Singles Day: the world’s largest online shopping phenomenon

Happy Singles Day!

Black Friday isn’t here for another couple of weeks yet, but did you know today is actually the largest online shopping day in the world?  And by quite some distance.

It is hard to overstate the scale of the Singles Day phenomenon in China.  Between 2009 and 2013, sales rose by 5,740%.

Last year, Singles Day sales totalled $14.3bn (£9.4bn), making it bigger than Black Friday and Cyber Monday combined.

Early sales figures suggest that 2016 sales are likely to dwarf even those previous records, with sales of $5bn in the first hour of trading alone.

As is seemingly the case with most world-changing business ideas these days, the concept of Singles’ Day was developed by a group of smart young students on a university campus.

In 1993, students at China’s Nanjing university created Singles Day as a way to celebrate their singledom, by organising events and buying presents for themselves. The 11th November was chosen because the date 11/11 represents four single people, or ‘bare branches’ as they are also referred to in China.

The event soon caught on with other university campuses around the country, but Singles Day really took off in 2009, when online retail giant Alibaba began marketing ‘Double 11’ deals to mark the occasion.  Huge price markdowns and low shipping rates created a massive sales surge, and the event has grown in scale and popularity every year since.

Singles Day isn’t just a retail phenomenon, it’s a multi-sensory, participatory, all-singing all-dancing entertainment extravaganza.  The highlight of Singles Day 2015 was a 4-hour TV variety show, during which viewers were periodically prompted to shake their phone to win sale vouchers that were redeemable via a mobile shopping app, and play along with online games offering real life prizes.

And it wasn’t just any old TV variety show.  Alongside a number of Chinese celebrities some worldwide superstars appeared, including Adam Lambert performing his new single, Kevin Spacey as Frank Underwood, and Daniel Craig as James Bond.

(Not that Daniel Craig looked entirely happy to be there, in truth.  As John Oliver commented on Last Week Tonight, “I’ve never seen James Bond look so awkward and sad.  And most of his girlfriends have died in front of him”.

The fans absolutely loved it though.  Seats in the studio audience were changing hands for up to $785, and competitions such as the opportunity to buy a Cadillac for 15 cents kept TV viewers glued to their seats until midnight, when the starter’s pistol fired on the largest shopping spree ever seen.  It took just 8 minutes to register $1bn in sales.

This year’s extravaganza is equally star-studded, with appearances from the likes of David Beckham and Kobe Bryant entertaining the crowds.

The amazing success of Singles Day can be attributed to a combination of factors, including:

the rapid growth in China’s middle class, with its increased spending power and attendant rise in consumerism;

– China’s gender imbalance (driven by the One Child Policy leading many families to favour male children), creating a large group of single young men with high disposable income;

– An increase in online shopping due to greater internet access and device ownership.

Mobile shopping is a major feature of Singles Day.  According to Alibaba, which holds the majority share of China’s online shopping market, 72% of total ‘Double 11’ transactions in 2015 were from mobile devices, up from 43% in 2014.

Initial reports indicate that over 80% of this year’s sales will come from mobile devices.

The high proportion of mobile sales is no great surprise when you consider the youthful audience of China’s single population, combined with the immediacy of the timed offers Alibaba has made such a feature of its ‘Double 11’ marketing programme.

Singles Day may currently be the biggest online shopping day nobody’s ever heard of, but that’s surely going to change as Alibaba becomes better known around the world and the sales figures involved generate increasing global interest.

As Tmall’s then-CEO Wang Yulei said in 2014, “future Singles Days will definitely not just be for consumers in a particular region, Singles Day will be for the whole world.”

That prediction hasn’t proved true just yet, but being young, single and comfortable shopping online are not uniquely Chinese traits, so the concept will undoubtedly spread as retailers across the world look to replicate Alibaba’s success.

 

Planner’s reading list additions

In my last post I started compiling a list of required reading for anyone working in advertising or marketing communication.

Since then I’ve had chance to read another book I would definitely add to the list:

The Anatomy of Humbug: How to Think Differently About Advertising by Paul Feldwick.

In fact, I’d go so far as to suggest that for anyone just starting out in the industry this may even be the best place to begin, given that it’s essentially a book about books about advertising.  Meta.

Firstly, it’s described as a ‘wonderfully sane book’ by Jeremy Bullmore, and frankly any book for which Jeremy Bullmore is prepared to write the foreword has got to be pretty good.

But more interestingly, as Feldwick asserts from the outset, it’s not a book about ‘how advertising works’; it’s a book about ‘how people think – or assume – advertising works.

So in one very short, enjoyable and easily readable text we get not only a summary of all the key theories of how and why advertising works, but also an explanation of how those theories were developed and popularised.  (Spoiler alert: the evidence behind a lot of the theories we now accept as fact was often built on the flimsiest of evidence to suit the needs of the proponent).

If you’re anything like me you’ll come away realising you know even less than you thought you did, but in a good way. Definitely recommended.

Another book I missed off the original reading list that merits inclusion is:

The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding From You by Eli Pariser.

Written in 2011, Pariser’s view of the computer as a one-way mirror that reflects your interests and reinforces your prejudices is arguably even more apposite today as we move towards ever greater degrees of personalisation and algorithmically generated content.

