My business is cards, and business is…complex…

In the comments sections of Beardy’s last Monopoly set post a discussion erupted. It once again brought to light something many folks struggle to grasp. That is the fact cards are a business. Big business.

Something I read from time to time on blogs and in comments is “…they are just doing it to make money”. Of course they are, that’s why they exist. This isn’t some altruistic endeavor on their part. They have target’s to hit, and bottom lines to protect.

The manufacturers are large corporations, both private and publicly traded. They need to answer to their owners; be it investors, a board or a single owner. Look at Topps. Their annual income is close to 300 million. Panini is an international publicly traded corporation with revenue in 2009 close to 900 million. These are huge operations.

Very often we as bloggers scream and cry about how the manufacturers don’t listen to the collectors. The truth is they do. You don’t bring in just shy of a billion dollar without knowing what your customers want. The truth is that we the bloggers are just a small piece of the collecting landscape.

We have opinions and have a forum to make those opinions known. But lets not fool ourselves into thinking we are anything more than one of a multitude of stakeholders. We feel we have legitimacy, but hold no real power. Sure we have our purchasing power, but if you add up all the bloggers and hold them against the figures listed above, it’s not going to be a huge share. When looking at influence in an organization to have a dominant say you need both power and influence (this comes from the research of Mitchell, Agle and Wood for any scholars out there). If I say I don’t like Topps new design I can argue that opinion has legitimacy. But I have little to no power. I may stop buying the set, but when dealing with millions of dollars in sales my share is small potatoes.

That is a very formal way of saying we have bark and no bite. That’s not to say we have no significance though. To demonstrate this lets look at the case of Panini’s marketing department.

About a year ago Panini hired Tracy Hackler to head up their online marketing. It would be hard to argue against the notion that he has a firm grasp on how to use social media to promote a product. He did it at Beckett with great success. He is one of the better-known players in the card industry, and for good reason. In a very short time he became the voice and face of Panini in the online world.

I wasn’t sitting at the table but I would imagine this was very strategic on Panini’s part. They had just entered the US card market and needed to get themselves out there. What better way then get the top guy to lead the charge towards some of the most passionate customers. I may have said we hold a small stake, but we are passionate. We also have established forums to a larger group to collectors (or in keeping with business speak more stakeholders). We offer easy access to an existing group of consumers.That’s why they send us boxes of cards to review.

Through Tracy Panini invited the bloggers into their operation. They provide a level of partnership to us, just look at their blog. On a regular basis they share the design process, manufacturing, pack out, and even show us how cards are collated and hits are inserted.

They literally opened the door . This is a great way to establish their brand and image. We hear from the brand managers and guys that quality control the products. They have said to us “hey guys, we value and trust you, so why not trust us”. It’s a great strategy.

I can say as a customer it has had an impact on my buying habits. They convinced me to give the products a second look. I wrote about this a few months ago. At the time Topps was getting nailed online about missed hits and QC issues. Panini comes along with videos showing their QC process. It wasn’t much of a leap.

It’s not hard to read this blog and recognize I am a fan of many Panini products. You can call me a shill but it’s hard to argue with the facts.

Now Topps on the other hard has been much slower to embrace social media and the blogging pundits. This makes sense when you step back and look at the focus of their products.

Panini main focus is on more hobby themed stuff. Like this.

Topps tends to have more conservative, retail themed stuff like this.

I would also offer up the focus on patches in their respective lower to mid-level products. Think about the last time you saw a patch card pulled from a Topps product. Panini on the other hand has a fair amount of patch cards. I hypothesize this a result of the demands and expectations of their customers. More involved, hobby product focused collectors want patches. Simple relics keep more casual and younger collectors happy.

This is a little bit of a generalization but I think it holds true. I am not an insider but the decision on how to use social media had to be based on data collected by marketing experts.

