You might have noticed, given that you’re visiting the blog for a promotional products company that does a good chunk of its business through the Internet, that online retail has become something of a phenomenon in recent years.

You also might wonder, as I did, what that means for promotional products like pens and stress balls. When consumers are willing to buy all sorts of goods without seeing them, touching them, or licking them first (hey, sometimes the dog wants to start playing with its new chew toy before the family has left the store), and when social media makes it easy for brands to get noticed in a virtual space, are tangible promotional products even worth it for online retailers?

Okay, so, knowing the company that employs me, you can probably guess the answer I have. Before we jump to that answer, though, let’s get some solid background information.

Online Retail: A Big Ol’ Behemoth

"Hark! A Circuit City yonder!"
“Hark! A Circuit City yonder!”

The rise of online retail was difficult to miss, mostly because giants like cut huge swaths through the forest of traditional brick-and-mortar stores, leaving all the squirrels and birdies that lived in the trees (also known as “the people in corporate”) stunned and shivering. Some traditional retailers closed, others adapted, and today we accept online retail as a regular part of our shopping lives, a resource we use almost as often as we take out our credit cards. Or pretty much every time we take out our credit cards.

In fact, there are plenty of bits of data that show just how deeply ingrained online shopping is in the current consumer mindset:

  • According to the U.S. Census Bureau (and referral marketing company ReferralCandy, which does an amazing job of processing the data), online retailers did a total of $225 billion in sales in 2012, up from $198 billion in 2011.
  • ReferralCandy also noted that in 2012 the U.S. was home to 102,728 online retailers that did at least $12,000 in annual sales, an increase of 13.5% from the year before.
  • And according to the U.S. Commerce Department and the National Retail Foundation, online sales from October to December of 2012 increased 15.7% from 2011, while overall holiday sales during the same period, including traditional shopping, increased 3.5%.

All of this led media outlets like The Next Web to declare the death of traditional retail—and for outlets like the Harvard Business Review’s network of blogs to send tried-and-true methods of advertising along with it:

…in today’s increasingly social media-infused environment, traditional marketing and sales not only doesn’t work so well, it doesn’t make sense…[u]sed properly, social media is accelerating a trend in which buyers can increasingly approximate the experience of buying in their local, physical communities.

-Bill Lee, “Marketing Is Dead,” HBR Blog Network, August 9, 2012

And marketers everywhere said, “Ruh-roh.”

Online Marketing vs. Traditional Marketing: A Fight to the Metaphorical Death?

Like online retail, online marketing had certain advantages over older, established marketing techniques, as The Next Web pointed out. For one, success could be measured easily through new statistics like blog post shares and social network followers. For another, it was pretty darn affordable. Just as online retailers didn’t have to spend rent money on storefronts, online marketers didn’t have to spend the advertising budget on flyers and print ads.

"Ooh, look at those shiny new stats!"
“Ooh, look at those shiny new stats!”

It’s fair to say that Christopher Tompkins is a big proponent of online marketing. As the CEO of The Go! Agency, which was launched in 2009, he’s been working to bolster companies’ approach to social media. Explaining his interesting in helping companies navigate the digital realm, he says, “I found that a lot of people found online marketing really confusing and off-putting, almost like a foreign subject. But it’s just marketing in a different medium.”

A different medium with those advantages mentioned earlier. As Business Insider reported in 2013, every month, people in the U.S. spend twelve hours on average putzing around on various social networks. That translates into a lot of advertising time for companies, even big ones like General Motors, which can create social media accounts for free.

"Hear that, Billie? No need to sell the goats yet!"
“Hear that, Billie? No need to sell the goats yet!”

So does Christopher Tompkins think that the end is nigh for promotional products? Hardly. “Dropping [promotional products], and giving people a piece of paper that says, ‘Like us on Facebook,’ I think that’s jumping the shark,” he says. “I think it’s just not making the whole transition smooth enough.”

