Sindhya Valloppillil’s article about consumer retail, titled “Why Consumer-Facing E-Commerce Is BROKEN,” created quite a storm on Twitter this past weekend. Venture capitalists invested in the noted firms were instantly on the defensive and entrepreneurs attempting to develop new retail models felt attacked.

While Valloppillil created a robust conversation about online retail and venture capital funding, the article failed to talk about the challenges online-only retailers face when trying to simultaneously craft a brand and establish a differentiated business model at the same time. To use a popular visual, these entrepreneurs are building the plane while flying it.

As an ecommerce marketer with several upstart scars, I know firsthand the challenges involved in flying, repairing, building, and trying to keep a business aloft while driving sales. The ability to focus employee excitement into a valid business model requires saying “no” to 90 percent of the projects that appear urgent. Moreover, focusing founder and employee passion into a clear, differentiated brand message takes just as much backbone. One’s ability to articulate a brand’s mission, vision, and values in each customer touchpoint – based on the customer’s context and device – and to then inspire them to propagate your message, is a thrilling and exhausting challenge.

While Valloppillil is enjoying what she termed the “shit show,” the larger discussion is around teams and people. Mike at the Dollar Shave Club lives the mission, but he needs a (or more) merchandiser, a strong technical lead, and omnichannel marketers that can help guide product development, merchandize the assortment, and diligently measure and optimize performance. Sometimes you pick the right team and sometimes a strong board of directors steers you well. If you’re fortunate, great people bring equally great people with them to your organization.

We know that DSC was surprised by the volume of interest that their first video created; they didn’t have the supply chain nor the product catalog to capitalize on the surge of customer interest. That said, they have a believable ethos that many of their competitors don’t. They have a story to tell and sell.

Yes, retail upstarts need to understand business, brand, and audience insights – all businesses do – but these elements can’t stand in isolation; they need to result in a roadmap that is executed on time by a coordinated team. DSC clearly did not execute fast enough. Amazon did and so did Zappos. As is Fab with their announcement today. So, before we start slinging mud about what these startups aren’t doing, let’s be prescriptive about what they should be doing.

I’m here to help. jason /at/ jasonmichaels /dot/ com.


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In combination, Facebook’s announcements about its revised News Feed, ad targeting enhancements, and Facebook Home for mobile devices signal its next generation offering. As users, we’ll adopt and embrace many of these changes. As advertisers, our relationship with the social network is more complex.

News Feed Personalization

Facebook’s News Feed remodel will feature bigger, brighter visuals and improved feed filters that help create a unified aesthetic across all devices. The new features give users greater control over which stories they see, leading to more relevant opportunities for brands to connect.

Ad Targeting

Recently Facebook announced that their Exchange (FBX) is beginning trials of cookie-driven ads within the News Feed, meaning that users will begin to see ads for products and services they’ve viewed outside of the social network, or possibly related to their past purchases from brick-and-mortar stores. The added data integration from data partners Acxiom, Datalogix and Epson will further enable ads that leverage transmedia customer data and demand higher ad premiums.

Home for Mobile

In addition to these News Feed and ad targeting changes comes Facebook Home. This software layer transforms select Android smartphone home screens into a bright and lively Facebook News feed and app launcher, and includes other messaging features such as Chat Heads, which allow users to receive and reply to Facebook and SMS messages.

These substantive feature rollouts prove that Facebook has no intention of ceding any ground to competitors, and given their reach, targeting, and anticipated ad ROI, brands now cannot afford to look away. Facebook is no longer a walled garden we visit 14 times daily, it’s cementing itself as the center of our digital experience.

I will be attending the Forrester Forum for Marketing Leaders “Create a Brand Advantage with Perpetually Connected Customers” in Los Angeles, California on April 18 and 19th. If you’re attending the conference and want to connect, DM me at @50champ. There is also a conference Twitter thread at #ForrForum.

I’ll be attending all of the standard sessions. Here are the “tracks” I’ll be attending:


  • 01:45 PM – 02:30 PM / Track A / Mobile And Devices / Marketer Spotlight: Deep Dive On The Mobile Mind Shift


  • 01:45 PM – 02:30 PM / Track C / Branding / Brands Need Connected Content


  • 10:40 AM – 11:25 AM / Track B / Customer Data / Calculating True Impact Across Devices


  • 10:40 AM – 11:25 AM / Track D / Organization / Marketer Spotlight: Driving B2B Marketing With An Adaptive Approach


  • 11:30 AM – 12:00 PM / Guest Executive Forum With HP Autonomy: Reading Between The Lines: Discovering The Hidden Consumer
  • 12:05 PM – 12:50 PM / Track B / Customer Data / Targeting Your Audience Across Channels And Devices

Most Fortune 500 company websites do a great job telling you what the firm is selling. But guess what? Customers don’t care. They’re looking for outcomes, to fill a need or get smart, and to then either request more information or get on with their day.

Instead of simply listing what you sell, extrapolate through to “the why.” In example, you sell software. For whom? Medical practices. Why? To better manage patient information. Why? To reduce administrative costs. Why? Because administrative costs represent the largest share of OPEX investment, which can’t be written off as easily at tax time. Aha! Now you’re not simply selling medical practice software, you’re selling the kind of efficiency that equates to savings. And that single message can be delivered in a sentence as opposed to a laundry list of features.

Instead of being “Medusoft medical practice software”, you’re now “Medusoft, making medical practices more profitable” (through software). And we’ll all buy that type of return.

