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More Web Users Getting Carded

Russell Shaw
More Web Users Getting Carded Russell Shaw

Online greeting cards from such sites as Hallmark.com, American Greetings.com and BlueMountain.com perpetuate a tradition that dates back well over 500 years -- to about the time of the invention of the printing press.

The 1400s are more associated with explorations of the sea than explorations of the heart. Still, that century marked the first appearance of printed Valentine's Day cards. Hand-made, paper valentines were popular, as were New Year's Day cards. Surprisingly, printed Christmas greetings did not come into vogue until 1843, when British artist John Calcott Horsley painted a card that showed a happy family hugging each other, and enjoying Christmas cheer. It contained the message: "A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You."

In 2003, consumers purchased approximately 7 billion greeting cards, generating more than $7.5 billion in retail sales, according to the Greeting Card Association (GCA), the trade group for the industry,

While the GCA only tracks greeting cards sold at retail stores, Jupiter Research compiles sales figures for the online greeting card industry. From a paid content standpoint, Jupiter ecommerce analyst Patti Freeman-Evans estimates that $52 million in ecards were bought and sold in 2003. She projects that number will increase to $79 million in 2007.

Holding Jupiter's numbers up to the GCA figures; it is plain to see that paid ecards are only about 0.7 percent of the overall greeting card market. However, this arguably paltry percentage is not seen as a failure of online greeting cards to catch on.

The two key reasons for this low percentage are the fact that one of the leading ecard sites, Hallmark.com, does not charge for cards sent over the Internet, and that some cards, by virtue of the type of occasion they note, are not suitable for online delivery. Sympathy cards would be a key example.

Because American Greetings and its subsidiary Blue Mountain.com base most of their sales on an annual, "all you can send" subscription model rather than a per-card charge, sales of individual units are difficult to track. According to numbers from Web traffic measurement and analysis firm Hitwise, the combined Valentine's Day season site visit count for American Greetings and Blue Mountain was almost exactly two-thirds of Hallmark.com's total.

Hallmark.com offers free ecards as incentive to visit their main site, where they offer paper cards and miscellaneous gift items.

Other ecard sites depend on various advertising models. For example, 123Greetings.com generates pop-up advertising for third-party gift certificate aggregator TheUseful.com when site visitors view a card before they send it.

Since Hallmark.com and many of the smaller ecard sites are free, it would be a classic apples-and-oranges fallacy to project an increase in online greeting card sales if Hallmark.com and others charged for online-delivered content (as opposed to paper cards ordered from its site).

Demographics will Drive Growth

Still, the 20 percent annual growth in ecards estimated by Jupiter is worthy of note. The demographics of the ecard audience are also favorable.

According to statistics provided by Web site management firms, as well as some of the companies themselves, ecard sites tend to skew heavily female, and toward relatively high income and education levels that reflect high-speed Internet access and a degree of comfort with sending and receiving online cards. 123Greetings.com says that 60 percent of their users are college graduates.

January, 2004 Nielsen//NetRatings numbers show a 61.5 to 38.5 percent female/male split. That's close to 123Greetings.com's 64 to 36 percent ratio. Nielsen//NetRatings indicates that for January, visitors to greeting card sites were proportioned by age as follows:   

 2 - 11  1.9
 12 - 17  7.21
 18 - 24  5.25
 25 - 34  16.36
 35 - 49  31.30
 55 - 64  16.68
 65+   10.52

The more than 10 percent of ecard visitors who are over 65 may seem surprising, but it makes sense when you think about how this group is more likely to be geographically separated from children and others to whom they would have snail-mailed cards in the past.

By income, Nielsen//Net Ratings found the following percentage breakdown for January, 2004:

 $0 - 24999   8.84
 $25000 - 49999 28.3 
 $50000 - 74999  26.87 
 $75000 - 99999 15.84
 100000 - 149999 11.42
 $150000+  6.40 
 No Response  2.32

The growth spurt will be driven by six factors:

