A Leap Of Faith

One night not long after the birth of his daughter, entrepreneur Ron Gompertz and his graphic designer wife Michelle were zoning out in front of the teen drama "The O.C." Gompertz perked up when the show introduced the cheery notion of "Chrismukkah," a joint Christmas and Chanukah celebration for interfaith families like his own. He had a bolt of inspiration: He'd create and market a line of interfaith greeting cards with the Chrismukkah moniker.

Oops! By the time the cards were designed, printed, and stacked in Gompertz's Montana barn, it was too late to arrange for wholesale distribution or grab any of the premium online-ad spots for his newly launched Chrismukkah.com site.

Luckily, a Chrismukkah.com press release found its way into the hands of a Wall Street Journal reporter, and Gompertz fueled the fire with pay-per-click ads. "Once we got the ball rolling, [search] was phenomenally efficient," he says a year later, as he readies a Chrismukkah cookbook and a tome about "the merry mishmash holiday."

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Gompertz's story is an exceptional one--and certainly the 30,000 units he moved last year are a pittance in the world of greeting cards, much less in the world of consumer packaged goods.

"To be honest, if we were selling traditional Christmas cards or another product that tons of people make, I don't know how we would've approached online marketing at holiday time," Gompertz concedes. "If you're in a competitive product category, it's pretty tough to pull off."

Despite the challenges, online marketers are approaching the 2005 online holiday rush with more confidence than ever before. A lot of this has to do with increasing consumer confidence in and enthusiasm for online shopping. Analysts have bandied about skyscraping figures--more than $15 billion in online sales--for the days between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Factor in a few unique conditions--the release of the Xbox 360 on November 22, high gas prices limiting consumers' travel to shopping malls--and that sum could approach as much as $18 billion.

To take advantage of this potential boom, pundits suggest a range of tactics. When it comes to booking the premium online inventory on pages of AOL, Google, and Yahoo!, which are often locked up as much as six months in advance, it's okay to take "no" for an answer. So long as you check back the next day--and the day after that, and the day after that. More than a few marketers run out of cash before the holidays and are forced to give up booked space.

"We are constantly on the phone with publishers, asking if they have any last-minute cancellations," notes Stuart Larkins, vice president of partner services at Performics, the performance-marketing arm of DoubleClick. "You have to be ready to pounce if the opportunity presents itself." Larkins suggests having a general piece of online creative ready to go live on a moment's notice.

Indeed, some holiday-themed creative shows a surprising lack of attention to detail, experts note. While boldfaced "Special Offers" dominate most creative executions--especially after Amazon hit the mother lode with free shipping--brand features and messages often get lost in the shuffle.

"Given the relative lack of premium space, there's such a rush to get ads done and up on the sites," says Mike Ferranti, principal and chief executive officer of online-ad firm Endai Worldwide. "Couple that with the urgency you always see at the end of the year, and the creative is being thrown up without any testing and often without nearly enough consideration."

Adds Andrew Greenberg, president and chief executive officer of Greenberg Brand Strategy: "Even within search, you have to be precise in your messaging. If you're not exacting in the way you position yourself and choose your keywords, you're going to miss out."

Needless to say, the stampede by marketers to search has Yahoo! and Google champing at the bit. But Diane Rinaldo, director, retail category at Yahoo! Search Marketing, warns that doing search and doing search well are two different things. Her group has begun to offer consulting to frustrated searchers, using season-related research and advice to lift lackluster programs.

The Yahoo! retail group seeks to identify the days and time periods when shoppers across a range of categories are most active. Take consumer electronics: According to Yahoo! research, the 2004 shopping season (via search) began the day before Thanksgiving and peaked on December 20. And consumer electronics enjoyed the most significant post-holiday bump of all the categories.

Not that search will be the only strategy for online marketers this holiday shopping season. Beyond the aforementioned portal home pages, marketers seem keen to up their presence on third-party review and gaming sites, perhaps owing to the imminent arrival of Xbox 360. ign Entertainment, which runs a host of gaming sites aimed at 18- to 34-year-old males, says that its highest-profile placements have already been snapped up. "It's such a high-demand time of year for everybody in the business," says Jennifer McLean, ign director of marketing.

Obviously she's not a disinterested party, but McLean doesn't agree with those who claim that search will eventually dominate the holiday marketing/media mix. "Content is king, and it always will be," she says. "People want to be engaged, to be part of a community. Search has very different strengths. You won't see one replacing the other." Besides, there are plenty of holdouts from online holiday shopping. Some consumers fear identity theft or fraud; some still cherish a more tactile shopping experience, says Aaron Keller, chief executive officer at CapsuleShak and an adjunct professor at the University of St. Thomas (Minnesota). "For marketers, [the Internet] is obviously an incredibly efficient medium to connect with very specific segments and build momentum within those segments," he says. "But don't forget: You still have people who want to be smelling, touching, seeing the things they buy in stores. They want the sensory interactions that online can't deliver. That's why you have to be careful about putting too many of your eggs in the online basket."

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