An investor I recently spoke with stated, “I look at a company’s website and ask, would anyone care if this company went away? If the answer is no, I go on to the next thing.”

As a strategist I ask, “Has your company uniquely positioned itself in the market, and does that positioning align to your company’s mission, vision, and values?”

If the answer is “yes” to both questions above, then find ways – beyond sales – to validate that your customers feel the same way. If your customers aren’t reflecting your messaging (based on your insights about them), you’d better quickly change the conversation.


Our most progressive clients understand the role strategy can play in the genesis and evolution of their products, projects, people, and their company overall. They recognize that great strategy can inform a product’s functionality, marketability, lifecycle, and on and on.

As strategists, we connect enough dots to understand the customer, to see ahead of where markets are going, and to uncover new opportunities and positioning that sets a prosperous pathway for our clients. We are responsible for pushing the boundaries of our own company’s thinking, our clients’ thinking, and of the industries and businesses we serve. If we are not breaking down walls (with tact and elegance), then we’re not pushing hard enough.

We’re not always going to transform a business, create a moment of magic, or get our client a promotion, but that should be the goal. It’s what should excite us. It’s what is exasperating, wonderful, and terrifying about what we do. We have a responsibility to make great change happen. We have an obligation to lead.

This is why I’m a strategist.

Many people have asked me why I own and work on Studebakers. The Studebaker Corporation no longer produces cars, but there are tens of thousands of Studebaker automobiles on roads, in garages and barns, and on display around the world. And unbeknownst to most, there is an entire community of Studebaker drivers and fans around the globe preserving the brand. The entire subculture fascinates me and is a study in niche communities, the wisdom of crowds, and digital (and offline) touch-points.

I came to Studebakering wanting to work on ‘something big’ with my father. What I found was a gathering of enthusiasts much larger than I could have imagined. For many in the club, their nostalgia for Studebaker revolves around their childhoods and early family life. For me, those memories are being created right now.

“Nostalgia. It’s delicate, but potent.” I hope these cars always transport me back to working side-by-side with my father.

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From the ages of 9 till 13, skateboarding was my primary mode of transportation. I loved it. Then the bottom fell out of the skateboarding business I fell out of love with the sport.

At age 35, I purchased a reissue of my first board, a Powell & Peralta Ripper. At age 40, I purchased a reissue of my favorite board, a Christian Hosoi Hammerhead. In fact, I bought two Hammerhead boards; one to ride and an autographed copy to hand down to my son.

Riding a board brings back memories of endless summer nights in Los Gatos, California. It prompts me to share time and life lessons with my nine year-old and five year-old. And it brings me joy.

At my age, some would say that I have no right to skateboard, yet I feel that I have every right to skateboard. The paste up below (click to enlarge) is for my friends at Nike. I know that I have every right to skateboard, but there’s a legion of X-ers out there that need a little push.


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In 1999, I championed one of the first personalized newsletter initiatives online. Our growing interactive entertainment hub had nearly four million unique visitors, and we wanted to increase customer visits, engagement, and page views. We also had formidable competition and wanted to create a vehicle that would drive reader affinity. A newsletter that delivered targeted compelling content was the solution. (Remember that there were no smart phones or social sign-on tools in 1999.)

It took months of engineering and a genius engineer to create a newsletter that allowed each reader to choose both the content and frequency for their newsletter. Servers ran at full speed all night to deliver these complex newsletters; a task that today’s IT infrastructure can do in minutes or hours. As a result, customer registrations increased, as did clicks, page views, advertising impressions, and most importantly, revenue.

Today, this type of personalization – and the monetization of personalization – is an ongoing challenge for marketers.  Many marketers have the email engine, but not the comprehensive repository of customer data required to deliver compelling, personalized marketing.  Some marketers have both the engine and the customer data, but are lacking the social graph data and analytics that would take their outgoing marketing to the next level.

Ecommerce leaders such as Amazon, Nike, and Target have invested in the people, technology, and analytics to serve up The Four P’s to customers wherever they are – at retail, on the web, in apps, by mail, etc. At the same time, smaller retailers with shallower pockets but just as much pluck (Modcloth, Fab, HomeMint) are using the social graph to deliver personalized customer experiences to great results.

So, how does your organization balance which marketing initiatives to personalize? We often use these five elements, as defined by Forrester.1

  1. Prioritize what to personalize. Architect personalization tools based on desired outcomes.
  2. Estimate the customer’s expectation of personalization. Use surveys and customer feedback to determine what’s really wanted by the end customer.
  3. Distinguish between known and unknown attributes. Weigh demographic, geographic, and purchasing behavior to inform your marketing.
  4. Understand the level of analytical complexity.  Be honest about what data your firm has in hand and the degree of personalization it can drive.
  5. Choose the interaction context. Make the highest use of the channel, e.g., retail salespeople, kiosks, point-of-purchase, mobile, web, etc. and consider the best medium for your message, e.g., email, video, game …

The expectation is that businesses will stop making the shopper work so hard. “Lean back” technologies such as tablets and look books (Pinterest, Houzz) have demonstrated (time and again) that a great majority of us are voyeurs. So, as retailers, it’s on us to deliver what the customer wants, where and when they want it. Those of us that do not won’t be around to answer customer service calls in the future.

Forrester Research, Inc. “Use Customer Analytics To Get Personal. Analytically Driven Personalization Increases Retention And Return.”