By Colin Osburn, Chief Information Officer at Parts.com
As a technologist, most everything I do has a technical bent first, with true ROI close behind. I realize that technology and finance to a marketer are like sunlight to a vampire, but steadily more and more of the marketing types appear to be following the technical and ROI trend. Metrics, reporting, automation, and justifying that mind-numbing campaign are all things that marketers are doing presently, while showing true technical aptitude.
I’ve had a real taste of why marketing and I are such distanced bedfellows. Running a national automotive parts Web site is complicated. A lot of technical effort goes into the operation and improvement of our search function, images, text, etc. Our customer base is earned through large partnerships, SEO (technical in its automation), and complimentary business lines. We even launched a short-run TV commercial this year for the first time in the company’s history.
It’s readily apparent that everyone—from small businesses to mega corporations and all the MLM shills in between—is jumping on the “new wave of technology” known as social media. To any decent technologist, this “new wave” is the same stuff we’ve been working with for years, but it’s in a new box with a bow.
All manner of Internet black magic that I can find, I heap upon our willing CTO to do a test run. I’m always looking at the newest technology for application to our business model. Automated sharing toolbars and widgets? Yep. Banner ads? Of course. Social media? Absolutely.
But I should have mentioned we do not have a CMO on staff. (Either that, or I disabled his account and forgot about him.) That means the technologists and sales executives are running the show. That also means we got exactly the results from all of these new implementations that you would expect:
- The banner ads are completely pointless. I intend to remove them.
- The toolbar never gets used, and no one shares anything.
- The forums are dead.
- We get very little response from our e-mail blasts.
- We keep Facebook and Twitter because they keep the brand public. We also keep them because it’s a new type of customer service.
The Parts.com site is designed for commerce. We make money when someone buys an auto part. Pretty direct. We haven’t added articles and sticky reading-style content because our user base comes to our site for a very direct task and wants to do it quickly. The same people most likely do participate in auto enthusiast forums and spend a lot of time browsing “car porn” (photos of hot rods, tricked-out cars, and classic vehicles), but not while they’re buying a part. We also have a disproportionately large number of auto dealers who use our site, and the service manager isn’t interested in reading something while trying to get the customer’s part overnighted.
We have Facebook. We have Twitter. But I refuse to attach our brand to MySpace. We have hundreds of friends, and there are a lot of people talking about a lot of things, 99% of which involves the buying and selling of cars. It’s pretty damn hard to get people hot and bothered about a camshaft replacement or that hot new discounted windshield replacement. Have you figured it out yet? We’re not just commerce, but commerce as a subsection of a larger vertical. And that vertical has plenty of content and places that provide it. So we implement what we can as fast as we can and tweak, wait, watch, and adjust.
In reality, some key points came to light for me over the past year:
- CIOs and CMOs need one another. That’s so painful to admit.
- Marketing helps those awesome new technologies become ubiquitous.
- If you don’t have a marketer on staff, this is a good time to start talking to your network.
- Technology for technology’s sake works some of the time, but not enough to generate an ROI that keeps the monthly revenue high.
- Content sites will almost always make more on the items I listed, from social media to banner ads. Commerce sites will overall make more on a direct revenue basis. Build a widget, sell a widget.
- Commerce sites can make progress with these social media tools, but they should not bet projections on them.
- Being a subcategory makes you look for the “why” a lot sooner. Dell and Ford kill it on social media and “new wave” commerce sales because they are the market. We sell parts. There’s a huge difference.
- Take what you can get. Better customer service and communication has been a real win for us with these tools, even if we don’t make millions on banner ads.
- The Get Satisfaction site is a real winner for us because it enabled us to learn from our customers what we need to know. (Facebook has helped us with that as well.)
To be continued…