What Would Richard Sears Have Thought Of The Internet?

(originally posted on Wednesday, March 10, 2010)

Last night CNBC ran a terrific biography on Sears, Roebuck and Co. This all-American company began as the farmer’s alternative to the high prices at their local general store, by offering lower prices on everything they’d ever need from Sears’ 500-page mail order catalog.

The first Sears catalog was published in 1888 and by 1906 it was considered “the consumers bible”, selling everything from clothes, refrigerators, stoves and groceries, to sewing machines, bicycles, sporting goods, automobiles, and even houses.

Virtually everything a consumer needed could be found in the Sears catalog, and the mail-order business thrived for decades. Most people don’t realize that Sears, Roebuck and Company didn’t open up their first brick-and-mortar store until 1925, by which time they were already the largest retailer in the world.

What is fascinating to think about is that Sears’ business started out as sort of the “dot-com” of its era. No storefront, no salespeople, just a catalog that showed up in the mail that offered everything you could ever want. And the merchandise was shipped right to your door.

There was no internet, Facebook, Twitter, or viral videos—there wasn’t even radio when the first Sears catalog came out. But it was an immediate success because Richard Sears built his business on some very basic principals: offer the customer anything they could want, at a price they can afford, and make it easy for them to get their merchandise. Add to that a money back guarantee and the best possible customer service (via postal correspondence!), and Sears was able to retain customers and boost their loyalty for generations.

Sears didn’t start out with a brand concept or a media plan or a Twitter strategy. He started out with a great idea, and the business spread “virally” by word of mouth. From farmer to farmer, the catalog was borrowed, browsed, and ordered from. And every new order added a new family’s name and address to the Sears “database” (they called it a customer list back then—how quaint!).

The point we are making is this: e-commerce, social media, email, mobile apps, and viral videos are great, modern marketing vehicles. But they are not ideas. Everything Richard Sears did in the 1880s is exactly the same thing marketers should be doing today. The only difference is how the marketing message gets delivered.


Stats

(originally posted on Tuesday, February 23, 2010)

Statistics say most information is shared via Facebook. Interesting…we heard about this on Twitter.


The FTC Wants to Regulate Word Of Mouth. Should They? Can They?

(originally posted on Friday, February 5, 2010)

Ronald Reagan is elected President. The US men's hockey team beats the Soviet Union in Winter Olympics XIII. Pac Man is released to the public and begins swallowing millions of dollars in quarters. John Lennon is assassinated. The FTC updates its rules regarding the use of endorsements and testimonials in advertising.

What do these events all have in common? They all happened in 1980. That's right, the last time the FTC updated their rules and regulations for advertising was almost 30 years ago. Given the advancements in media development, particularly the explosion of social media over the last 1-2 years, the FTC decided to integrate new media into its oversight purview.

The meat and potatoes of the FTC's plans are pretty simple. The same rules that apply to traditional media now apply to social media. Any blogger, tweeter, poster, etc. needs to disclose any sort of compensation or corporate relationship to their audience. Meaning for example, you can't pay or compensate a blogger to endorse a product without disclosure (I suspect this has something to do with income taxes as well). For the vast blogosphere this is meaningless, but many bloggers have hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of readers every day. This makes them bona fide media outlets. So the FTC wants them to play by the rules like everyone else.

But social media is different. It is user-community policed and regulated. It provides the user free access to publishing power. It is both a personal interaction and a media interaction. Facebook, Twitter, Blogs, Flickr, YouTube and the rest of the spectrum of social media outlets are controlled by the people, right?

For large companies and international brands these new guidelines can be a welcome change. Now the Wal-Marts and Sears and Coca-Colas of the world have something to go by when stepping into the social media market. Until 2009 there had been mostly skepticism on the power of social media marketing, but now there are projections showing explosive growth in this area over the next 2-3 years. These new guidelines might help grease the skids to result in a huge influx of dollars into social media marketing budgets.

However, there are many who believe these guidelines are too vague, and too hard to enforce. Social media creates a conversational form of marketing whereby thoughts and opinions are constantly flowing back and forth to create the power of peer review. It sounds more complicated than it really is when you consider that social media is nothing more than modern day word of mouth. Word of mouth has always been the best advertising, but now it is perhaps the most visible and most interesting and most creative form of advertising. That's what scares marketers and advertisers--the customers control the message to a large degree because they now have a global voice through the internet. People are now the media, and this is a good thing for marketing.

The Weinstein Organization (TWO) believes that Social Media Marketing (SMM) gives marketers the ability to personalize and microcast your marketing message to specific touch-point customers, which motivates and empowers them to help spread the word about you and your brand. Peer group actions are the new analytics for brand quality and response measurement. And it is the viral nature of social media marketing at its most effective that all marketers strive for. Viral is word of mouth. Good pub or bad, viral is the holy grail action of SMM.

So TWO wants to know: Can the FTC regulate word of mouth? Can the FTC impose the same guidelines on bloggers and tweeters as they do on celebrities and athletes who endorse products?

SMM may be considered the most honest form of advertising in years to come, simply because it is peer-endorsed. Marketers who excel at finding the right target audience catalysts to drive their message from friend-to-friend, instead of hiring someone to do it scattershot to the masses, will dominate the competition.

And the marketing agencies who lead their clients into SMM will invent new techniques the FTC hasn't even dreamed of yet.


Social & Mobile Media: Saving Lives And Making A Difference

(originally posted on Friday, January 15, 2010

The horrors of the Haitian earthquake are absolutely tragic. But perhaps more than ever before it is now possible to quickly form and mobilize groups of people to help with relief efforts, raise money, or simply build awareness that help is needed.

Almost immediately after the news emerged from the impoverished island nation of Haiti, the formation of relief and awareness groups started to spring-up on Facebook. Phone companies began making donations to Haitian relief funds based on text messages. People began to search for information on the safety loved ones in Haiti via Twitter. And viral videos directing relief efforts from celebrities such as Wyclef Jean have started to make their way around the internet at speeds the traditional news media could never match.

The Facebook group "EVERY PERSON THAT JOINS WE WILL DONATE $1 TO HELP PEOPLE IN HAITI!" has attracted almost 600,000 members in just a few days, and has posted over 2,500 additional links to help promote the cause. Are they actually making these monetary donations? Hard to say from our observation, but a quick glance reveals peer-to-peer sharing of information for other relief efforts from the American Red Cross, OXFAM, and others. So at the very least, this group is an outstanding platform for information sharing.

One of the most visible relief efforts comes from Wyclef Jean, a celebrity musician with Haitian roots. He has used the power of his fame to spread the word about how you can donate money by texting "Yele" to 501501. Wyclef (@wyclef) has over 1.3 million Twitter followers and has dedicated his profile to spreading the word on how to help.

But the most impressive results thus far have come from The American Red Cross (www.redcross.org), who at the time of this writing have raised over $8 Million for Haitian relief by urging people to text "Haiti" to 90999. They didn't do it by spending money on mass media--they just had a great idea for raising money, and they literally put the power to act in the hands of the people.

We are witnessing the maturation and mainstream acceptance of social and mobile media. By raising millions of dollars to save lives in Haiti, social and mobile media are quickly becoming two of the most powerful and effective communication tools on the planet.