At 94, is Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade nimble enough to out-maneuver COVID-19?

Macy's Thanksgiving Parade

by Mike Bawden, President & CEO

Macy’s – the world-famous retailer responsible for the Thanksgiving tradition of floating giant balloons through Manhattan to herald the beginning of the holiday shopping season – announced today that it would be altering the format of this year’s event due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

As reported in today’s DEADLINE, there will be no parade route, no kids, and the traditional balloons will be tethered to special vehicles. This all coming from NYC mayor Bill de Blasio who made the announcement earlier today (September 14, 2020).

The event – billed as The 94th Annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade – will air on Thanksgiving from 9am to noon, in all time zones.

According to a statement, the event will include the fantastic floats, street performers, clowns and balloons parade-watchers have come to expect. Santa is still expected to arrive at the end of the show, as well.

The public health concerns presented by the coronavirus epidemic that ravaged New York City this spring has resulted in a number of other changes to the usual parade. No participants in the event will be under the age of 18 years and everyone working on the parade (including performers) will be appropriately distanced from one another.

The high school and marching bands scheduled for this year’s parade will be deferred to 2021 and the hundreds of balloon handlers will be replaced with specially rigged vehicles approved by the NYC Department of Transportation and NYPD.

Macy’s worked with the City of New York to come up with a plan that conformed to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines and has positioned the re-tooled event as a responsible alternative to the traditional parade.

“The Macy’s Parade is our love letter and a gift to the City of New York and the nation. Under the unique challenges of these unparalleled times, we felt it was important to continue this cherished holiday tradition … [and] bring joy into the hearts of millions across the nation.”

The parade was canceled during World War II (1942 – 44).

 

Managing Change Takes Planning

Although it was announced today, the change to the venerable parade does not come as a complete surprise. Over a month ago, following the conclusion of the successfully reimagined Macy’s 4th of July celebration in the Big Apple, Mayor de Blasio and the department store prepped New Yorkers for the upcoming change to the Thanksgiving celebration.

“Some is going to be virtual, there might be some small in-person pieces, spread out pieces, it’s not going to look at all of course like how we are used to. But the important thing is the traditions will be kept in some way.” – Bill de Blasio on the upcoming changes to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade

Of course, announcements like this are the first step in actively managing expectations and setting the stage for a successful transition.

 

Re-Positioning the Macy’s Brand Amid the Pandemic

While the parade has consistently been a keystone to the Macy’s brand, the retailer is still fighting the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on multiple fronts. On a recent earnings call (reported in Adrianne Pasquarelli’s story in AdAge), Macy’s CEO Jeff Gennette emphasized the importance of the store’s events but noted that they had to change:

“We are re-imagining our iconic events to deliver the magic of the holidays, from the Thanksgiving Day Parade to local tree lightings and holiday windows.” Whether or not that will make enough of a difference to Macy’s brick-and-mortar operations will remain to be seen.

The company cut nearly 4,000 corporate jobs in June following a March furlough that saw over 100,000 store employees exit. In-store sales for the most recent quarter are down while online sales have increased over 50% for the same period.

But will those cost-cutting measures and emphasis on virtual operations during the pandemic reinforce or undercut the growth strategy proposed by the retailer in February? So much of that announced plan (the Polaris growth strategy) relies on strengthening the perceived equity in the Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s and Blue Mercury brands.

Only time – and a robust holiday shopping season – will tell.

Tips on how to run a great promotion

Finger getting ready to push a computer key that reads enter to win

by Mike Bawden, President & CEO

Why would I spend so much time quantifying my tips how to run a great promotion? Well, after you’ve spent as much time in the world of marketing and advertising as I have, I thought it made sense to share my lessons learned from my “bad” promotional experiences.

You see, I’ve been there when the doors open and the expected crowd doesn’t materialize. I’ve seen competitors out-maneuver clients by outspending them and taking the “promotional wind” right out of their sails (and their sales). And I’ve seen online promotions backfire spectacularly.

“Hope” isn’t a strategy for success when it comes to promotion, but too often that seems to be the only rationale for a desperate measure intended to bolster sales or brand awareness.

Promotions Work, but You Need to Follow the Map

There’s no “magic” to creating and running a successful promotion. And in this article, I’ve pulled some wisdom from a variety of experts who each have experience in different marketing channels and added some of my own recollections to provide you with a clear roadmap to follow when you try to run a great promotion.

