Sports retailers fall short on social engagement

123 store locations
2011 net revenue: $1.8 billion

68 store locations
2011 net revenue: $100 to $250 million

As plans for summer weekend getaways are set in motion, people are gearing up for the great outdoors. Outdoor apparel and equipment retailers REI and Eastern Mountain Sports (EMS) sell everything from sunglasses to kayaks to skis, touting big name brands as well as their own eponymous lines. Quality of their goods notwithstanding, from a marketing standpoint, REI guns down “double blacks” in almost every category except social media, while EMS slides facedown on the bunny slopes. Somebody needs to get them a tow rope.

“The numbers speak for themselves,” says Will McKeand, associate creative director at Wunderman. “REI is the category leader by far.” Its website, for instance, is easy to navigate and the home page showcases products contextually, as they are meant to be used.

Geoffrey Council, executive creative director at G2 Worldwide, greatly appreciates this feature. “They show their bicycles in the context of a two-day bike ride, and put hiking shoes in the context of an actual hike,” he says, noting that the rotating carousel on REI’s homepage is a smart move as it not only livens the page but makes a variety of products a clear “center of attention.”

REI’s interactive “Share” section on its navigation bar at the top of the page is another excellent feature. SLANT Media‘s head of marketing intelligence, Davis Barnes, says that “by integrating this share section into the site in a prominent position, they’re communicating the importance the brand places on community interaction.” REI also utilizes video to show their products in action, and its quick-tip videos are genuinely helpful. “Ever had a tent pole break on you?” Council asks, “Here, REI shows you how to repair it.”

McKeand applauds REI’s outspoken dedication to environmental stewardship, “providing ways for their shoppers to get involved also sets them apart as being a more sustainable and responsible brand.” EMS, by contrast, shows little investment in its products beyond the fact that they’re for sale. McKeand takes issue with the EMS website’s small font and cluttered layout. “Their site navigation runs along the left and top sides of the Web page, [which] reduces the amount of space for product visuals or promotion banner ads,” he says. “It makes it difficult to read and less interesting for viewers, who aspire to be outdoors, instead of looking at a copy-heavy website.” Barnes also frowns upon EMS’s navigation bar that links consumers to partner websites.

While both REI and EMS place an equivalent amount of energy into their Facebook and Twitter presences, neither maximize the potential of social media, McKeand says. “I would incorporate tools like Facebook Places as a way to let consumers track their adventures or Facebook Connect to hook up with other adventurers,” he suggests. “They could also use Twitter for outdoor Twitter hunts or create ongoing adventure challenges to encourage consumers to get outside using their products.” Jay Joyce, president of Web design and Internet marketing company The Idea People, thinks neither brand is taking advantage of the personal time with their customers. “Both brands post product shots and descriptions,” he notes, “but neither is very engaging in getting the user to post back in response. On Twitter, I’m seeing that followers are posting a lot of ‘I had a problem with this, can anybody help me?’” Joyce explains.

From a volume standpoint, REI is the clear victor with more than 120,000 followers on Twitter and almost 400,000 Facebook “likes.” EMS has 32,000 Facebook “likes” and around 7,000 Twitter followers. Joyce wonders if EMS’s lackluster efforts are partly the fault of a middling social media crew. “It’s possible that EMS’s social media department is relatively nonexistent,” Joyce says. “It looks like they only have someone in charge of Web content, whereas REI, being so big and corporate, likely has a whole team behind [its] social media.” Indeed, much of EMS’s shortcomings in comparison to REI can be blamed on its comparative smallness. REI is a behemoth national corporation that pulled in more than $1.8 billion in 2011. EMS, a private company with locations only in the northeast, remains in the million dollar earning bracket.

But this is no excuse, argues Council, and it should actually make them stronger in their efforts toward local appeal. “EMS should be sneaking in on a local level and taking relevance in people’s lives,” Council says. “They could be posting, ‘Hey, we’ll be on the corner of Waverley Street at noon giving out 50% off coupons’ — a move which would generate excitement and local traffic.” REI only tweets on weekdays, Joyce observes — a very corporate approach. EMS tweets on weekends, but not often, and has a tendency to retweet its own posts. REI may be inactive on the weekends, but it still gets its voice heard by active weekenders. Barnes admiringly points to a Friday tweet from REI: Retweet to let everyone know you are getting #Outside this #weekend!

“This kind of messaging reinforces the brand’s values and allows followers to align themselves with the brand without overtly asking for an endorsement or touting a product,” Barnes says.

Both REI and EMS are moving away from direct mail, though EMS offers a semi-annual print catalog, and REI boasts a biannual catalog. Phasing out paper is an environmental strategy McKeand endorses, “from a tree-hugger standpoint.” The direct mail that is still being circulated is fairly similar, but REI comes out on top again in sending a message bigger than just product display. “I think REI’s creative theme and layout design is more targeted to the outdoor lifestyle, while EMS’s theme and design looks more targeted toward shopping and product specials,” Joyce says.

Email is another category where REI kicks sand in EMS’s face. REI and EMS both offer an initial email sign-up coupon of 15%off, but even here EMS wipes out, nearly scaring Barnes off with its lengthy registration survey. Barnes signed up anyway and then had to wait 10 minutes for the email. REI’s email was immediate, and the 15% discount was promised on the sign-up form itself, being “more strategic in offering this ‘carrot’ to sign up,” says Barnes, who adds that she didn’t expect to have such a preference, but REI left her wanting to be “part of the REI family”. McKeand, an avid sportsman, consistently chooses REI saying, “the photography, design and inspiring copy draw me in and get me excited to go gear up for my next outing, whereas EMS makes me feel like I’m just being sold something,” he says.

As an added indication of how disjointed EMS is, its website lists 72 locations, its Facebook page states 67 locations and a company spokesperson claimed 68 locations.

Brand Champion

Where EMS simply paddles, REI surfs with ease. REI provides an online and in-store experience that speaks to a legacy of hearty adventure. Its e-commerce site is attractive and easy-to-use, and its email list offers sign-up incentives and efficient responses. While both brands need to strengthen their respective social media efforts, EMS does not compensate for its shortcomings. Its approach is solely focused on selling products. Until it gets its act together and proves it’s invested in its consumer’s experience, EMS can take a hike.

More Battle of the Brands.

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