He’s not the only one who’d like to see online marketing leave room for the traditional. Jonny Lis is a digital marketing manager with the search engine optimization firm Smart Traffic; he also previously worked as a partner manager for Groupon. Like Tompkins, he believes in the importance of online advertising, a good thing given his job title. “[W]ithout an online presence,” he says, “a lot of companies will struggle to get new business, or are at the very least are missing out on the potential to obtain more customers.”

Yet even Lis sees value in promotional products. “For me, anything that gets a brand name in the public eye is useful, regardless of if it’s an online or offline business,” he says. “There are so many competing online-only businesses that many probably wouldn’t think to use promotional products, so it might give them an advantage.”

Online retailer Vladimir Gendelman is one business owner who believes in that advantage. As founder and CEO of Company Folders, which prepares presentation and business-to-business marketing materials, he made a decision to send promotional products to his clients precisely because his business had no brick-and-mortar presence. “In [the] 10 years that Company Folders [has] been in business, I’ve found that promotional products can be just as important for online retailers because we don’t have that in-person presence,” he explains. To build a good rapport with his customers, he sent items including pens, water bottles, and mugs to his customers.

Of course, as with all things worth doing, there was a bit of a learning curve.

Online Businesses and Promotional Products: A Few Details to Know

Gendelman sent out several different items before getting feedback from his customers about which they liked most. As he explains, he presented them with customized coffee mugs “because a lot of people in offices drink coffee or tea and keep their mugs on their desks” as well as water bottles “because I personally believe in hydration,” a noble goal. In this case, Gendelman’s instinct toward preserving his clients’ delicate internal balances proved right: “I think the water bottle slightly edged out the mug — perhaps because everyone drinks water and some people don’t drink coffee or tea,” he says.

So for an online retailer, knowing the customers’ preferences even if they never step foot in the store (because, well, there’s no store to enter) is important when it comes to using promotional products. Jonny Lis agrees: “I think it would have to be the right promotional item… pens are more likely to be effective and used regularly compared to t-shirts, unless the t-shirts are designed especially well.”

Lis and Christopher Tompkins, the head of The Go! Agency, agree on another point, which is that promotional products and online marketing can be two great advertising tastes that taste great together when it comes to an online business.

“Just because you can turn on a computer and access an entire marketplace does not mean that you need to flush all of your magazine advertising, all your trade advertising, and all your direct mail,” warns Tompkins. “I think that there’s a lot of value in tying these aspects together… especially when you’re dealing with promotional products, these in-person giveaways really will help tie your marketing together.” His suggestion? A pen or a mug that reads “Find us on Facebook!” and includes the web address for the company page is a great start.

Lis likes the idea of tying promotional products and online media together with contests. “[Y]ou could create a competition where, let’s say someone has to do the funniest/most outrageous things while wearing or using the promotional product (like a T-shirt, for example),” he suggests. “The best videos could be uploaded to the retailer’s YouTube channel, and the video with the most views after a certain date wins the contest. This could certainly create a buzz around the brand and also encourages social shares and visibility.”

"This video with the hat will go great on YouTube!"
“This video with the hat will go great on YouTube!”

So, as it seems, the use of promotional products hasn’t become a dead advertising technique just because a lot of business has moved online. It’s just a technique that has had to adapt to the online marketplace. Consider, though, the tips we’ve learned from three online business and marketing professionals for using promotional products successfully:

  1. It’s important to get an idea of what kind of products your customers will find useful.
  2. Social media advertising and promotional products do not have to beat each other stupid to see which will come out on top; in fact, they can complement each other and be friends.
  3. Everyone loves pens. Seriously, each of these sources mentioned giving customers pens, though as Vladimir Gendelman determined through distributing eco-friendly pens, people “would rather hold on to a nice heavy pen that is not eco-friendly.”

By the way, you know how I mentioned that everyone was all in a tizzy about the death of brick-and-mortar retail? Well, as shocking as it may be, there now are stories suggesting that those reports may have been exaggerated just a tad. Seems that there’s still room for the traditional and the tangible along with the technological.

[Special thanks to Norman Birnbach of Birnbach Communications for facilitating the interview with Vladimir Gendelman.]

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