And because some of you don’t read long articles, here’s a quick list of what you need to do:

1. Set a business goal for your promotion.
2. Define your communication objectives (define your terms for “success”).
3. Determine what kind of contest or promotion will work best.
4. Select your promotional platform(s).
5. Determine your promotional timeline.
6. Pick the right prize(s).
7. Set the “rules of engagement” for your promotion.
8. Make sure you’re legal.
9. Prepare your message and message distribution strategy.
10. Bring your team on-board and wind them up.
11. Pre-promote your promotion.
12. Hit it hard on “launch day.”
13. Keep the pressure up on all platforms during the promotion.
14. End on time.
15. Announce your winner.
16. Work for a post-promotion “bounce.”
17. Take a closer look at what worked (and what didn’t).
18. Rinse and repeat.

Getting Your Act Together

If you’ve ever worked with me or read my various think pieces, you know how important I think it is that marketers reach some kind of consensus on goals, objectives, budgets and deadlines before starting any project. If you want to run a great promotion, there are no exceptions.

In fact, when you look at the amount of money spent on promotions (either online, mass-media or in-store), to not take an hour to set some realistic expectations is unforgivable. Whether you’re big box store or a one-man band, there’s really no excuse.

Failing to set business and communications goals and objectives means there’s no structure or direction to the creative team responsible for crafting the message or for your front-line workers who will be trying to deal with questions from customers. Worst of all, no targets makes it very hard to determine the relative success or failure of your promotion when it wraps up.

Do yourself a favor and set, at a bare minimum, a revenue goal. Other targets you can set can include: new leads generated (email addresses or phone numbers), product information downloads, click-throughs to online stores, coupon utilization, etc.

And when you’ve set a business objective, it gets much easier to set reasonable communications goals:

•  Reach (how many people hear about your promotion)
•  Frequency (how many times people need to be reminded about your promotion)
•  Engagement (how many measurable transactions do you want to generate through your “call to action”)

Building Your Promotion

Setting those goals will also help when it comes to making some critical decisions about your promotion. Among them is determining what kind of promotion you’re intending to run and then exactly where you think you’ll run it.

First things first, you need to realize there are two basic kinds of promotions: price promotions (often referred to as in-store promotions) that are most commonly promoted with coupons, heavy ad schedules, in-newspaper circulars, etc. But for those who want to create more “buzz” around a promotion, they’ll go with a prize promotion – which features a prize (or multiple prizes) that requires some kind of entry in order to win.

This post focuses on “prize promotions” – but for the most part, many of the tips and rules I suggest here work for “price promotions”, too.

But as long as we’re taking a closer look at prize promotions, it’s important to realize there are three kinds of promotions that are most typical: contests, sweepstakes and raffles. I’ve created this handy chart to help you understand the difference:

chart showing the difference between promotion types

Unless you’re a casino, non-profit or government agency, you’re probably not going to want to go through the hoops necessary to get a state gambling license so you can operate a raffle. In fact, in some states, there’s nothing an individual or business can do to get a license to hold a raffle.

So, let’s make this a binary decision, shall we? Do you want to run a contest or a sweepstakes? Pick one.

And once you’ve decided on what kind of promotion you intend to run, you need to determine which media platforms you intend to use to support it. Your options include (but aren’t limited to):

•  Your website
•  Traditional media (TV, radio, newspaper)
•  Online media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram)
•  In-Store (on the counter, in a display, etc.)
•  Via Email (to customers and prospects)
•  Via Employees (to their friends and family)

When it comes to understanding how to run a great promotion, it’s important to avoid the easy answer and say “all of above” – but that can make your life difficult. It’s important you understand the rules of what you can and cannot do on each media channel. Obviously, the message you send to (and through) your employee channel needs to be different than what you say in-store.

And when you consider social media platforms like Facebook, you have to be up on their terms of service for running promotions. Terms from social media networks vary and can change without notice. That’s why at Brand Central Station, I use Rafflecopter when running contests and sweepstakes on social media.