  • The broadening of Internet demographics. Freeman-Evans says that the growth in the ecard market will be helped by "the demographics of online becoming more like the offline world."
  • The increasing penetration of broadband access that can support attractive, animated cards. "Interactive greetings are becoming more popular because of (the growth in) high bandwidth connections," says Vicki Kinzy, director of content management for AmericanGreetings.com.
  • The spread of affiliate agreements between online greeting card sites and high traffic portals. "Part of American Greetings' distribution model is distributing through Yahoo! and MSN," says Bill Tancer, vice-president of research for Hitwise.
  • Increasingly synergistic marketing campaigns between online greeting card sites and offline retailers. Inarguably, the standard for this strategy has been set by Hallmark.com, the online subsidiary of the 4,300-store retail giant. "Hallmark has a huge, incremental following offline," says Freeman-Evans.
  • The rise of search engine keyword placement as a marketing tool. In one recent Google search for the term "greeting card," three, comparatively small online greeting card companies came up as Sponsored Links. Sometimes, well-established sites get traffic just by the virtue of their listing; Hitwise's Tancer says that for the recent Valentine's Day season, about 5 percent of traffic to AmericanGreetings.com came from Google, and 3.6 from Yahoo!
  • The rise of niche egreeting card companies. A search of Yahoo!'s "Virtual Cards" category yields 220 brand listings, many reflecting ecological, lifestyle, or ethnic themes. Although some of these sites depend on pop-up ads for a significant portion of their revenue, that revenue stream may not be here forever. The increasing popularity of pop-up blockers, as well as the pop-stop features that will be integrated in the next edition of Internet Explorer due by the end of this year, may spoil the party. That's one reason why Jupiter's Freeman-Evans predicts some niche companies will drive sales by virtue of subscription or per-card models. Such enterprises have been attracted to the field by the lower barrier-to-entry of increasingly sophisticated but somewhat inexpensive, desktop publishing tools -- as well as the marketing opportunities created by the purchase of links and increasingly sophisticated search engine optimization.

Broadband Helps Growth, Too

A recently published study, cited by the Greeting Card Association, of a Toronto suburb with an unspecified, but high percentage of high-speed Internet access penetration adds another force at play here. In essence, the study claims that broadband use overlaps with increased willingness to socialize online, and that ecard sending is a natural outgrowth of this phenomenon. 

The study was released in December, 2003. Authors Dr. Barry Wellman, professor of Sociology at the University of Toronto, and Dr. Keith Hampton, professor of Urban Studies and Planning at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said that wired residents were "more active in the community, had more neighborhood social ties and communicated with those ties more frequently" than non-wired citizens.

Given the small, but intensely competitive world of online ecards, one might expect a significant emphasis on research-driven, personalization. AmericanGreetings.com's Kinzy says that research is continuous, and is usually timed to conclude six months before the actual holiday.

"We have a very huge research division that studies what is popular as far as how art looks, and what are the most popular colors," Kinzy says. "We also do focus groups that study consumer trends," and e-mail links where consumers can" (request a card).

After a specific holiday is over, AmericanGreetings.com analyzes the top sends, and whether these numbers reflect specific trends. "We also look at customer comments (after the fact)," and sometimes ask ourselves, 'did we miss something?" Kinzy adds.

Electronic greeting cards also have a built-in time-to-market advantage over their dead-tree counterparts. Kinzy says that if it is urgent, a card can go from the drawing board to AmericanGreetings.com or BlueMountain.com in a 24-hour cycle.

While quick cycles such as these are far more exception than the rule, they can be driven by external events that evoke the kinds of emotion that greeting cards can best express.

The hostilities in Iraq and Afghanistan are the most obvious example of an ideal ecard climate. With more than 100,000 soldiers deployed to these regions, emotions among loved ones run high. At the same time, the growing number of Armed Services members with Internet access can receive a card more or less instantly -- rather than wait a week or two to pick up their card at mail call.

Hallmark.com has established a separate "Support Our Troops" category. Currently, 34 ecards are posted there. Many are Flash-animated, reflecting such timely themes as "Sending You An Angel," "Close In Thought and Prayer," and "A Shoulder to Lean On."

"Ecards bring together Hallmark's creativity with innovative technology, and allow us to respond in a timely way to current events -- more so than we can in paper cards --to give people ways to connect with each other online," says Hallmark spokesperson Kristi Ernsting.

In just one example, AmericanGreetings.com has a free animated "Preserving Freedom for All" card. Clicking the link for the card spawns a musical rendition of the patriotic song, "America," and prompts the sender to enter a personal message.

What's in the Immediate Future?

So what does the immediate future entail for the ecards segment? In addition to the constant supply of birthdays, Easter, the Jewish holiday of Passover, and Mother's Day will all arrive within three months.

Without a doubt, most card buyers will still trek their way to card shops and the greeting card sections of drug stores and supermarkets. Yet Jupiter's Freeman-Evans sees some evidence of "channel shift" between offline and online greeting card buyers and senders.

"There are newly emerging areas of incremental growth," Freeman-Evans says. "Plus, the bigger players have strong name recognition and nice marketing budgets."

Targeting options
While many people think of out of home as a mass play, digital out of home has always offered a variety of targeting options from broad to highly defined population segments. Those options get better and more granular all the time. Some of the options available include:

  • Demographics: The broad range of DOOH venues makes it possible to deliver to a well defined demo. You can target by gender, age range, income, market, ethnicity, and more. While you are unlikely to get 100 percent composition, you can deliver a highly targeted campaign.

  • Venue: Naturally, there are a variety of venue targeting options. In-store vehicles let you reach consumers when they are most likely to be persuadable. Here there are options to target by class of trade (grocery, drug, mass, convenience store) or even by chain/chain and market. In-taxi media might be a powerful way for NY entertainment venues, for example, to drive awareness and purchase intent.

