What I Learned About PR From Making Impulse Purchases Online

Yesterday I received a print mailing from online outdoor retailer Backcountry.com, whose clever one-deal-at-a-time Web site frequently generates great tension between my inner bargain-lover and the self-disciplined, anti-impulse-purchase side of me. The mailing surprised me for a couple of reasons: I’ve been a regular customer for quite some time, but never received any mail besides my shipments, and Backcountry.com is an online-only retailer with no brick-and-mortar stores like most of the companies that typically send catalogs.

But what surprised me most was the format. (Notice I didn’t say I’d found a catalog in my mailbox.) Admittedly, Backcountry is not the first retailer, especially of the outdoor gear variety, to catch on to the appeal of anti-marketing marketing with customer stories and magazine-esque layouts. (Somehow the typical customer is always the living-life-on-the-edge ice climber/surfer/cliff skier type.) But I was struck by the emphasis on community and the transposition of online styles and formats onto the printed page. Of the few pages where a logo is clearly distinguishable, many look like screenshots pulled from the depths of the company’s forum and review pages; there are also thumbs-up buttons (not clickable, of course), four star rating icons and reviewer profiles. Of course, in true anti-marketing marketing style, Backcountry is self-consciously transparent and suggests on the first page, "Call this whatever you want – a catalog, a magazine, a print-form bastard-child of a blog – we don’t care. We just ask that you keep the Backcountry.com community in mind the next time you’re lost in some side canyon or hunkering down for a long night in the tent."

If you haven’t already determined you’re lost and abandoned ship by hitting your browser’s back button, you may be wondering what all this has to do with PR. A few things, actually:

Lines, of all types, are blurring: There’s been much talk in the newsroom, the PR world, and the blogosphere about the increasingly indistinguishable lines between journalists and bloggers and unbiased news outlets and sponsored sites. The consensus of the crowd is challenging the expertise of the editor for our attention. Backcountry’s mailing is some kind of hybrid marketing material that combines the elements of a catalog, outdoor adventure sport magazine, blog, forum, and online community. PR, too, can mimic this multi-dimensional approach and bring more voices, props and subplots into the bigger story we’re trying to tell.

"Traditional" and "New" media are not mutually exclusively: In many ways, the "print-form bastard-child of a blog" from Backcountry reminds me of an earlier post on this blog about what life would be like if the newspaper were invented after the Internet. Backcountry successfully merges the assumed authenticity of online communities with the tangible credibility of print media’s physical presence. The media landscape is changing at a rapid pace, and I think we sometimes have a hard time accepting it as simply what exists today – somewhere in between past and future. Instead of pulling on our "traditional media" hat for an old client and our "new media" hat for the start-up demanding edgy ideas, let’s try wearing them at the same time. I believe there’s value in both, and we may get the best results if we can use PR as bridge between two worlds. Social media releases are a great step, but I think there’s more fun to be had by pushing the envelope further.

Community and transparency go hand in hand: Backcountry’s Web site features a "Leaderboard" of its top customer reviewers as determined by other customers and number of contributions, and it is to these community members that Backcountry turns for its marketing copy. And Backcountry doesn’t hand over the mic only for extravagant and effervescent testimonials: one full page of Backcountry’s mailing is devoted to bad reviews that don’t hold anything back, a few of which I wouldn’t repeat to my mother. "This glove may be windproof, but so is a plastic bag," says one reviewer. Another votes, "This bag gets two thumbs down." As a consumer, I respond well to this reverse-psychology marketing; every bad review of one product makes me more inclined to believe praise for another. And while the Backcountry brand receives some protection because the company sells gear from other brands in addition its own, there’s still a take-away for the rest of us. Community depends on honesty and transparency.

- Contributed by Catharine Morgan.  Follow her @c_morgan.