Turning the page: Expanding an audience beyond the catalog

Jerry Westendorf, director of database marketing at Frontgate, moves the brand to a holistic, connected contact strategy.

With a 30-year history in the home decor and furniture industry, Frontgate, one of the brands under the Cornerstone Brands umbrella, has depended heavily on driving purchases through its catalog. Over the past few years, though, e-commerce has, unsurprisingly, grown in importance.

But Frontgate has a level of comfort with catalog business that it hasn’t achieved quite yet with its digital channels, says Jerry Westendorf, director of database marketing at Frontgate. He outlines the brand’s ongoing test-and-learn efforts to expand its audience beyond the catalog—and to meet people where they are.

Building a connected customer experience can be difficult for a brand of any size. What have been some of the challenges you’ve faced with understanding and aligning your customer data?

Jerry Westendorf (JW): We’ve been doing digital marketing for a long time, but as of a few years ago, it was still small in comparison to what we did with our print marketing.

It’s been a big challenge for us to make sure that our marketing mix is aligned to the current customer behavior—and to understand how to measure it, how to plan for it and how to optimize it. The challenge is that measurement of digital marketing is very different than catalog. In a lot of cases, there are multiple touchpoints involved. Then you get into attribution, which can be very complex, and there are different points of view on how to do it correctly.

You only have a few retail stores. How did the pandemic impact your marketing plans?

JW: We were very fortunate that we had put in hard work in 2018 and 2019, so we were in a good place. We had some information to make good decisions as things were unfolding. One of the biggest things was the contact testing that we did for the catalog. It really showed us where it was worthwhile to continue spending and where we were possibly overspending.

So, we had already started that process. We had taken some investment out of our customer file and reallocated it to digital acquisition, which proved to be a very good strategy as the year went on. Initially, we had some suppression of demand when the pandemic hit in March and April. Then as the temperature started going up, people realized, “Hey, I’m going to be spending more time at home. I’m going to escape to my back deck or patio or my outside living area—and Frontgate is the best place to go for that stuff.”

"We made sure that detailed plans were available and presented all the way up to the president of the company. We showed them exactly what we were going to do and explained how we were going to measure it.” –Jerry Westendorf, director of database marketing, Frontgate

We had already had those plans to dive deeper into our prospecting during that key outdoor season.

As part of a large, multi-brand business, how did you secure the appropriate buy-in from stakeholders for this project, inside and outside of marketing?

JW: From the beginning, we knew that we needed to be very transparent. We made sure that detailed plans were available and presented all the way up to the president of the company. We showed them exactly what we were going to do and explained how we were going to measure it. And we had plans in place to evaluate our program in two-month increments. If there were any major issues that were unforeseen or any significant drop in performance, we would tweak things along the way.

We also held regular meetings as soon as we had results to review. It was a very good dialogue, and people actually got very excited about it because we started to save marketing dollars during the middle of the test by applying the learnings to the season immediately following.

This was not a quick-turn project. How have you shown success and value along the way while also keeping an eye on a larger end goal?

JW: It was important to design our tests in a way that gave us lots of answers quickly. So, for example, rather than just doing an A/B test, we would test up to five different messaging and creative treatments with each customer segment at a time. This allowed us to more quickly find the most successful options and roll them out rapidly because we weren’t just testing one against another.

What has been your biggest takeaway from your testing strategy?

JW: One of our key findings might be easy for people to overlook without testing. You may have a contact cadence, in any channel, that is very frequent. And there’s probably a segment of the customer file that needs that frequency. When you start pulling things away, you lose so much in demand and engagement that you’re actually hurting your overall profitability. And it may be a very small percentage—it could be 10% or 20% of the current customer file. But those are the people who pay the bills. This was the case for Frontgate.

"We should be talking about layering on more personalized and direct communications to keep our best customers at their level of engagement." –Jerry Westendorf, director of database marketing, Frontgate

A key learning for us was that instead of pulling things back, we should be talking about layering on more personalized and direct communications to keep our best customers at their level of engagement.

This testing and learning to improve your holistic contact strategy is not just in one area. Can you share some of the progress you’ve made in other programs across marketing?

JW: We’ve worked to build out our triggered email program. Over the course of the last two years, we have greatly expanded it from a few very basic programs to eight or 10 different types of triggers that are based on customer shopping behaviors. Although these triggers are sent to a much smaller population than our broad, daily email sends to over a million subscribers, they have the same amount of sales as those large daily campaigns. That’s because they are based on where the customer is showing interest and offering them relevant content. It’s at the right time when they’re actually shopping.

Over the last year, we also introduced personalization to our daily campaigns, which again is a much broader audience. We’ve seen really good results from personalizing the content—like the product or category—and the time that we send the email out based on where the customer is.

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Article photography by Aaron M. Conway