  • Location: This can range from a general location, like the Long Island suburbs, to a particular one, like medical offices. Additionally, digital outdoor also offers the option, pioneered by traditional OOH, of targeting by proximity, for example, within a certain number of miles from a Walmart.

  • Behavior/affinity: Adcentricity also reports that behavioral and insight targeting are also becoming much more common. Says their authoritative planning guide, "The practice of deep data based/rationalized targeting is growing daily to rationalize plans and justify solutions to the end client." Interactive units surely play a key role in this regard.

  • Daypart: Many DOOH options offer the opportunity to schedule impressions and exposure by daypart. For example, a board might feature Minute Maid in the morning and MGD at night.

When to use DOOH
In order to best make use of DOOH, it's important to think about it in the context of overall marketing objectives and tactics in use. In my view, DOOH should be thought of as part of an overall marketing solution -- a supporting part.

I've put together six use cases that illustrate a broad range of situations in which DOOH can play an important role. Consider the following:

  • Mass reach: DOOH can be great at this. From digital boards at key locations on highways, to a broad scale buy at the entrances of retail stores, DOOH can hit tens of millions of people in a week or less. I think it's best to think of this as supporting media in a mass reach effort, because the more passive nature of the broadly targeted units likely make them less effective at telling a complete product story. But in-store TV, for example, would be great at reminding consumers of a new product they've seen on TV, putting the item top of mind as the consumer wanders the aisles. Similarly, a digital billboard on the 405 in LA could remind millions of a TV premiere or the like.

  • Addressing underdelivery: DOOH is particularly good at reaching consumer groups that tend to be harder to pinpoint with traditional and PC-based digital media. For example, Toyota spent heavily to introduce its entry level Yaris car to young people through cinema advertising. The creative helped make the messages particularly resonant with the well defined audience segment.

  • Situational awareness: Imagine you are a tourist visiting New York City. You see an ad for Sweeney Todd on the In-taxi TV. Odds are that you are more likely to buy a ticket, no? Or how about this: You are waiting in a doctor's office for an appointment to discuss joint pain. An ad for Celebrex appears on the screen in the lobby. Again, you're a lot more likely to "ask your doctor about Celebrex." Or how about this one: You work in an office building. It's lunchtime. As you ride down the elevator, Subway's "$5-dollar foot long" offer appears on the in elevator TV. You're that much more likely to go get that big sandwich, yes?

  • Promotion delivery: You can make offers available to consumers through interactive units AND display units. For example, a billboard might offer a short code to download a coupon. Or an interactive unit might offer the option of a QR code to deliver an offer to a smart phone.

  • Real and symbolic brand support: In-store TV or kiosks will help drive more brand sales. But they also are very marketable to retailers that you are serious about the success of that item. That you're committed to drive velocity. This might be a great alternative for premium priced brands to pursue versus circulars and end-cap discounting.

  • Product immersion: Interactive units, in retail or in captive locations, can give consumers an opportunity to "go deep" in product information. Imagine your cough medicine has eight formulations. An interactive display can help the consumer find exactly the right set of benefits for them.

Naturally, the opportunities and situations in which DOOH can help support your efforts are quite broad. The important thing is to consider DOOH as you consider all of your other media options, because it may well provide an edge.

Media costs cover a broad range, with many broad vehicles offering CPMs similar to good online media, and more highly targeted tools charging significantly more for their precision.

Creative considerations
Digital out of home units tend to be rather "forefront." They have the motion characteristics that demand consumer attention, and often appear in "captive venues" where there are few other distractions. Indeed, that is part of their power. I am sure some will take issue with this article for not vilifying certain DOOH vehicles as "over the line." I'll leave it to you to decide what's OK and what isn't.

In an era of consumer empowerment, it's important to think carefully about value exchange when you plan a DOOH effort. What information or entertainment value are you offering the consumer in exchange for their "captive attention?"

In my view, there are two things to consider:

  1. What inherent value does the specific channel offer the consumer? For example, PRN and WalMart are careful to maintain a strong edit to ad ratio in Walmart TV. Ads surround strong content including home, lifestyle and entertainment stories. When the medium has value, consumers are willing to tolerate advertising to support it. It's the classic US media model.

  2. What tangible value does you execution offer the consumer? DOOH experts may disagree with this, but I believe that the consumer should be able to expect more value from a more intrusive medium. The less value the medium offers, the more value your execution needs to offer in order to be received positively by the consumer. I'm not saying that it wouldn't be effective to run a TV ad in an elevator, but rather that we are missing out on some of the promise of the medium by doing so. But at the same time, we need to consider cost/benefit of producing specific executions for media.

