Author Archives: Peter

The Failure of ‘Gimmick Commerce’ Brands

Graphic from Recode

“Gimmick Commerce” is one way to look at the sites that entice people to buy things online via promotions, flash sales and subscriptions. Mostly, it represents things that people don’t need.
But it has almost totally failed, per Recode’s Jason Del Rey in a provocative piece this week. In the deals space, Groupon has pivoted to a marketplace focus (i.e. normal shopping) and is trading at just $3 a share. Living Social is publicly struggling and experimenting with new models, like card linked offers.

The other deal sites are gone or totally pivoted. Just yesterday, Nimble Commerce, the last of the major independent deal aggregators, announced it was selling out to BlackHawk Network, a leading gift card company.

Other “gimmick commerce” models have also failed to gain traction. The flash sales space is basically gone, with Fab, Gilt, Ziulily bowing out at fire sale prices, and One Kings Lane positioning itself to do the same. Del Rey concludes that none of these companies have been able to cut into the Amazon behemoth, which accounted for 50 percent of all ecommerce growth last year (although Amazon surely engages in its own Gimmick Commerce).

The only companies that are growing and safe from Amazon are the specialty subscription services. With the exception of some of the high loyalty food delivery companies (Blue Apron) and subscription razor companies (Dollar Shave) most of these probably aren’t keeping their customers.

It’s a big, brave thesis. Rey points to the difficulty of building new brands and creating consumer habits from scratch – and the never receding desire to buy everything from a single source. But it is kind of broad — I don’t know that all these companies should be lumped together. And it shouldn’t be inferred that the new technologies and features like big data analytics, buy buttons, card linking and targeted offers that act as a foundation for these sites are being rejected. They remain transformative and will probably account for a big percentage of the next generation of impulse buying, if not shopping altogether.

Does Email Still Drive SMB Marketing? Privy Says ‘Yes’


We’re said to be in a post-email generation, as Millennials increasingly rely on messaging and other channels. There will need to be a lot of adjustment for marketing strategies.

But email is still the most reliable connection for most consumers. It remains the primary input for customer lists, which are now being collected by 80 percent of SMBs, per BIA/Kelsey. In fact, no other SMB marketing feature ranks as high.

Are SMBs doing enough with their email lists? The obvious answer is “no.”

Optimizing email for leads and engagement is the role that Boston-based Privy has given itself. Founded in 2012 as an offers company during the Groupon boom, Privy has remade itself as a freemium/premium email marketing enhancer that is tightly integrated with more than 10 top email programs (Mail Chimp, Constant Contact, Fishbowl etc.)

The 10 person company currently has a base of 14,000 SMBs under its email marketing efforts, and is now growing by 3,000 to 4,000 new small businesses every month. It hopes to enlist 50,000- 60,000 SMBs by the end of the year.

CEO and Founder Ben Jabbawy tells us that the company’s initial focus on offers and then “closed loop marketing systems” was an effective way to acquire consumers, but businesses were slow to adopt. The new focus on email list growth has given the company a period of rapid new growth – even though much of the leads- based functionality (attaching offers etc.) remains pretty much the same.

Two types of campaigns are typically run, says Jabbawy. “The first is a generic, ‘Hey , welcome to the website’ type effort. They may see a 1.5 – 2 percent conversion. The second is offer-based. “Join our list and get X% off.’ Offer driven campaign can see conversion rates jump to 5-15 percent. Offers are (still) a great carrot to incentivize customers to establish relationships.,” he says.

While the core email programs provide a lot of services, Jabbawy says Privy’s ability to provide more sophisticated targeting, offer tracking and redemption fully complement them. “When businesses sign up for Constant Contact or Mail Chimp, they typically have (few) email contacts,” he suggests. “The majority have sub 100 email contacts, or sub 500 contacts.”

Privy is offering a feature-rich freemium tier, with paid plans costing either $19 a month, $79 a month and higher (which is mostly for Enterprise players.) Given the expense of cold calling and acquiring SMBs in general, Jabbawy says it is an attractive offering.

And while email is the focus, a Privy campaign just as easily leads in to website-based marketing. Privy simplifies getting SMBs onto Websites, he says. SMBs that have Shopify, WordPress and Weebly.com accounts are the company’s fastest growing channels.

American Express Cuts Back: Big Impact on SMB Digital Marketing Support?

American Express is under the knife, as it cuts $1 billion in spending with the end of its Costco and JetBlue co-branded cards. The cutback will probably cut into many of the forward looking promotion and marketing projects that Amex underwrites with Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, Uber, Pinterest and others.