Corporations spend millions on learning who their target audience is, and then looking at their habits. Taking into account what I said above it would seem to me that the blogger crew (myself included) is representative of a demographic group that holds a larger piece of the stockholder pie for Panini and UD.

My point of all this is that manufacturers put a LOT of thought into what they do, and what they give us. The “us” is much larger than those of us on card blogs.

But that’s just my opinion. Which brings me to another point.

What is my, or anyone’s opinion worth? In this context I think my opinion holds some value, I’ll explain why. Part of my professional portfolio is running the marketing initiatives for a pretty sizable division. I collect market data and use it to design advertising initiatives. In other words I have real world experience in the marketing arena. I am not just talking out my ass. That’s not to say I am above talking out my ass, I am just not doing it here. My point is be aware of who is doing the talking, or more correctly the blogging.

Earlier I used the term pundit, a term I use a lot when talking about what’s going on in the card world. When I say pundit I mean someone who is in the business of giving their opinion. Pundits are a group that have really messed things up in recent years. They present themselves as experts but are just dudes with opinions. They like to blur the lines between facts and those opinions. Glenn Beck I am looking at you.

A few months ago I put forth this post. In it I present some facts:
1. Don Mattingly had a card in the 1984 Donruss set.
2. Don Mattingly was a popular player with stats considered by most to be good.
3. At one point his Donruss rookie card sold for $100

I also presented the opinion it is the most iconic card of the ’80s. I present it with conviction and data to support it, but it is still opinion. You can take it or leave it.

That’s the message here, just because someone has a forum doesn’t mean they know what the hell they are talking about. In the same breath I would also say those of us with the forum don’t owe anything to anyone either.

If one blog wants to talk about how much the card companies all suck they have the right. If I want to babble on using business and social science terms on a card blog I have the right. If Beardy wants to post his skillfully crafted satire of Topps he has the right. It’s up to the reader to choose what they want to read, and to be critical of what they are reading.

The point of all this is be aware of what role blogs and bloggers play in the hobby. Don’t overlook us but also don’t give us to much credit. We do this because we can and because we like telling people what we think. It’s up to you to decide if it’s worth paying attention.



7 responses to “My business is cards, and business is…complex…

  1. Great post and valuable insight. Thanks for sharing!

  2. I couldn’t have said it any better, because I can’t. In the end, it’s all about the opinion of the consumer and they shouldn’t let bloggers (like me, you, etc.), social media managers (even though I think Hack is awesome), or anyone else tell them what to think. We are just voicing our opinions for ourselves and others that believe the same thing but don’t have/choose not to use the forums available.

    It is nice to feel appreciated as a blogger though and sometimes it does feel like our opinions are taken into consideration by card companies even though we represent our own and a certain percentage (probably lower than we like to think) of consumers.

  3. Very well put as usual kev..

  4. Awesome post. I don’t completely agree with most of the critcism thrown at Topps since they’ve acquired the monopoly (simply put, I don’t think the rate of errors or the QC issues would be much different if other people had a license. I believe it’s internal issues, not laziness – but possibly spurring from laziness), yet I can still understand the viewpoint and appreciate the joke.

    We do like to think that our opinion holds a greater weight than others out there, but let’s face it. Us bloggers are really a self-contained unit. The comments on our editorials and other posts are 99.9% from other bloggers. The outside world isn’t listening as much as we would like to believe, and Topps has to temper the feedback from us with the feedback they get from other sources and metrics.

    One of the reasons I love this blog is that it’s three different viewpoints, but none of them ever seem dissenting towards one another. This post is a perfect example of that.

  5. Wow. That was quite a read, I can’t imagine how long this took to type up. And I totally get what you’re saying when you talked about how 99.9% of all feedback/comments/etc. on blogs is from other bloggers.. I remember when there was a big frenyzy when one of the baseball prospectors commented on Nght Owl’s blog. Kinda puts things into perspective. Very insightful.

  6. Oops, that’s supposed to be frenzy.. Not “frenyzy.”

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