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Observations on the New England Mail Order Association Conference

This is another guest blog posting from our good friend, Bill LaPierre at Datamann, a full service list processor.  Please check out Bill’s blog by clicking here.

Observations on NEMOA 

          I just got back from my annual attendance at the Spring NEMOA conference.  Many of you were there (and thanks to all of you who said how much you enjoy reading this blog). I’m not going to give a recap of the speaker’s presentations – there were plenty of reporters from the trades in attendance who will provide that. I’m merely going to provide some observations, some of which are indicative of the catalog industry.

NEMOA itself: a tip of the hat to NEMOA for having attracted over 500 attendees. There were a number of catalogers there from companies of which I’d never heard. Since the DMA’s Catalog Conference collapsed a few years ago, NEMOA fills the void as the only major catalog oriented conference. And after having 140 attendees at Datamann’s Catalog Growth Seminar last month, I can appreciate the logistics of getting 500 people to move through the paces for 3 days. Accolades all around.

However, I noticed on the NEMOA website that their top two levels of corporate sponsors are guaranteed a speaking slot at the conference each year. Granted, the presentation is supposed to be non-selling. But, the repetitive nature of the same companies/speakers each year will get real old, real fast.

The Co-ops: I was particularly interested in hearing Stacey Hawes from Epsilon (aka Abacus) discuss new methods of acquisition. After all, I’ve taken the co-ops to task in this space recently as being stagnant and ineffective at attracting new sources of online buyers. I found it interesting that she used projections from the DMA to show that direct mail was trending to grow in the next 3 years. Now, let’s ask ourselves this question – who is better qualified to project where catalog volume is going? Would you put your money on Abacus, the company that has millions of transactions from thousands of catalogs, and who knows every catalog’s mailing trend for the past 15 years? Or, would you put your money on projections from the DMA, a trade lobbying group which has access to no company mailing information, only self-reported survey data? Hmmm…., why would Abacus use the DMA’s projections, and not their own? Maybe because the DMA’s projections are always overly optimistic.

The bulk of her presentation was on retargeting the customer on the web, similar to the way which NEMOA followed me around the web every time I logged on during February. She also stated that email prospecting does not work, which she confirmed by a show of hands in the room. But, it does work, and I know the clients for whom it has. The trick to getting email prospecting to work is getting the price low enough. But of course, if the co-ops can’t make emails names available for rental, then no wonder they would say they don’t work.

I was not surprised that nothing was said about the co-op’s inability to bring in all kinds of new sources of customers and transactions from sites like Zulily, Gilt, Amazon or eBay.  Those companies don’t need the co-ops to grow, and the idea of sharing their data – their customers! – with the rest of the world is totally foreign to those companies. So, the co-ops continue to merely circulate the same small, closed circle of buyers amongst their members, although now of course, they can chase those customers with retargeted ads too.

Drop the Price: One of my clients that has been reading my series on the current state of the co-ops made a very simple observation – the traditional list industry lost the battle and the war to the co-ops. So, why not admit defeat, admit that list rental income as a source of income is dead, and try a new tactic to regain a modest amount of control of what is left of prospecting. His suggestion was to have all the list owners/managers lower the prices of their catalog lists to $50/M, with no select fees, no nets. This might squeeze another four or five years of prospecting out of traditional lists.

A concept worth pursuing?  Never – because every list owner believes that every other list owner’s list is only worth $50/M, with the exception of their own list – which is still worth $150/M.

Ordinary/Forgettable: Eoin Comerford, CEO of Moosejaw was one of the few NEMOA keynote speakers in recent memory that did not just rehash company history, but who actually made a significant point, which was that it is OK to piss some people off. In other words, if you are ordinary, you are forgettable.  Take a stand, be meaningful, and customers will follow. (Remember that when you read this blog – you may not always agree with what I say, but at least I’m not just offering 3 tips on how to improve holiday emails).

The 3 Js: My Judy/Jennifer/Jasmine moment – if you follow Kevin Hillstrom’s blog at, then you know his three personas. (I’m not going to explain here – check out Kevin’s blog, you’ll be glad you did). Anyway, on Friday morning, I attended one of the breakfast forums, and sat next to a young woman who looked under 30. One of the other people at the table mentioned this blog. The woman politely said “Oh, you have a blog? How nice. How do I get to it?”  I handed her my business card, which has the address, but not the blog address, fully expecting that she would do what I would do under similar circumstances – I’d wait until I got home, and using my laptop, would find the website, then the blog, and then sign up for emails. I wasn’t paying attention, but about 30 seconds later, she looked up from her iPhone and said “oh, you write about bras”. Jasmine instantly signs up for an RSS feed with her smartphone.

Pure or Rich: Russ Gaitskill is the CEO of Garnet Hill, is a past president of NEMOA, and was the closing speaker. He gave his vision of catalogs of the future, evolving into content providers, similar to magazines. I don’t disagree with Russ on this one, but I do see a danger. Smart mailers like Garnet Hill will understand how to embrace this idea. But others, will use the concept of a “magalog” as an excuse to reduce selling, and make content too prominent.  At the end of the day, you still need to sell product, and I foresee many catalogs rushing to adopt a model where content plays too big a role. Some mailers just don’t like to sell, but would embrace the heck out of writing cool content.  Remember, do you want to be pure, or rich?

Death of an icon: The most famous restaurant in Boston from the 1960s to the 1980s was Anthony’s Pier 4. This is reinforced by hundreds of photos in the restaurant lobby of famous people that dined there.  It is a five minute walk from the NEMOA conference hotel, right on the water, with great views of Boston Harbor. I took a client there for dinner on Wednesday night. It was dead. The main dining room holds about 500, and there were less than 25 of us.

Two things happened to Anthony’s over the years. First, it did not adapt to the changing restaurant scene in Boston. They still have an extensive menu, but there is nothing on the menu you can’t pronounce (the hip restaurants today always have menu items that leave you stumped as to what certain items are, and what accompanies them).  Anthony’s menu is all the basics. There’s no olive oil, it is all butter and sour cream.

The second thing that happened is that Anthony’s itself stayed frozen in time. For 30 years, the had some of the most prime real estate in Boston, and everyone went there. But nothing inside or outside – not even the chairs – has changed in 50 years. I fully expected to see Tip O’Neil, Bobby Orr, Larry Bird and Cardinal Cushing come walking through the door.

Anthony’s is a metaphor for the catalog industry.  Legal Seafood and Morton’s Steakhouse are the Amazon of the Boston restaurant scene, making Anthony’s irrelevant in a changing world. Moreover, Anthony’s embraces its own history to such a degree that it has strangled its own vitality, not attracting any new customers. Take a look at your own catalog, and question the sacred cows on every page.  Do you want to be pure, or rich?

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by Bill LaPierre

VP – Business Intelligence and Analytics

Datamann – 802-295-6600 x235

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