If you’re in ecommerce, this black friday you’re sharing your space with a monster. And its name isn’t Kraken or Leviathan, but Amazon. In 2014 the internet’s answer to the whole mall had 244 million active customers and did $89bn in revenue – up from $74bn the previous year, meaning Amazon isn’t just huge but growing hugely fast.
Amazon’s sheer size makes it the kind of leviathan that can kill individual competitors without even meaning to: sometimes without noticing. And the economies of scale available to so large an enterprise mean that Amazon can take financial hits that would bury even a large competitor, like selling huge swathes of merchandise at near-cost just to learn more about its customers.
And Black Friday is the blackest of days for those who would compete with Amazon. The company has promised ahead of time to sell Kindle Fires for $35 from November 26. With premium electronic goods looking like loss leaders, where’s the space for the smaller enterprise?
So how do you compete? Surely it’s not possible to beat a store like Amazon if your customer base is down in the hundreds to thousands, right?
Depends how you look at it.
What Does Winning Look Like?
If your idea of winning means turning over eight billion dollars this year then no, it’s not possible to ‘beat Amazon.’ But if your idea of winning is that your customers come to you, instead of Amazon; your customer base grows; your revenue grows; your profitability grows; well, yes, it’s absolutely possible, and the answer lies in the very things that make it seem so hard.
If you’re a small-to-medium enterprise with a couple hundred to a couple thousand customers, maybe 10-30k names on your email list, you already have inbuilt strengths that Amazon can’t match exactly because it’s so vast.
Discover them and leverage them to create opportunities to beat out Amazon this Black Friday – and beyond!
What are the advantages you already have?
1: Start With The Customer
The single biggest advantage you have as an SME is your customer. Not your customers, in the mass: your individual customer. You know more about them than Amazon ever could, no matter how many loss-leaders it shifts to uncover data. Because when you have a couple thousand customers you can segment right down into tiny groups and truly develop relationships.
That’s the key to everything else on this list. Amazon sells from the store, not to the customer, despite its customer-centric claims. It’s a product-based business. The way you leverage all the inherent advantages of being smaller, more agile and more knowledgeable about your customers to create, nurture and retain great, profitable loyal customers is by building your business around serving them, not selling them things cheaply.
2: Zoom In
Start by looking at what your customers actually want from you. On Black Friday, it’s simple: they want money off. But if what they wanted was to spend less money, sales of low-cost items would leap on Black Friday. They don’t. Instead, Black Friday sees leaps in sales of TVs, games consoles, more games consoles, fashion – and golf equipment. What’s happening on Black Friday is shoppers buying luxury goods at discounted prices. They’re not primarily interested in low cost per se, but in scoring a bargain on a purchase they ordinarily couldn’t justify.
What does all this mean for SMEs?
Amazon is primarily focussed on growth – sometimes at the expense of profitability. It’s a big-box approach that tries to use tech solutions to personalize what is essentially a warehousing operation. They sell everything – but not the best of everything. If you’re an ecommerce store that only sells skater skirts and 1950s memorabilia, you’ve got the edge on Amazon because you’ll have a fantastic depth of products, compared to Amazon’s generica.
3: Master Niche Search With Keyword Research
Along with a niche customer base comes niche search. Amazon, again, is a broad church. Whatever generic search terms you use, all roads lead to Amazon, but your customers are looking for something specific. Make it easy for them to find you by seeking to dominate a much smaller area. Key SEO strategies include detailed search term investigation, tracing customer journeys through search and optimizing them rather than focussing entirely on keywording, and utilizing the depth and range of your products and services to build a robust, natural long-tail search presence. Search ‘Indian clubs,’ and you’ll find Amazon – but search for ‘meels,’ ‘pehlwan,’ or ‘gada’ – the history and vocabulary of the sport – and you’ll find specialized retailers. You can see this approach in action from Brayola in lingerie, Warby Parker in spectacles and ThinkGeek, which utilizes a customer-first approach rather than a niche product line. It works: Warby Parker doesn’t release sales figures but ‘industry experts peg annual revenues at around $100m,’ according to CNBC.
Niche research is all the more important on Black Friday, when customers are less likely to be searching for stores or sites and more likely to be searching for products and deals. This isn’t so much about bringing in huge swathes of new customers; it’s more about making yourself that much easier to find for the customers you already have, but who are driven by Black Friday enthusiasm to search for deals on higher-end products than they might normally shop for. You’re using search to recapture them, essentially.
4: Social Selling and Personal Engagement
Social media is all about personalised engagement. And that’s where a giant like Amazon has to take a tumble: to have real engagement on social channels they’d need a huge staff eating into their already-slim profit margins, but a smaller organization can communicate more authentically and in a more individuated way.