Nail Down Your Fundamentals

Once you’ve decided what kind of promotion you want to run you need to set the fundamental pieces into place:

•  How long will your promotion run?
•  What are you giving away?
•  Who’s eligible to win?
•  What must a contestant do to win?
•  Is a purchase required? (The answer should be “no”!)
•  When will you select the winner(s)?
•  How will you notify winners and all other entrants?

These all seem like relatively easy decisions, but everyone’s circumstance is different so no two promotions ever have the exact same set of fundamentals.

For example, when you’re talking about the length of a promotion – the size of your social media following can be a huge factor. Most promotions promoted agressively over social media see the majority of their entries in the first 3-7 days of a contest. However brands with large followings may find a one-day promotion (24 hours) to be plenty of time to rack up tens of thousands of entries.

The kind and number of prize(s) you’re offering makes a difference, too. According to Instagram blogger, Alex Tooby, prize selection makes a significant difference:

“Make sure the prize you choose is something your [audience] needs.”

Rebecca Kowalewicz, from Clearbridge Branding Agency, provides similar advice in her column on the Forbes Magazine website on Facebook giveaways:

“The advice we often give [our clients] is to ensure the prize not only ties to their brand but is something the winner will want to talk about online …”

Note the importance both experts put on making the prize(s) relevant and valuable enough to get some buzz started (and create some viral traffic in the process).

Once you’ve got some great prizes selected, you need to figure out exactly who is eligible, what they have to do to win and more. These are the “rules” to your promotion and need to fit within the guidelines established by every state in which you plan to run your promotion.

The best way to make sure you stay “legal” is to make the promotion simple. Don’t make it too hard to enter or inadvertantly create loopholes that could turn your giveaway into a raffle.

Your promotion’s rules should also include specifics about when you’ll select the winner, how that winner will be selected and notified and what happens if you can’t reach the winner. Believe it or not, a significant percentage of contest “winners” never respond to an email notice telling them they’ve won.

Finally, make sure you publish your rules so everyone can find them. Sometimes that may be in disclaimer type under and entry blank, in other cases it may be a page on your website that puts the rules just one click away. Just make sure the rules are findable and pass muster.

Building Your Team

When it comes to getting all of these pieces of the puzzle pulled together, you need to make sure you have a full team of pros to help you.

That means you should have a creative team to create ads, promotional graphics, promotional collateral, etc. and a media specialist who can help you get the word out.

You need to have a social media whiz on hand to help you engage your fans, friends and followers to gin up excitement, participate in the promotion and share it with their friends.

A website manager is a critical member of the team since so much of the promotional activity will, at one point or another, have to run through your website. Paired with an email marketing specialist, they can work together to build repeat traffic and capture as many leads as possible – which will continue to produce dividends long after the promotion has ended.

Having internal management on-board is key, too, especially if the promotion is designed to drive retail trafic (either to a brick-and-mortar location or to a website). Frontline employees and customer service reps who are well informed and excited about your promotion have a multiplying effect on the effort.

Last, but not least, you really should have a promotions expert on hand who can help keep people focused on the big picture goals and objectives and discuss individual tactics from that perspective.

Promoting Your Promotion

Once the team is in place and the plans are made, you need to start the promotion. But that isn’t done by just firing all barrels at once.

No, despite all your planning and production, the fact is no one really knows what’s coming and, as a result, no one is prepared to respond. That’s why you must promote your promotion before you pull the trigger.

Whether you decide to run a traditional “teaser” campaign, share images of prizes in advance on social media, blog about the coming contest on your website – or all of the above – you need to make sure that those closest to your brand know and understand that something special is about to happen.

Here are a few suggestions for you to consider:

•  Publish and push out stories that relay the “why” behind the promotion to create context for the promotion’s messages.
•  Pitch bloggers and reporters on getting a “sneak peak” at what you’ll be promoting – especially if it’s a new service or product.
•  Provide select customers or employees with a 24-hour sneak peak opportunity to enter early or enter to win exclusive prizes.
•  Put a countdown timer on your website.
•  Create a contest-specific video and share it through social media.
•  Livestream the start of the contest.

There are more ways to build excitement behind the launch of your contest, of course, but they all try to achieve the same thing … prepare your audience to enter and to share that engagement with their friends and family.

On the creative side, be sure your graphics for the promotion include pictures of your prize(s) whenever possible. Consider using a custom hashtag on all promotional messages and encourage entrants to do the same thing.