Following my original post I also received a couple of other interesting recommendations:

Hegarty on Advertising: Turning Intelligence into Magic by JohnHegarty

Where the Suckers Moon: the Life and Death of an Advertising Campaign by Randall Rothenberg

I haven’t actually read either of these myself yet so I don’t know if they’re any good (who is that Hegarty fella anyway?!), but they were recommended by @yazac and @kitchen_sian, both of whom are lovely, smart people, so I’m sure they’re well worth a look.

Happy reading!

The ultimate planner’s reading list

I have started compiling a required reading list for anyone with a serious professional interest in advertising or marketing communication.

I’m sharing the list in its current form, partly because it may offer some useful guidance or inspiration and partly because I’d like your help in adding to it, please.

What’s missing?  If there’s a book you think should definitely be on the list below, please post a comment or drop me a line via email or twitter.

I’m not looking to produce an exhaustive list – even in the fairly narrow field of advertising and marketing theory there are simply too many books out there for one person to get through – but I do want to summarise the most interesting, thought-provoking and useful texts, both directly and indirectly relevant to the comms industry.

I should point out that I’ve not included any IPA texts on my list, but their reports (click here) are also definitely required reading for any half decent or aspiring planner.

Here’s my list so far (in no particular order).  What do you think?

The ‘Classics’

Ogilvy on Advertising by David Ogilvy

Behind the Scenes in Advertising by Jeremy Bullmore

Truth, Lies and Advertising : The Art of Account Planning by Jon Steel

Perfect Pitch by Jon Steel

A Masterclass in Brand Planning: the Timeless Works of Stephen King

The Book of Gossage by Howard Gossage

 

Advertising & Marketing Theory

Marketing in the Era of Accountability by Les Binet & Peter Field

The Long and Short of It by Les Binet & Peter Field

How Brands Grow by Byron Sharp

The New Marketing Manifesto: 12 Rules for Building Successful Brands in the 21st Century by John Grant

 

Human Psychology & Decision-making

How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer

Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions by Dan Ariely

Animal Spirits: How Human Psychology Drives the Economy, and Why It Matters for Global Capitalism by George A. Akerlof & Robert J. Shiller

Herd: How to Change Mass Behaviour by Harnessing Our True Nature by Mark Earls

Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness by Richard H Thaler & Cass R Sunstein

Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell

Thinking, Fast & Slow by Daniel Kahneman

Brand Positioning

Positioning: the Battle for your Mind by Al Ries & Jack Trout

The Pirate Inside by Adam Morgan

Eating the Big Fish by Adam Morgan

Branding only works on Cattle by Jonathan Salem Baskin

Economics & Behavioural Economics

Discover Your Inner Economist: Use Incentives to Fall in Love, Survive Your Next Meeting, and Motivate Your Dentist by Tyler Cowen

The Undercover Economist by Tim Harford

The Long and the Short of it: A Guide to Finance and Investment for Normally Intelligent People Who Aren’t in the Industry by John Kay

 

Creativity & Idea Generation

Sticky Wisdom : How to Start a Creative Revolution at Work : by What If? (Dave Allan, Matt Kingdon, Kris Murrin, Darren Rudkin)

A Technique for Producing Ideas by James W. Young

Where Good Ideas Come From: the Natural History of Innovation by Steven Johnson

Creative Mischief by Dave Trott

Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative by Austin Kleon

Lateral Thinking: A Textbook of Creativity by Edward be Bono

(Image credit: the original version of the photo accompanying this post can be found here)

What is strategy?

Last week I started a new job as a communication strategist.  So a recent Forbes article entitled Here’s Why People Don’t Get Your Strategy immediately grabbed my attention.

The article’s author, Russell Raath, argues convincingly that the word ‘strategy’ is one of ‘the most used and least understood terms in business’, with the term often being ‘simply slapped on to make “plan” sound more sophisticated’.

It seems that anything that isn’t either implementational or administrative must now be labelled as strategic to indicate its elevated status, even when it isn’t warranted.

As a strategist I would argue passionately that having the right framework in place is vital to ensure success, but I’m equally very conscious that Strategy Without Execution is Hallucination!

Ultimately the activation output is all that people see.  It’s what businesses (and industry awards) are primarily judged on.  So in some ways it’s odd that strategy often seems to rank higher in the pecking order.

I don’t believe the confusion is deliberate though.  I think the majority of the problem with strategy is simply that most people don’t really know what it means, or how to create one.

Raath advocates three steps to avoid this confusion.  The first is to create a shared definition within your organisation of the terms ‘strategy’ and ‘strategic’, and be specific about their use.

That makes a lot of sense.  Anything that creates a common language and culture within an organisation has to be a good thing.  But it doesn’t actually answer the question: ‘what is strategy?’

Over the years I must have read hundreds of books and articles on this topic, but for me the best explanation is also the simplest:

In his beautifully concise video, Roger Martin advises that we “think of strategy as the intersection of two critical dimensions: where you will play and how you will win there.”

Where you will play is the set of decisions you need to make about where you will focus your efforts (and equally, where you won’t).  This includes factors such as regionality, target audience, product, and category.

How to win there is about understanding where you have a competitive advantage over your key competitors, then maximising that advantage by choosing specific activities that are different to the ones your competitors engage in.

Once these choices have been made it’s then a case of matching the two dimensions to create a single strategy, toggling between the two and iterating as necessary until you find the perfect blend.

I love the simplicity of this approach.  Just four steps in total:

  1. Choose where to play
  2. Find a distinctive way to win
  3. Match your choices
  4. Iterate as needed

As with all the most simple approaches though, putting it into practice is the hard part.

That’s when the fun starts.

That’s when you need a strategist.