What an incredible opportunity! Where do I even start?
That’s 90% of what I said to myself as I sat back down at my desk inside the 14 story building in downtown San Francisco as the SEO Product Manager at Macy’s Technology after having been given the assignment from the new VP of Product to “relaunch and reimagine our user generated content experience (UGC)”…on the Macys.com homepage no less. No pressure 😉
Let’s backup a bit. It was 2019. I was just hired onto the Macy’s Tech team in the Product organization. Let that just sink in for a moment: Macy’s. The company that has produced the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade we grew up watching every year, the iconic staple of American fashion with department stores all across America – little digital me now gets to contribute to the brand’s success online.
In many ways working there was a whirlwind and toned down version of the movie The Devil Wears Prada except slightly less stylish as I typically opted for practical office attire (i.e. jeans, a blazer and riding boots) to balance my Bay Area commute and daily meetings with cross functional partners across engineering, legal, finance, merchandising, to site operations.
This particular assignment was to harness the power of the Macy’s brand UGC. Simply put, it meant tapping into the opportunities when people would upload a picture of themselves to social media platforms and tag official Macy’s handles in the post. The idea behind the campaign was to create new excitement and brand awareness around user generated content specifically through a sweepstakes component where 5 monthly winners were awarded a Macy’s Gift Card.
What I learned as a Product Manager launching a UGC campaign for Macy’s
tl;dr below are my learnings as a new Product Manager in an enterprise organization
- Define the product early on, asking, “what problem is this solving? Who is it for?”
- Always define an MVP (b/c that may be the only version you release).
- Once it’s live, be ready to pivot and adapt to the feedback inputs from your audience (we learned that unfortunately, people don’t read. Directions that we thought were perfectly clear were still misinterpreted).
- Even big brands need advertising to help educate and excite customers to action (esp. when launching a new product).
- Confluence is your friend (it helps keep all stakeholders informed).
- You’ll never get everything you want (don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good).
My goal in documenting some of the on-the-job experience I’ve been through as a Product Manager is that it helps others evaluate if product management is right for them. In many ways, Product is like SEO; the best way to learn about it is by doing it. Through experience, reflection and cultivating relationships with great mentors in your career along the way.
In this scenario, I was a Product Manager operating in more like a project manager capacity for a few reasons:
- This initiative came directly from leadership and was time sensitive (it was a 6 month pilot where an MVP needed to be live before the major holiday shopping season. I got the assignment in July).
- The build and launch process was very condensed and highly unconventional which meant that success largely meant quickly wrangling resources and hammering out operational efficiencies to support this feature.
- Since it was Q3, this initiative wasn’t on anyone’s roadmap so we had to be very resourceful acquiring internal resources. There was no reliance on the broader engineering or design teams. Broadly speaking, the path to launch was to use an existing third party widget and inject it onto the homepage.
So, with a very small but effective team, we found a way. I hope my journey helps others develop their own courage to always find a way through the challenges every PM faces on the road to delivering customer-facing features.
Here’s a snapshot of the concept brief
This is basically all of the information you get as the designated Product leader responsible for bringing a concept on paper to life digitally (I guess, when it comes to a product for Millennials, who better to lead the charge than a Millennial herself?). In a nutshell, the most exciting part about being a Product Manager is that you get to collaborate with a team and build something together that solves problems and/or delights real people.
Throughout this process, it was clear to me that what we were able to accomplish together meant that the whole was greater than the sum of its parts.
Insight #1: What problem is this solving?
It’s nuanced but in reading the brief, you can see how those words led to this product launch being positioned as a contest. Well, come to find out, there is a definable difference between “contest” and, we learned, a more inclusive definition of “sweepstakes.” At the time, internally, we thought a contest would be the best way to create awareness and excite brand advocates to participate. It was also just the term used when giving the elevator pitch about what this product launch was all about.
Looking back, I am so glad I was able to work with an existing vendor that was experienced and patient with me. Their SOW involved drafting the sweepstakes rules and regulations and hosting the page itself. They advised me that most fashion brands fundamentally steer clear of hosting “contests” and instead opt for “sweepstakes” because that structure means the brand doesn’t have to formally define what a quality submission means.
It also allowed us to more quickly define the entry rules in three basic steps:
- Put an outfit together using clothes in a Macy’s store reflecting your take on that month’s theme (no purchase necessary).
- Take a picture of yourself in the outfit.
- Upload it to social media and use these two hashtags X and X.
At a fundamental level, the shift to a sweepstakes structure helped to open up the judging criteria to become more inclusive. Meaning the brand could court digitally savvy, Millennial shoppers without getting stuck in defining what was and was not a quality entry.
Insight #2: Always define a feature MVP
That’s Minimum Viable Product. Why? Because, pro tip, there are always numerous external factors at play for any business and, as a result, the MVP of your feature may be the only version you have time to get launched.
