Web-Savvy Mall Chain Defies Stodgy Marketing Profile

There is perhaps no greater icon of old-economy retail as the suburban shopping mall, once the nexus of every department store, record chain, pretzel vendor and aimless teenager in America. Malls are not generally known for their marketing acumen, either, historically sticking to low-frills traditional media like the multiplex and Pennysaver.

But at least one mall company is defying that image with some impressive digital chops. Taubman Centers, a real-estate investment trust that owns 24 malls around the country (including the legendary Short Hills Mall in Short Hills, N.J.), has just launched its second iteration of YearbookYourself.com, a site that lures consumers with the opportunity to embarrass their friends, then presents them with deals to be had at their stores.

Visitors to YearbookYourself can upload a photo of themselves or a friend that is then superimposed over stock images of high school students from different eras. Those images can then be e-mailed or shared via Facebook.

The site, which attracted more than 15 million users its first time out last summer, is a thinly veiled back-to-school promotion. After users are done with the photos, the site automatically redirects them to a page featuring back-to-school specials from retailers at their nearest mall. Of the 15 million users who visited the site last summer, about half clicked through to the retail section, said Glenda Cole, regional marketing and sponsorship director.

“Last year we did this really as a test to see what we could do in the space, and we were blown away” by the response, she said. “We’ve added a lot of bells and whistles to the site this year.”

Among the bells and whistles is a section called “Student Life” that features group photos, like football teams and friends hanging out (all very dated). Taubman has also increased its participation with Facebook, which will now include all uploaded Yearbook Yourself photos in its members’ news feeds.

The site was built by Colle+McVoy, Taubman’s creative agency, which is based in Minneapolis. Taubman is based in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. Each of Taubman’s 24 malls is responsible for maintaining its destination on the site, regularly populating it with timely specials and discounts.

“We are the only mall company that has an interactive marketing director at all our properties,” Cole said. “We like to set the trends, and we do.”

In addition to YearbookYourself.com, each of Taubman’s malls sends out a weekly e-bulletin with special deals. They are allowed to decide for themselves whether to run ads in the Pennysaver.

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