Building BTB Relationships One Click at a Time

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Relationship building in business-to-business marketing typically starts with fulfilling a prospect's request for information via traditional direct mail. But the aging process of direct mail fulfillment is expensive, inefficient and slow, and will likely become a dinosaur with the growth of the Internet.


Maybe you are not ready today to convert your entire information-fulfillment operation to the Internet, but it's time to think about it. Tomorrow's prospects and customers will want to get what they need from you electronically.


Research firm International Data Corp. reports that more than 50 percent of online business users download information from the Internet several times a week. A recent Frost & Sullivan study reveals e-mail has already surpassed the telephone as a tool for business communications.


Electronic fulfillment can start with a simple, immediate e-mail response to an inquiry, as long as you capture the prospect's e-mail address. You can embed Web links in your e-mail response so the inquirer can visit a URL to receive additional information. You can handle multiple inquiries at once, "auto-responding" to them without human intervention using e-mail communications products now available.


More sophisticated products are available to feed an inquirer specific Web pages on the fly by asking questions, analyzing the responses and "learning" what he or she needs.


A growing area of e-fulfillment is the e-mail newsletter. This has broad appeal to customers and prospects, and it's a simple way to build a relationship. A prospect who is receptive to e-mail and is interested in your product or service is likely to subscribe to a free e-mail newsletter that periodically keeps him or her informed.


Less threatening than a telemarketing call, the e-mail newsletter is likely to receive more attention and get read more often than traditional direct mail. An added benefit is that you are building an opt-in list of e-mail addresses.


Even the reader service number is undergoing change in the era of the Internet. Several trade magazine publishers provide Internet-based reader service numbers so inquirers can respond online. Cahners Business Information (www.cahners.com) provides magazine advertisers with an "instant fulfillment" service to facilitate Web response. The service allows advertisers to post electronic information at special Web addresses, with links to their Web sites. As a result, the inquiry can instantly be fulfilled instead of waiting days, weeks or months with the traditional bingo card process.


Dell Computer Corp. is using an electronic version of the reader service number. They run an "E-Value Code" in advertising and direct mail that matches up with a particular system. The prospect enters the code on Dell's Web site to access information about that system without navigating through several pages.


IDG publishes Computerworld, Network World, PC World and numerous other magazines and books. In addition to traditional media, the company offers Web-only publications, such as Java World, to qualified subscribers. One of IDG's big success stories on the Web is Network World Fusion (www.nwfusion.com).


This sister Web site to the Network World publication requires separate registration. Visitors must complete an eight-page qualification form to gain access to the content, but the form is hardly a barrier: In 18 months, the site acquired 100,000 registered users.


This concept of involving the online prospect in a literal web of communications is a significant trend that speaks to the future of Internet-based relationship building. Electronic fulfillment is a logical alternative to direct mail and fax fulfillment for numerous reasons. Not only does electronic fulfillment drastically reduce expenses, it removes the time-to-market factor. It is instant.


Instant fulfillment is just the first step in the electronic customer-service revolution. Companies are moving entire service operations to the Internet, providing customers with self-service so they can get everything they need online. Smart Web pages, call-me buttons, and interactive problem-solving areas are all in use today.


Mathworks (www.mathworks.com) is a case in point. This maker of technical computing software gets more than 200,000 visits to its Web site from 50,000 users each month. Most go to the solution-search database of over 10,000 cases. Previously, customer service and technical support was handled largely over the phone. Now 90 percent of the company's customer service and technical support is done on the Internet.


"Unlocking" information and downloading documents and software from the Web is commonplace. Web seminars that engage prospects and customers in interactive dialogue are starting to proliferate. Soon to come are all manners of personalized fulfillment and targeted information dissemination. More and more, prospects and customers will drive the process of receiving exactly what they want on the Internet. Profile data will be used to deliver highly segmented Web pages and e-mails to the prospect or customer.


Instant fulfillment and customer self-service are merely the starting points of a comprehensive electronic one-to-one relationship marketing program. That's where the marketing world is headed. Now all you have to do is figure out how to implement and manage it.
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