One of the aspects you learn as a Product Manager navigating inside of a large organization is how much time it can take to build, iterate, A/B test, launch and refine a customer-facing feature. Especially when the stakes are high and it’s basically your job to get it right.
You also learn that a lot can change during the course of a year in enterprise orgs that impacts your team’s ability deliver. There can be leadership changes, teammates that resign or new ones that come on board etc. So, one of the things you learn when you’re leading a big product release that spans multiple months is to break it into stages, starting with an MVP.
It’s especially important to do this if your development teams are operating on a holiday e-commerce cycle that includes a code-freeze period whereupon nothing is released into production (the live site) during the major holiday shopping period between November and December. Plan to be able to launch prior to this dark period.
At the very least, if you can release the MVP of your product, you get a chance to “test and learn” to see how your product performs in the wild. More specifically, you get actual performance data on how consumers interact with your product. It is invaluable information that can inform the next phase of improvements that get released.
Insight #3: Once it’s live, be ready to pivot
I can’t tell you how many times we reviewed the copy on the landing page for grammatical errors, design, brand alignment etc. But once the page was live on the site it also never ceased to amaze me how many photo submissions we received that were against the Ts&Cs (terms and conditions).
We saw plenty of entries we simply couldn’t approve: group shots, ones with under age kids, or people leaving off the second hashtag (which was literally part of the criteria for consideration). Other submissions even had another brand visible in the picture. At one point it felt like no one bothered to click the link and read the rules.
As a team, this was a customer input where we continued to refine the copy on the landing page towards the desired result.
Another lesson learned as we rapidly approached the “now it’s live, now what” phase was defining and securing commitments from the appropriate cross functional teams to support the feature and its upkeep. At the time, we were very much building the plane while flying it which meant Product & Site Ops temporarily owned and operated the feature until a more formal BAU (business as usual) operating plan and owners were defined post holiday season.
Insight #4: Even when you’re a big brand, advertising dollars help drive awareness
This is especially when you’re launching a new product. Hindsight is 20/20 and my documentation of my journey will hopefully help secure more resources and budget for another Product Manager overseeing a similar campaign.
At the time, we had no flashy, expensive ad campaign to promote the product launch. In fact, it was launching amidst the busiest time in e-commerce, the 4th quarter, holiday shopping season.
Try as I might, all budgets across social media, marketing teams etc. were either spent or committed. I think the most I was able to get was a few organic posts from the social media team (like, 1 post per month). That’s not nearly enough volume to generate any kind of awareness for a brand like Macy’s, let alone at scale.
Here’s my point, don’t be fooled that just because you’re a big brand your customers know exactly how to participate with your campaigns. It’s also a fallacy that big brands have all this money and resources to support every initiative assigned to a Product lead. The reality is, my Product pretties, sometimes we are asked to be scrappy and resourceful.
Brand terms can drives thousands of organic visits but, a campaign that’s overly reliant on brand searches alone will not succeed without the help of supporting marketing channels to educate the consumer on how to participate. The bottom line from SEO is, search is not a demand creation channel. It harnesses and captures existing demand.
Organic traffic alone doth not a successful campaign make.
Insight #5: When you have no ad budget, at least get a link from the homepage
If I were a Product Manager that didn’t know about SEO, I might have really tanked on delivering KPIs like visits and engagement because, as I mentioned this feature was being resourced, built and released in Q3 which means there was no supporting marketing messaging to direct customers to our sweepstakes landing page.
But as an experienced SEO professional, I figured I should at least leverage the basics of internal linking to improve our circumstances. Our feature was not linked to from the main, drop-down menu (global navigation) which meant the primary link was from the macys.com homepage that received roughly 40M/yearly unique visitors. Even though data showed customer engagement decreased the farther down the page one scrolled, a link from the homepage carried a lot of search equity in the absence of advertising.
I cannot discount the help and advocacy of my VP of Product at the time here; she was instrumental in negotiating with other internal stakeholders for placement on the homepage across all devices. The initial ATF (above the fold) placement lasted for about 10 days. After that, our widget moved to the bottom of the page, BTF (below the fold). In many ways, being able to secure actual real estate on the Macys.com homepage was tantamount to ad dollars for this campaign.
Now, that, in and of itself, was by no means a wholistic SEO strategy but, in a pinch, it was an opportunity for our little landing page to receive an incredible amount of link equity because of the mechanics of how website architecture works. The alternative would have meant that the sweepstakes page would have been an orphan page because it wasn’t properly linked to from any, more authoritative pages within the site. In SEO speak, orphan pages mean no one can actually find the URL unless they navigate to it directly or the link is in another marketing channel (i.e. an email confirmation or social media post).