Whatever happens, it’s important to stimulate as much positive chatter as you can about the progress of the promotion both right before kick-off and during the promotional period.

Celebrate Your Victories

Once your promotion has run its course and all the entries are in, it’s time for the fun part – picking and notifying your winner(s).

Be sure to select the winner(s) of your promotion on the date specified in the rules and then verify that each winner is qualified under the published rules. Failing to do this exposes your company to possible legal action, so pay attention!

Next, once winner(s) are selected, notify them right away. I usually make sure we create a social media post announcing the fact a winner (or winners) has been selected and that we’ve sent them an email notification. This does a couple of things: it establishes the fact that we’ve followed the rules of the contest and puts folks on notice that if they get an email from us telling them they’ve won a prize – it’s probably legit.

You would not believe how many times I’ve had prize winners tell me they didn’t believe my email when they first read it.

After the prize has been awarded (shipped and recieved), it’s time to celebrate with the community of fans, friends, followers and customers you’ve helped build. If possible, post a picture of the winner with their prize – or try for some kind of “endorsement message” that can be shared on social media.

Sometimes, a winner’s story is so compelling it creates more opportunities for a promotional bounce: via a news release or guest blog post, a share on social media, a unique photo op, etc.

When it’s all said and done, celebrating the victory with your community is an essential step in closing the loop with customers, so be sure to take it.

Take a Look at Your Results … and Do It Again!

Hold on one second … where do you think you’re going? Just because you’ve shipped off the prize and posted their name on social media, that doesn’t mean you’re done.

In fact, the most beneficial part of the entire promotion process is about to begin. It’s time to break down the “game film” and figure out what worked.

And more importantly, what didn’t.

Start by laying out your original business objectives. Were they achieved? Were you able to determine exactly how they were achieved?  It’s likely that whether you achieved the results you wanted or not, the path they took from initial contact to final purchase (or click-through or email registration) didn’t happen exactly the way you imagined.

That’s okay. It’s all part of the process.

And thanks to your promotion, you’re now able to break down every step of the customer’s entire journey and make some adjustments that will improve the performance of your next promotion.

Next, take a look at those communications objectives. Do they need to be adjusted? Were they wildly optimistic or needlessly conservative? Try to draw the bullseye a little smaller for the next promotion – but use what you learned this time to make sure you put the board on the right wall.

Finally, take a look at the entries and interactions. What worked and what didn’t? What operational changes need to be made so things run smoother next time and, just as importantly, what messages need to be changed to set the customers’ expectations to something that’s much more likely to be achieved?

What you learn through careful scrutiny will not only yield immediate returns with existing customers, it will help inform your decisions on the next promotion to make it even more successful.

Congratulations, you’re a winner!

Chatbots are here to stay

Finger getting ready to push a computer key that reads enter to win

by Mike Bawden, President & CEO

The results are in: chatbots are not a fad.

What started out as a high-growth segment in the marketing industry in 2018 has turned into the next wave in online marketing. In fact, this study, published in September of 2019 by Boomtown) shows that about half of the companies in their survey use chatbots.

Most notably, companies with fewer than 250 employees were the ones relying on chatbots – with companies of ten or fewer employees making up roughly 40% of all the companies using the automated marketing strategy.

The Rise of the Machines

Although chatbots have existed since the late 1960s, it hasn’t been until the explosion of social media in the last few years that we’ve seen AI-driven web applications take center stage.

In fact, since 2016, Facebook has allowed developers to build chatbots to work inside Facebook Messenger. That opoprtunity has expanded beyond conventional developers to now include marketers of all shapes and sizes.

Chatbots represent the latest stage in the development of what’s referred to as the “conversational interface” – meaning buyers and sellers will be able to interact through an online connection without needing screens or mouses to do so. According to an article on the “history” of chatbots (by Onlim) …

“The interface will be entirely conversational, and those communications will be indistinguishable from tehconversations wthat we have with our firends and relatives.”

But what’s behind the growth?

There’s no question that the Internet has driven a dramatic disintegration of what used to be considered “mass market behavior” meaning that marketers now think of their markets in terms of hundreds and thousands and not tens or hundres of thousands. As a result, the demand for individual attention to each opportunity has grown exponentially.

