Marketers’ Black Friday celebration begins early, ends late

The steady maturation of mobile and social media as marketing channels has turned Black Friday into a never-ending Black November, with marketing messages and deals extending well beyond the shopper-friendly timeline that traditionally began the Friday after Thanksgiving and culminated on Cyber Monday.

“There are several things going on,” says Chad White, research director at marketing software company Responsys. He notes that stores have essentially declared Thanksgiving to be “a commercial day,” opening doors earlier because consumers have time to shop. “Not every person spends every Thanksgiving hour with family,” he says. “There’s clearly consumer bandwidth to do shopping.”

Another factor, he adds, is that the influx of Black Friday deals has spurred retailers to begin soliciting consumers earlier. “Retailers want to push the Black Friday brand earlier and earlier,” he says, predicting that in three years, Thanksgiving online shopping activity will be greater than that which occurs on Black Friday itself. Brands have also begun extending the length of deals well past Cyber Monday—and White fully expects more retailers to extend Cyber Monday deals into December. “The shopping period is so long because of Christmas,” he says.

And the atmosphere around the Black Friday period is clearly one that indulges a shopaholic’s worst instincts. Research firm Lab42, which specializes in consumer insights, conducted a study consisting of 500 consumers and found that 46% of shoppers purchase items on Black Friday that they wouldn’t ordinarily get—mostly in electronics, followed by clothes and toys, and finally movies, music, and books.

And just as White anticipates that Thanksgiving will overtake Black Friday’s e-commerce activity, Gauri Sharma, Lab42’s CEO, believes that in a few years, Cyber Monday will boast as much online shopping as Black Friday. She notes that men, especially, are driving sales on Cyber Monday—81% of whom are in fact shopping for themselves. Responsys’ White, however, says that Cyber Monday is and has been for the past two years the biggest e-commerce day—as well as the biggest email marketing day over the past five years.

Mobile and social drivers

One of the biggest drivers lengthening the Black Friday period is the way mobile technologies like tablets and smartphones have altered consumer shopping behavior. “Mobile makes it much, much easier [for consumers to purchase] when they’re out and about,” White says. He adds that currently, retailers still have catching up to do to optimize their mobile commerce channels—particularly in the smartphone space. While tablet interfaces are generally solid, White describes the smartphone experience as “subpar.” If consumers nationwide agree with White’s opinion, retailers might find themselves in trouble, especially since a survey of online retailers from Chase Bank’s credit card processing division Paymentech anticipated that 6% of holiday sales will originate from mobile devices.

Consequently, major social media networks like Facebook are increasingly cognizant of consumer activity on their mobile platforms. “We’re the number one app on smartphones,” says Nicolas Franchet, head of e-commerce on Facebook’s Global Vertical Marketing team. Nielsen stats back up his claim. According to Franchet, because “over 50% of [Facebook’s] traffic is on mobile,” it gives marketing messages like Offers—a recently-launched service that lets a customer’s friends know when that customer has claimed a marketing deal—particular benefit for brands trying to reach a mobile audience.

This year, Franchet says, marketers are beginning to solidify their Facebook advertising strategies, integrating them more fully into company-wide campaigns and ensuring those deals are consistent across all channels.

But Lab42’s Sharma wonders if this is a tactical mistake, especially since consumers are inundated by brand messaging across all channels during the Black Friday period.

“If companies are looking to leverage social media and use that to leverage deals, we think exclusivity is the key,” she says. “If brands want to do a better job of standing out from the crowd, it should be exclusive deals.” This will also help brands better assess the impact of social marketing by providing a mode of tracking.

Standing out from the crowd

Despite the promise of constant buying, Black Friday is not the time for marketers to start worrying about customer acquisition, Responsys’ White says. The work around cultivating customer loyalty needed to begin earlier—certainly no later than September or October. Marketing messages around Black Friday are mostly tactical—listing the type of deals offered, store hours, and locations.

“One thing I recognized this holiday season, about brands and standing out: This battle is won well before the holiday season arrives,” White explains. “It becomes tempting to look at the holidays as a standalone entity where there’s no history, but there’s always history. You have to come into the holiday season having already done a good job and then offer good deals that are comparable to what other people are offering.”

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