Had we we continued to run the campaign, I would have had to advocate for other, stronger Category pages to be internal link advocates to the campaign landing page. This would help flow link juice to the sweepstakes page that was otherwise not well linked to from an overall taxonomy perspective and also was not architected to contain SEO optimized content that could have enabled it to rank well organically.
Again, SEO, the art of being found online meets Product Management, the art of getting things shipped. 🙂
Insight #6: A Confluence page is your best friend
Pro tip: as the PM, add the link to your email signature.
A well maintained Confluence page will help you keep all of your stakeholders informed anytime they want to see or know the project status. It’s also an invaluable time saver because its your curated repository when you need to report out on monthly performance.
When the project concluded, as a PDF, it was 20+ pages long! It was built out over the course of the project. Below is a rundown of what the Confluence page included for this feature (tip: it can be a template for others):
- Project overview, table of contents (before launch the hypothesis statement was also here. After launch and we had user data it moved to the bottom portion)
- Action items & Next Steps
- Current creative/mock ups & hyperlinks to relevant pages in production
- Action items – MM/YYYY (tip: make this a grid so that each team is represented)
- A separate grid for any issues you’re running down on the technology/vendor side
- Key contacts (Title, Role, Name, Email)
- Product operating guidelines
- Bottom portion: What did we learn, Top-line KPIs, Monthly callouts, ROI/Estimated financial benefit (6 months & 1 year projection), creative/design versions.
Insight #7: you’ll never get everything you want (don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good)
Here’s the thing; none of this was perfect. But the feature was launched on time (and, I daresay, near perfect because it didn’t have to be rolled back!). Along the way we figured out how to dial in the analytics aspect and ongoing ownership within the social media team.
In the case of a condensed timeline, we measured baseline KPIs like Direct and Associated Visits & Revenue.
In a perfect world we’d have a wholistic picture of the customer journey from arrival to cart to checkout. You can’t improve what you can’t measure but, in this case, I had to prioritize a bias towards action of our MVP.
Sidebar, your Honor, may I approach the bench?
To those leaders fearful of UGC,
It’s probably a good time to remember that real people are not models. Yes, product imagery should always try maintain a high brand standard, but it is, after all, a UGC campaign. User Generated Content. Which means the content comes from the very people who love and buy our products. It’s not a glossy magazine ad free of imperfections. It’s raw and real.
Our real customer deserves to see him/herself when they choose to shop with us.
I think there’ still a lot to unpack here but my hope, as I continue on the product path, is to help brands to embrace digital technology and create more places for UGC to thrive because billboard models do influence our aspirational perceptions but not everyone looks like a runway model. Retail stores are not filled with beautiful models buying the clothes on the rack. IT’S FULL OF REAL. PEOPLE. With all body types and sizes.
UGC is its own beast. I understand it can be a scary space for brands because they’ve worked so hard to cultivate the right brand positioning in the customer’s heart and mind. But, I say build a great experience on your .com site where customers can share their experience and let the true fans embrace the brand. People love when they can take something that resonates with them and make it their own.
In conclusion if I could do it over again…
Everyone always wants more resources. Be it time, money or teammates. I would’t change the team I worked with (I’d only add more helping hands). In terms of time, I would have loved to have been able to plan ahead and allocate at least 3-5 months of planning time to align internally with the proper stakeholders (maybe target a soft launch?) and refine everything leading up to the campaign launch. If it were up to me, I’d allocate marketing dollars (at least $5-15K/month for 6 mo.) to advertise the campaign across promotional channels to build awareness using email, social media, print, radio and streaming TV.
In a way, no matter how many more resources I might have had, UGC can be a big pill for any established brand to swallow. Yet it should not be ignored. I hope this post has illustrated how much of a bear it is to define, launch and manage this type of feature but there is a lot of power and opportunity in leveraging content from users because it’s basically a steady stream of authentic, creative attributed to a brand.
No matter how you slice it, that’s a lot of authentic, online signals pointing to a brand’s O&O (owned & operated) domain.
Any brand that wants to keep a pulse on what its users truly want should tap into their UGC, invest in it, and reward it from time to time because consumers are the lifeblood of any business.
Unless businesses start accepting chickens or bitcoin (!?) as alternate forms of payment, I’m fairly certain customers will continue to vote with their wallet$.
If you read this far, you get a treat: data! I’ll share what KPIs I can. The below data is for the 6 month (Aug-Jan) UGC pilot where there were roughly 11M visits to the Macys.com homepage where this feature lived BTF:
- ~16K total Visits to the product landing page
- At a 2% average conversion rate
- Contributed to ~400 orders (where AOV was estimated at $107.00)
- Revenue benefit to the business for this feature was est. $1.8M (annualized at just over ~$2M).
Thanks for reading my post! I’d love to know what from my experience resonated with you. Tweet to me @millertime_baby
The opinions, thoughts and perspective expressed in this post are my own. While I am a previous representative of the company, these are not necessarily the views of my employer.