Wide Awake Developers

Attack of Self-Denial, 2008 Style

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"Good marketing can kill your site at any time."

–Paul Lord, 2006

I just learned of another attack of self-denial from this past week.

Many retailers are suffering this year, particularly in the brick-and-mortar space. I have heard from several, though, who say that their online performance is not suffering as much as the physical stores are. In some cases, where the brand is strong and the products are not fungible, the online channel is showing year-over-year growth.

One retailer I know was running strong, with the site near it’s capacity. They fit the bill for an online success in 2008. They have a great name recognition, a very strong, global brand, and their customers love their products. This past week, their marketing group decided to "take it to the next level."

They blasted an email campaign to four million customers.  It had a good offer, no qualifier, and a very short expiration time—one day only.  A short expiration like that creates a sense of urgency.  Good marketing reaches people and induces them to act, and in that respect, the email worked. Unfortunately, when that means millions of users hitting your site, you may run into trouble.

Traffic flooded the site and knocked it offline. It took more than 6 hours to get everything functioning again.

Instead of getting an extra bump in sales, they lost six hours of holiday-season revenue. As a rule of thumb, you should assume that a peak hour of holiday sales counts for six hours of off-season sales.

There are other technological solutions to help with this kind of traffic flood. For instance, the UX group can create a static landing page for the offer. Then marketing links to that static page in their email blast. Ops can push that static page out into their cache servers, or even into their CDN’s edge network. This requires some preparation for each offer, and it takes some extra preparation before the first such offer, but it’s very effective. The static page absorbs the bulk of the traffic, so only customers who really want to buy get passed into the dynamic site.

Marketing can also send the email out in waves, so people receive it at different times. That spreads the traffic spike out over a few hours. (Though this doesn’t work so well when you send the waves throughout the night, because customers will all see it in a couple of hours in the morning.)

In really extreme cases, a portion of capacity can be carved out and devoted to handling promotional traffic. That way, if the promotion goes nuclear, at least the rest of the site is still online. Obviously, this would be more appropriate for a long-running promotion than a one-day event.

Of course, it should be obvious that all of these technological solutions depend on good communication.

At a surface level, it’s easy to say that this happened because marketing had no idea how close to the edge the site was already running. That’s true. It’s also true, however, that operations previously had no idea what the capacity was. If marketing called and asked, "Can we support 4 million extra visits?" the current operations group could have answered "no". Previously, the answer would have been "I don’t know."

So, operations got better, but marketing never got re-educated. Lines of communication were never opened, or re-opened. Better communication would have helped.

In any online business, you must have close communications between marketing, UX, development, and operations. They need to regard themselves as part of one integrated team, rather than four separate teams. I’ve often seen development groups that view operations as a barrier to getting their stuff released. UX and marketing view development as the barrier to getting their ideas implemented, and so on. This dynamic evolves from the "throw it over the wall" approach, and it can only result in finger-pointing and recriminations.

I’d bet there’s a lot of finger-pointing going on in that retailer’s hallways this weekend.