It will also lead to the departure of many executives – Leslie Berland, EVP, Global Advertising, Marketing and Digital Partnerships, for one, is rumored to be headed to Twitter as CMO – where she would be able to work with Buy Buttons, coupons and other promotions to fan commerce that would supplement or compete with Amex efforts. In this case, the use of Twitter and other social media to fan commerce will seem a whole lot easier than directly fulfilling sales and ecommerce.

For Amex, however, it is not all bad. If we want to be cheerful about it, the looming cutbacks also represent a great “focusing” opportunity for the company, which is perhaps the most aggressive digital marketer in the field with mobile-oriented initiatives for deals, loyalty, prepaid cards and wallets.

The company and its premium model have actually been under stress for some time — even before the loss of the two reseller deals (Costco alone represented 10 percent of Amex revenue). While there is Apple-like seamlessness in Amex as the acquirer, the issuer and the network, many merchants have been hesitant to pay the .5 percent Amex premium over other credit card issuers – especially after Amex moved away from its exclusive emphasis on the wealthy and rolled out the Bluebird debit product with Walmart and other value cards to compete for the high volume of underbanked customers.

Given the cutbacks, we wouldn’t be going too far out on the limb to predict that Amex won’t be underwriting major promotions from major merchants in the near future. This past holiday season, we already saw Amex end its subsidy of Small Business Saturday purchases (which went from $25 in 2013 to $10 in 2014 to zero in 2015).

One could argue that Amex has already incubated its digital offerings, which launched in 2011-12 out of a distinct business unit designed to “challenge the status quo.” Indeed, these efforts may not really require additional financial support. We know that a good promotion these days still results in tens of thousands of sales – Amex definitely remains an inviting publisher for deals . But they are no Super Bowl.

As for the focusing opportunity? That would be for Amex to reimagine itself as a marketing machine for its merchants – something that is well underway. That could mean a series of acquisitions (I might speculate that could mean one of the SMB loyalty plays, Big Data companies – Amex was an initial investor of Radius Intelligence–, or even a social media power, such as Twitter, Yelp or Foursquare).

At Money2020 in 2014 – more than 14 months ago — CEO Kenneth Chenault telegraphed the company’s next moves. When it comes down to payment innovation, it all comes down to one thing: Merchants want to grow sales. Does the innovation “help merchants meet customer needs?” he asked. “Do they provide incentives for changing customer behavior?”

Amex CEO Ken Chenault at Money2020 2014

Vistaprint Adds ‘Local Listings’: Our Interview with Scott Bowen, VP of Digital Services

What’s really important to SMBs in digital marketing? SEO/SEM, social media, Websites, mobile optimization and promotions immediately come to mind. The core feature probably remains listings (and “enhanced” data related to listings such as location info, hours and photos.)

Listings are seen as the #2 offering after Websites by Vistaprint, which has just launched Local Listings in the U.S. and Europe. The $10 a month service is aimed at micro businesses and will distribute enhanced data such as business hours, locations and photos to 100+ publishers, as well as provide detailed analytics at perhaps “half the price” of competitors such as Yext, Moz, Go Daddy’s Locu, Constant Contact’s Single Platform, etc.

VP of Digital Services Scott Bowen tells us that Vistaprint is ideally positioned to reach customers that already buy its business cards and its growing list of supporting physical and digital products. The listings product, which has been built in partnership with Neustar-Localeze in the U.S. and Uberall in Europe, can boost their website traffic rates by up to 60 percent.

Even businesses that aggressively claim listings don’t often go much beyond Google, Bing, Yelp and YP, says Bowen. “The three or four dozen ‘long tail’ publishers give you that more reach and make a positive impact on your organic search position,” he notes.

Listings also complement Vistaprint’s other digital offerings – some of which are being white=labelled from other vendors. They’re anchored by the company’s website business (as low as $5 a month), but also include social media marketing ($10 a month); and email marketing (as low as $5 a month).

Currently, Vistaprint’s digital services are being offered a la carte. Some customers are already committed to other vendors for components such as domain listings. (in fact, Go Daddy looks like the closest competitor here). Bowen believes that microbusinesses will ultimately want a one-stop shop for all their physical and digital marketing needs, positioning Vistaprint as an omnichannel provider to small business owners.

While it is an intensely competitive space, Vistaprint has some advantages over the others in terms of its huge base of business card customers, and by extension, being able to populate the most up to date info in the listings template. “There is a lot of information on a business card,” says Bowen.

The service is currently live in the U.S., France and the U.K., and will launch within the next couple of months in Germany. Bowen feels that the various European markets have more potential in terms of being a greenfield, but they also have “very different competitive landscapes.”

