Mark Your Calendars

Mar 01, 2007 10:30 PM  By

Back when the print catalog was your core — if not sole — channel for reaching out to customers, mapping out your promotional calendar was pretty simple: jot down the desired in-home dates for your mailings, and count backward to determine when to start designing the book and renting lists.

But now that some combination of e-mail, online advertising, search marketing, outbound telemarketing, solo mailers, stores, and affiliate programs is likely to be part of your marketing plan, developing and maintaining a promotional calendar is headache-inducingly complex.

“We work about a year out,” says Jeff Govoni, director of marketing for Burlington, VT-based Gardener’s Supply Co., in describing his company’s process for developing a cross-channel promotional calendar. “We start by slotting in all the print offer details, the number of catalog drops, their thematic and product focus, promotions, and tests. Then we translate this plan into e-mail, Website, and online customer acquisition plans, each of them taking on a bit of a nuanced flavor, but each referring back to the catalog offer and presentation. We hang everything off the catalog, both because we know the catalog is the genesis of the majority of seasonal business and because it’s a convenient organizing principle.”

Is the effort worthwhile? Absolutely, says Govoni, who terms a cross-channel promotional calendar as “absolutely essential” to multichannel merchants: “Your customer is making channel decisions fluidly, and if they have an inconsistent experience with your channels they’ll start to believe they’ll have an inconsistent experience with your business once they buy.”

FOREWARNED IS FOREARMED

A cross-channel promotional calendar maps out in one spreadsheet — or one good old-fashioned paper calendar — all the messages you plan to send to customers and prospects and all the promotions you intend to offer for the coming year. By showing all these events together you can avoid contradictory or competing offers, promotions that conflict with certain holidays or events, and a lack of awareness among channels.

For example, says Tanya Hansel, founder/president of Round Rock, TX-based consulting firm Hansel Group Marketing, if a company sends out an e-mail promoting a sale on widgets and the stores are unaware of that promotion (assuming that the e-mail didn’t specify that the sale was online only), customers who go to the store expecting to find the widgets on sale will likely encounter confused and even argumentative sales staff — not the sort of customer experience the promotion was meant to engender.

In fact, the cross-channel calendar is a communications tool for staff as much as anything else. “Communication is the key when you have multiple people in charge of the various channels,” Hansel adds. “Everyone needs to get together and discuss their plans for the year and develop a unified contact strategy.”

This intra-departmental communication speaks to the fact that cross-channel marketing is greater than the sum of its parts. Mailing a new catalog is effective; sending an e-mail a few days before the in-home date to alert customers that a catalog is on the way can be even more effective, Hansel says.

“Update your home page to feature the catalog cover or the creative so that customers see a common theme,” Hansel suggests. “If you’re mailing a sale catalog, send out an e-mail promoting the sale at the same time to reinforce your message. Support store events with e-mail. Segment your e-mail list to support retail stores by tailoring your message based on purchase history. All units need to learn to work together and always keep the communication channels wide open.”

The communication channels need to encompass the merchandising, inventory, and fulfillment staff as well as the marketing team. As Govoni notes, inventory planning is crucial. “A catalog drops on a single date, lives for a number of weeks, and offers hundreds of items,” he explains. “During that time there could be a number of e-mails each featuring a small subset of items, each living for only a few days. During that same period of time the Website has hundreds of pages, many of which are promotional pages, and the site also typically offers many more products than the seasonal catalog. With so much variation in the assortment and presentation, inventory planning takes careful consideration.”

When mapping out your year’s worth of messages and promotions, you must “factor in the catalog mail dates, in-home dates, new store openings, national or religious holidays, and any other special event that might take place during the year,” Hansel says. “For example, be aware of election years, when consumer attention may be focused elsewhere. In addition, the calendar should be flexible enough that you can adapt for unexpected events that have the potential to negatively impact sales.”

Hurricanes in Florida or flooding in New Orleans are examples of such unexpected events. In such cases, before sending out a planned e-mail campaign, “check the content and be sensitive to the feelings of your customers living in that region,” Hansel says. “On the positive side, a warm spell in a typically cold part of the country — and vice versa — is an excellent opportunity to customize an e-mail message to that region and sell products that take advantage of current conditions.” By checking the cross-channel promo calendar, you can determine whether it’s a feasible time to send this sort of unplanned promotion, or if you’d need to cancel or reschedule a planned promotion first.

Planning your calendar may also mean consulting with your suppliers. “We match up our promotions with what the manufacturers are coming out with, and you can tie that to your marketing calendar,” says Matt Corey, vice president of marketing for Golfsmith, an Austin, TX-based cataloger/retailer of golf and tennis gear. “For example, golfers coming out of winter might be looking for a new driver in the spring. That means working closely with our manufacturing partners.”

SPEAKING THE SAME LANGUAGE

Doug Meyer, vice president of direct marketing for Levenger, says the Delray Beach, FL-based cataloger/retailer focuses on three key elements when building a multichannel promotional calendar: customer segmentation by channel preference and recency/frequency/monetary value (RFM); integration with the merchandising plan; and a consistent visual experience across all channels. Levenger, a marketer of “tools for serious readers” sells desk accessories, furniture, organizational products, and leather goods via five retail stores, an outlet store, a print catalog, and the Internet.

By factoring its customer segments into the creation of its promotional calendar, Levenger can keep track of the various versions of its messages and promotions. As for the visual element, ensuring consistency across channels may seem like a no-brainer, but making an error is all too easy.

“Resolutions, context, copy length, media capabilities, all come into play when you’re translating an offer from one channel to the next,” says Gardener’s Supply’s Govoni. By tagging the theme, the copy, and other creative elements to the calendar listing, representatives from the channels involved can check that the messages are indeed consistent — for instance, that the Website home page has been updated to reflect the offer that is to be e-mailed the next day.

Golfsmith holds weekly cross-channel meetings to review the promotional calendar. “We discuss key things we need to execute. Because of these frequent meetings, we’re more in sync than ever before,” Corey says. “In terms of coordinating national events we’re involved with, we’re in sync from our Website to our catalog covers, our e-mails, signage in stores, and advertisements in our direct mailers. All our channels are marketing mediums, and all have the same message.”

Multichannel merchants that started out as retailers didn’t always work this way, Corey says. “Channels didn’t talk to each other. From our Website to our catalog to our stores, we are all speaking the same language. It’s rare that we try to do anything in any single channel.”

Cross-channel measurement

The complexity of cross-channel marketing extends to cross-channel measurement. “Use ROI to determine which channel and which offer had the most impact,” advises Tanya Hansel, founder/president of consultancy Hansel Group Marketing. “Remember that the sales impact might take place in another channel. Be careful not to decrease promotions in channel A if sales from those promotions are made in channel B. Sometimes those sales in channel B are directly related to what you did in channel A.”