Social networks aren’t blind to their value to business, and they’re increasingly moving into direct social selling, where customers can buy right in the social network itself. That means the whole channel functions like an extension of the brand website, and it offers unique opportunities for brands that get conversations right.
Key social channels:
Pinterest is a key channel or ecommerce retailers at any time, but it’s particularly important in the run-up to Black Friday when potential customers are rehearsing their Black Friday shopping. The channel also saw a 16% year-on-year increase in average order value, the fastest growth of any social network. Throw in an increasing number of men using the channel and pushing it closer to gender neutrality, and the fact that 75% of Pinterest traffic comes from mobile, and you have good reasons to invest in a ramped-up Pinterest strategy.
Facebook is where everyone is. Is it the best place for a small-medium enterprise to get an edge on big players? Maybe. If your facebook following is engaged then even a relatively low-cost Facebook ad campaign can be effective, and it should be started as soon as possible – ideally at least two weeks before Black Friday.
Twitter is an ideal customer service channel for SMEs, and personal attention to the channel can yield good returns in reputation and engagement. It also recently introduced a ‘buy’ button of its own allowing your Twitter following to purchase without clicking through to your website. Again, though, it’s not so much that the technology offers an automatic leg up for smaller retailers – sometimes behemoths like Amazon are leveraging this technology extremely well already. What they’re not doing on it is connecting with their customers the way you can.
5: Closely Targeted Email Campaigns
Emails are an extension of your user experience. Amazon’s emails are like their onsite UX: simple, spare, effective – and bland. Amazon emails look exactly like they came from an anonymous billion-dollar MegaCorp. Emails uniquely combine owned media branding, direct communication, social input and linking and extensive reach. That’s why email marketing is so long-lived: it works.
What’s more, for the reasons mentioned above, it’s a place where the SME can really blow the competition out of the water.
So how should you approach your Black Friday email campaigns?
Treat them like they matter. Don’t throw them together yourself – go to a designer and copywriter. Remember, it’s about playing to your strengths. Giant stores can approach customers with more generic emails; your best choice is to work with the fact that you know what your customers respond to.
Consider a simple sale announcement email. The offer can be personalized based on CRM, social and email response and list data to allow you to target customers more effectively, making it more likely to be opened and acted on than a generic offer email. Some of the most important data you’ll have to guide this process will be the behavior of the same group of customers last year! Remember to make your offer involve a significant reduction: you’re up against sales that offer between 40% and 60% off, so customers read that level of discount as a baseline: the minimum that needs to be on offer for you to stay in the game. Free gift email offers can also be effective.
Remember that designer? Talk to them about a more interesting email: use visually arresting GIFs or images to make your email stand out and hold the reader’s attention once it’s been opened. Again, there’s nothing to stop GlobalMegaCorp sending out emails like this: it’s not the GIFs that win you sales, but the knowledge that lets you send the right GIF to the right customer group.
Gamify it. This can take many forms: some email campaigns offer automatic entry into prize draws if customers visit the site – without even needing to buy anything! Others can actually contain games, including quirky click-to-win in-email ones as well as notifications of on-site gamification activities. Again, it’s the targeting of the game to the audience, together with the relative freedom to be more quirky and have more of a personality yourself in your emails, that makes these work too.
Pop quiz: what do most big ecommerce stores suck at?
Delivering things that people buy on Black Friday. Part of this is a logistical issue: Amazon’s warehouses are the size of a New England state, so getting an order from the thank-you email to the package on the doorstep is subject to a thousand snafus a smaller organization can sidestep. Complaints rise, profitability falls, reputations suffer and all in all it’s not a good look.
But part of it is a presentation issue. Buy something from Amazon and it arrives in sturdy but generic brown cardboard that looks like it was issued by the East German government. This is a place where a smaller store can absolutely blow the big guys out of the water. How much do people care about this issue? A whole lot more than you’d think. ‘Unboxing’ as a Youtube search term returns 29,600,000 results. People really care about this, and the companies that get that are cleaning the floor with the competition. Look at Birchbox: sure, some of it’s about their business model and the boxes themselves: ‘once the boxes started coming into the market, there was a social virality of people creating content,’ as co-CEO Katie Beauchamp points out. But some of it’s about the way those boxes are presented, with serious care and attention to detail. The result? Of those 29.6m ‘unboxing’ Youtube videos, 180,000 are for Birchbox.
Going up against giant competition in the Black Friday sales market can be tough. The story of David and Goliath sounds a lot less like good advice when you’re craning your neck to see up to the competition’s earth-bestraddling sales figures. But the reality is that giant companies like Amazon are leaking customers where you don’t have to, missing opportunities you can easily reach and playing it safe in places where you have the space and agility to knock it out of the park. Because ultimately business – any business – is about customers, and SMEs know their customers best!