Canada: A Vast, Unspoiled E-Commerce Frontier?

Our neighbors to the north have lots of work to do when it come to capitalizing on the many e-commerce opportunities available to them.

With the approach of the first ever ClickZ Live Toronto conference in beautiful Toronto springtime, it’s now apropos to remove my pan-North-American and global marketer hat, and definitely time to scale back on the Facebook selfies of me neck-deep in snow, in order to reflect on the unique qualities of the Canadian online marketing landscape. These are issues we’ve covered at the SES conferences in Toronto for more than 10 years. What’s the latest?

The scale of advertisers’ spends north of the border has continued to grow, and the good news is, Canadians themselves continue to be some of the savviest and most active online players in the globe. The WebCertain Global Search and Social Report 2014 demonstrates, for example, that Canadians are second in the world in digital video views and duration of video viewing per month. YouTube advertising, anyone?

Plain and simple, though, Canadian advertisers haven’t yet fully taken advantage of the massive opportunities open to them to reach consumers as they go about their digital day.

A Long Way to Go Yet

Are Canadian marketers still shirking their digital duty? It appears so. Consider:

  • Canadian Tire, famous for shutting down its active e-commerce sales several years ago, is slowly rebuilding the same. Still, although the TV commercials tell us to “visit the website,” the website remains largely an inventory-checking function. Yes, you can see if your local store has that bicycle in stock. And that’s fine. But legacy clicks-to-bricks thinking is still fighting too hard against many consumers’ desires to purchase online. Given the Tire’s recent merger with apparel and sporting goods giant The Forzani Group, we can only assume that major changes are in the works when it comes to the company’s digital aspirations.
  • I’m not the only one to notice the gaps, clearly. IT analyst Shane Schick refers to Canada as an “e-commerce backwater,” citing examples of several nationwide retailers whose elaborate, expensive websites don’t actually let you buy anything.
  • Most pure play e-commerce companies in Canada are small operators who don’t seek scale and don’t raise capital. Some of those who have, like Coastal Contacts, have been wildly successful. It stands to reason that the few who go through those paces (raising funds, working to scale) have a great shot at success.
  • Some Canadian e-tailers and analysts see Amazon’s recent product expansion as an opportunity, not a threat. Sounds backward, but for years, consumers have held their expectations in check, so much so that they’re less adventurous in their searches for hard-to-find items, and less trusting that the retail experience is actually going to live up to expectations. So Amazon Canada’s growth might, in fact, help Canadian e-commerce break out of this chicken-egg impasse.
  • A few brick-and-mortar retailers are getting it right. Lululemon and MEC have high levels of online sales – the exceptions that prove the rule.
  • Because Google often holds back new advertising product releases outside of the U.S., Canadian marketers have come to expect long delays. Typically, key releases come out 18 months later in Canada than in the U.S., but sometimes they’re rolled out at the same time. Other times, Canada will wait up to three years or longer for certain features – even longer than the norm. Canadian marketers are typically so involved in the whole North American scene, we basically feel like the border should be disregarded in Google’s planning. Most everything should be available in Canada at the same time as it is in the U.S. (we share the same telephone dialing prefix – “1” – right?). The new Shopping product listing ads (PLAs) are a key example of an opportunity many advertisers will be slow in responding to. They were only slightly slower to roll out in Canada than they were in the U.S., but advertisers who have somehow embraced the usual slower pace can be caught flat-footed. It’s important to have the finger on the trigger.

In career planning, a lot of bright young Canadians might feel like the opportunity in Canadian e-commerce is too small, that the scale pales in comparison to the United States, so why pursue a national Canadian project when you could hop on board with a global start-up, take a job at a large telco like Rogers or BCE, or seek thrills in a (oft-publicly-subsidized) media job in broadcasting or film? You can say “digital” in your title when you do those things, right? It’s all good.

Strictly for e-commerce opportunities, though – from the standpoint of a hardcore PPC marketer – the lack of aggressiveness in Canadian click auction participants remains befuddling. There’s money sitting all over the table, just waiting for some motivated parties to bend slightly at the waist to pick it up.

The “scale” excuse is gone. Canada’s population – mostly English-speaking and sharing most consumer tastes and demand patterns with the U.S. – continues to grow steadily toward 36 million, and because of our proximity to the U.S. and our national prosperity, we should be punching above our weight – purchase-power-wise, perhaps more like a nation of 64 million (here, I’m referring to the U.K., not France, in case there is some chance you would have guessed the latter!).

Many aren’t aware that Canada’s scale and potential, e-commerce-wise, dwarfs nations with similar-sounding GDPs, populations, etc. – countries like Italy and Australia. There is a tipping point where it makes sense to invest in teams, to iterate rapidly to sufficient data, and so forth. Canada is one of those countries that has (finally) reached that point.

Canada has also contributed at least its share the world’s digital culture and business innovation. From Marshall McLuhan to Cory Doctorow, “thinking” nearly seems like a national pastime. On the hardware and software side: BlackBerry, though now “fourth” in the mobile space behind Apple, Android, and Microsoft, had a hell of a run. The world’s first true smartphones for the enterprise didn’t come from Australia or Italy. One doubts that they could have.

And what about our start-up scene? BlackBerry’s decline hasn’t dented that. Many people think HootSuite will IPO in the next year. What kind of an awesome environment for entrepreneurship must it be that a three-person skunkworks software-as-a-service (SaaS) operation inside of a 12-person digital agency can grow so rapidly to the point of landing a $165 million mezzanine round of funding? Yet all too many Canadian entrepreneurs gripe about the “hurdles” they face in this most privileged of nations. True, our venture capital funding environment is weak, but there are many sources of funding, including angels and pension funds. And surely the fresh air up here can add octane to any entrepreneur’s thought processes.

Need proof that there is lots of unclaimed search inventory still left to bid on in Canada? Check out a screenshot of this search on the keyword “l’eggs.” Not a single advertiser! I’m hanging my head in shame.


So there’s no market for “l’eggs” as a keyword, but this market’s still got legs. Or something like that.

My advice to you, naturally: If you’re a Canadian business or digital pro, put aside your befuddlement as to why your competitors so lack the requisite mojo, and profit from their sloth. (And if you’re an American company, you may find opportunity in Canada with less locally based competition than you expect.)

The market really is reaching the scale we need to justify the time and investment we put into it. And no, it’s not your imagination. After all these years, there’s still plenty of runway ahead. Favorable CPCs, competitors who don’t test as much, competitors who are timid at best in their marketing experiments and behind on key features in both core SEM and display ads, all served up to you via some of the fastest broadband connections known to humankind.

Did I mention full support from fully built-out sales and support offices, from all of Google, Bing, Facebook, eBay, and Twitter? To say nothing of a critical mass of tech workers in key functions at marquee tech companies like Cisco, BlackBerry, Microsoft, Mozilla, and hundreds of others; plus one of the most vibrant ad agency and media scenes anywhere in the world? (Catch Kirstine Stewart, head of Twitter Canada, at ClickZ Live Toronto, where she’ll give the keynote speech.)

It’s time for Canadian marketing departments to catch up with the inherent digital savvy of the Canadian people. And if they don’t? More low-hanging fruit for you.

Originally posted on ClickZ – Canada: A Vast, Unspoiled E-Commerce Frontier?