there. A dot-com is doomed if it crumbles under heavy demand, if customers can’t find what they’re looking for or if products aren’t in stock or delivered on time.

But assuming the site is solid, executing on the three elements outlined here will separate the victors from the flops. How will your company fare?

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