Value can come in the form of information, lifestyle ideas, and entertainment. For example, that Toyota Yaris ad was clearly designed to reflect the high entertainment standards of the movie goer. No one wants to spend $8 to $12 to watch a "sale-a-bration" ad, but Toyota added value to the viewing experience with great action, storytelling, and production values.

Interactivity is playing an increasingly significant role in DOOH. With the advent of larger displays, gesture control, multiuser touch screens, and other whiz bang technologies, consumers are getting more and more opportunities to become a part of the DOOH execution. Check out these two programs to get a sense of what I mean. The first is an InWindow Outdoor execution for PNC Bank.

This one is from Gesturetek:

While historically these programs have been difficult to scale, that is slowly changing, and they continue to provide a create deal of buzz and news value when placed in the right locations.

While such executions have their place in DOOH, many brands make the mistake of thinking about DOOH as "special occasion" media. As a result, they might consider a whiz bang program like this on rare occasions, but might overlook the work-a-day tools and tactics that are really driving the sales and growth in this industry. To think about DOOH solely in the context of these kinds of programs would be analogous to buying only site takeovers in online, without broad reach video, banners, or social programs to deliver a communications foundation.

Are DOOH media right for you? How the heck would I know? But it is safe to say that they warrant serious consideration by a larger number of brands. DOOH is growing like a weed because it is powerful, proven, and affordable. That's a combination a lot of brands might find very valuable indeed. With expected sales this year of more than $3.5 billion, it's quite possible that your competitors are already utilizing it to create competitive advantage.

I'm indebted to two key sources of information and data for this piece:

I hope this piece provided a useful overview for you to consider as you devise future strategies and tactical programs for your brand.

Jim Nichols is senior partner, strategist at Catalyst S+F.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

Create a Facebook "want" page

This is the core to the success of "want." This page would aggregate all "want" related information, from what you "wanted," to related product and service information, specials, promotions, sharing, as well as a link to online retailers (more on this later). Think of it as a wishlist on steroids.

Extend "want" to online retailers' shopping sites

This one is pretty basic, but it would require a lot of coordination and consideration. Online shoppers check many sites before they make a purchase. By including a "want" button on product pages and throughout the shopping process, retailers will be able to capture customer intent, keep them within their conversion funnel, and allow the merchant to communicate with customers across multiple channels -- including mobile.

"Want" as a performance-based social affiliate

This would be a big win for media buyers that have not been able substantiate attribution through Facebook. Imagine clicking "want" on a friend's photo of him commenting on his fantastic Carnival Cruise vacation. This "want" would be tagged and stored within the person's Facebook "want" page. Based on the tagging and any action that the person would take, the advertising would be able to understand the attributed value of the "want" and pay Facebook for the action.

Coupons, specials, and even group buying

I might "want" something, but most online shoppers don't want to pay retail. Simply clicking on "want" within Facebook on specific products and services would allow you to save your "want." Then, when products come on sale or promotions are offered, the Facebook user would be alerted.

This could also scale to a Groupon-type model, in which if enough people "want" a product at a certain time, it could trigger a Facebook group sale. There are a lot of logistics involved, as Facebook would need to work with an online retailer or supplier, but it could be tested at a small scale. Furthermore, it could probably seriously undercut the vig associated with a Groupon sale.

Facebook-branded Amazon "want" site

"Want" is a great bridge between interest and an online purchase -- so why not own the ecommerce side of it? If Facebook teamed up with Amazon to completely rethink the social commerce user experience, it could potentially drastically reduce the purchase lifecycle by providing the research, price comparison, and one-click buy all in one place.

Facebook gift registry, anyone?

Social registries aren't that unique, but using Facebook "want" to aggregate products through a Facebook ecommerce site or even across retailer sites would make it super-easy to manage. It could also allow people to pool their resources and share in the purchase of a gift.


There are few things more enjoyable than speculating on the future, and I promise that at least one of the predictions in this article is on Facebook's horizon.

The overarching opportunity lies in understanding the changing retail landscape and the customer buying journey. On average, online consumers perform seven to 25 days of product research before they decide to buy, and they're increasingly researching across devices. The trick to closing the sale is to reduce this buying time by providing online shoppers with the information they need to feel comfortable that they are buying the right product. By clicking on the "want" button, Facebook could bring all of this research directly to e-shoppers, thus reducing the amount of time for research. In order for this to happen, Facebook would have to look at social commerce holistically across mobility, online, and real-world and map it back to consumer shopping behavior.

This is really only the consumer side of the equation. The data collected from the business side could be uniquely valuable to product innovation, inventory management, and distribution -- to name just a few. 

So, to be totally cliché, I have to end this article by asking: Will Facebook users "want" it? I believe it all depends on what Facebook makes of its opportunity.

David Clarke is CEO and co-founder of BGT Partners.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

"Abstract thumb-up like button" image via Shutterstock.



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