Vistaprint VP of Digital Services Scott Bowen

On Demand Trends: ‘People as a Service’ (PaaS)

We talk a lot about “on demand” jobs, or gigs. But does the on demand economy extend to full time, professional positions for administration, marketing and sales? Longtime local search and promotions vet Andy Steuer (IdeaLabs, Merch Engines) thinks so.

Steuer is an investor in two sister companies based on the idea of “People as a Service,” or PaaS — a play on Software as a service. Helpware provides employees on an as needed basis; Leadware helps sales teams build out va targeted research, lead generation, leads and sales. “The challenge in any business is to keep operating costs lower,” says Steuer.

Both companies provide English-speaking workers from The Ukraine. Workers are billed out at $1,800 to $2,600 a month based on disciplines, with an account manager for every five consultants to insure high quality output from the team. The workers are entirely dedicated to the hiring company for as long as they are needed. Many are proficient in a number of categories.

Typical Helpware roles include customer service, accounting support, search marketing and marketing support. “They work with a lot of CFOs on billing reconciliation, analytics, and support customer service teams and marketing teams to onboard and manage client campaigns effectively” and things like that, says Steuer. Leadware operates on the same principals, but operates on its own, helping companies build out their own “predictable revenueve sales” funnel.

“With Leadware, for every thousand leads, you might may have 200 conversations and emails, leading to 20 appointments and four sales,” says Steuer. As companies build, they can keep adding more Leadware consultants. Then as sales are made, Helpware is there to help companies scale their back office operations efficiently so they can boost their EBITDA quickly.”

Connectivity’s Matt Booth: SMB Marketing Automation ‘Unfolding Like B2B’

As marketing automation platforms have become more efficient, we’ve seen them being increasingly used by SMBs and multi-location merchants to localize advertising, leads management and promotions with listings, reviews and Websites.

One such platform is provided by Connectivity, which handles presence management for enterprise and franchise groups such as Sky Zone, Pie Five Pizza and Grocery Outlet, as well as “thousands” of SMBs. The 40-person, Burbank-based company was founded in 2005 by IAC/CItyGrid/CItysearch alums Emad Fanous and Erron Silverstein as Yellowbot, a Yelp-like review site/directory. In 2014, the company made a sharp turn towards marketing automation, coinciding with the arrival of my former Kelsey colleague Matt Booth as CEO.

Booth tells me that marketing automation in the B2C space is unfolding in the same manner as B2B companies like HubSpot did several years ago. Basically, there is a central repository of information, and a marketing automation platform that allows businesses to manage their workflow and interact with customers in different ways.

The marketing automation space, of course, has become very competitive. “Many companies have seen the same trends as us,” said Booth. It is “the quality and robustness” of the database that will give companies a leg up, he noted.

To this end, Connectivity has focused especially hard on “very specific vertical segmentation.” It also incorporates calling data. All of it supports the company’s new “Customer Insights” intelligence platform, which automatically creates customer lists using call data and emails sent to businesses. Customer Insights also generates a detailed demographic profile on each lead or customer.

JK Volvo Specialists in Pasadena, for instance, did not previously have an ability to market to its customer base because data was locked into invoicing software that lacked marketing abilities. After using Connectivity’s Customer Insights for a month, the platform built more than 300 customer profiles from incoming call logs. Three months later, more than 2,400 profiles were built including phone numbers extracted from the business’s invoicing software.

Connectivity CEO Matt Booth

Location and Corporate Presence: GE’s Move to Boston


Beta Boston Columnist Scott Kirsner

How much does an active tech scene really inspire a global tech conglomerate — especially one that is as far-flung as GE? That’s a big question, as Edison’s company prepares to move from the distant suburbs of New York to Boston.

Boston tech blogger Scott Kirsner placed his bet on Boston last week in an excellent column. “If GE thinks its future is about deal-making, glossy marketing campaigns, and trying to squeeze costs out of industry sectors undergoing commoditization, New York is the place,” he wrote.

But “if GE thinks its future is about keeping its portfolio of billion-dollar businesses steps ahead of the competition, growing new ones, and recruiting a next generation of digitally-savvy leaders from some of the world’s top schools, that points to Boston.”

That all makes sense to me. Personally, we’ve seen that location is important in providing proximity to capital and people, energy, tech savviness and overall smarts, and culture. All these can be diminished by real estate prices, bad schools and weather. But taxes probably pay the biggest role.

Is Boeing better off for having moved to Chicago? And Gannett in Virginia? Beyond the financial and news companies, are any other companies really better off in New York?