Using automated tools to reach and engage consumers was inevitable and chatbots fill an important need for the generation and collection of leads, making seamless commercial transactions, answering simple customer service complaints, etc.

Chatbotting on Facebook

Facebook provides what is possibly the easiest way for a business of any size to jump into the automated marketing pool. Articles like this one – promising readers to walk them through the process of building a chatbot for Facebook Messenger in five minutes or less can be found all over the Internet.

Other services, like MobileMonkey, provides not only a Facebook-centric solution but also gives marketers the ability to use the platform to build chatbots for their own site as well.

MobileMonkey has seen sustained growth since launching in 2017.

Affordable Resources and Alternate Platforms

Even though Facebook boasts over 2 billion unique pageviews a day and can drive enormous traffic to its Messenger platform, there are alternative platforms out there worth considering (especially if you, like me, have absolutely no engineering background but are willing to plunge ahead, anyway) …

•  OnSequel
•  Chatfuel
•  Botsify
•  FlowXO

(h/t to our friends at Buffer for providing this list)

Your AI is Only as Smart as You Are

Whatever you want your chatbot to do, it’s up to you (or a qualified vendor) to create the strategy for how the conversation should progress and provide the words.

This isn’t as simple as you might think. You need to spend the time and do the research to identify the most frequent questions your customers are likely to ask. Your efforts should focus both internally (on CSRs and your social media team) and externally (on discussion sites like Quora and Reddit).

Using that research as a foundation, you’ll need to build a “conversation tree” for your chatbot – avoiding open-ended questions as much as possible.

Creatively, it’s important to give your chatbot as much “personality” as you can for one simple reason: your chatbot’s approach to problem solving and selling will be a big factor in setting the customer’s perception of your brand’s “voice” and “tone.”

Keep a Human on Stand-By

All automated marketing channels need to remember that a vast majority of  customers prefer to interact with humans over chatbots (can you blame them?), there’s little question that a chatbot is superior in terms of user experience to a “contact us” form.

While it might be nice to think you’ve fully automated the selling process with a tireless, ever-optimistic chatbot who has all the answers, that may not be what your customer is looking for. Just be sure to let people know that they are always just one click away from a real person who will look after their problem if the chatbot can’t handle it.

Keep Striving for Continuous Improvement

It’s entirely possible to survey customers after they’ve had an automated marketing experience with your brand – and you should do that. Here’s why:

1. Following up on a customer’s satisfaction may provide a “folllow-up sale opportunity” based on the feedback received and the questions answered;

2. The data collected through the survey responses can help you build an even better version of your chatbot for its next deployment.

Just whatever you do, please don’t name your chatbot SKYNET because we all know how that turned out, don’t we?

Why getting (and keeping) customers isn’t as easy as it looks.

customers standing in a line with signs that spell customer

by Mike Bawden, President & CEO

Customer loyalty is a big thing.

In fact, more than half of the marketers recently surveyed by Forrester Research said they were investing more in customer loyalty programs in 2013 over 2012.  But with all that money being spent, only 45% of retail customers enroll in a store’s loyalty program. The good news: only 33% of retail customers actually redeem the rewards.

Carolyn Goodman writes about the Complexity of Loyalty for Target Marketing’s website this month, too. She focuses on the growth of airline loyalty programs and how they’ve gone astray. Too much of a good thing, perhaps?

The Power of PR

The last piece in the loyalty puzzle relates to the power of the word-of-mouth referral. P.J. Bednarski writes about the comparable values of a Facebook or Twitter referral versus a referral from a real-live person whom you actually know.

Meanwhile, the Muck Rack blog provides a handy 6-point checklist for PR measurement.

Is fear the consultant’s enemy?

Scott Berkun, writing in the Harvard Business Review, challenges consultants to go work with the people who pay for their advice. But they won’t, according to Berkun, because they’re afraid. They should try it, though, they might learn something …

Solving the online registration puzzle.

If you manage or host events, you’re constantly challenged with finding an efficient and effective registration and audience management system. Here’s a checklist of ten decision points to walk through when making your choice.

Lifehacks are big.

As life gets more complex and we spend more time in “the cloud” – gaining control over our electronic life will become an ever-increasing issue. Jill Duffy provides some useful tips on managing passwords in PC Magazine.