Get DM Facts From Internet Dialogue

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Even in its relatively short history, the Internet has gone through many transformations. But one thing remains constant - people's desire to communicate, share ideas and express themselves.


The volume of opinions online presents a great opportunity for marketers, but also great challenges, because most of this dialogue is anonymous and cannot be synthesized into something that can be used in targeted marketing campaigns.


The recent emergence of a new category of Internet-based software is beginning to make categorizing volumes of information easier. It shows that online opinions can be a highly valued commodity and can have a direct and immediate impact on marketing programs. This trend is likely to have powerful and positive ramifications for the direct marketing industry.


More than capturing opinions of Web site visitors or moving commonly understood market research methods from paper to online, these new software tools gain power by changing how people interact and how businesses can get instant and actionable information that can be used to improve their business.


By engaging online communities and encouraging participation, businesses can create an ongoing dialogue that becomes a useful marketing asset. It is no surprise that significant users of the opinion-gathering software are likely to be Internet retailers that want feedback on products or want to encourage return visitors by creating ratings engines. But direct marketers from any business also have a great deal to gain from these new software tools.


By using online dialogue to better understand the issues that customers care about, businesses develop a trust and better understanding of their online communities - essentially getting their permission to market to them further. Businesses ultimately reduce marketing costs by developing and using more refined lists for their direct marketing campaigns. At the same time, they have the opportunity to increase revenues by simply engaging their customers - or engaging past customers when people who may have gone to competitors in the past now choose to buy from the company that has paid attention to their needs and requests. What's more, this genre of software also helps companies create a favorable dialogue for generating feedback. Prospects want to participate because they know their feedback will be instantly seen and heard.


Think about the advantages of gathering research and opinions online compared with traditional methods. Traditional surveys involve considerable expense for production, handling and postage. If you're lucky, you may get a meager 2 percent return. Other options, such as door-to-door canvassing, telephone surveys and focus groups, can be even more expensive because of the high cost of personnel and the time needed to sift through results and draw conclusions.


Not only does online opinion software eliminate all of these costs, but it actually turns idea sharing and Web-based conversation into an immediately accessible source of research. Compared with many forms of typical market research, it is much faster, provides deeper insights and creates more genuine touch points with customers and prospects - everyone wins.


While online opinion gathering sounds great in theory, it's what happens in reality that matters. If early results are anything to go by, things look promising. During the past year, marketing firm Sterling-Rice Group, Boulder, CO, has conducted online surveys on behalf of Bernina of America Inc., Aurora, IL, a high-end sewing machine maker.


Recently, Sterling-Rice used opinion-gathering software to gain information about purchase intent and the decision-making process of sewing enthusiasts for all brands and at all price levels. One objective was to collect opt-in e-mail addresses for the Bernina database. Banner advertisements were placed on 11 sewing-related sites to drive traffic to the online survey.


The online survey received 3,214 responses in just three weeks. As 85 percent of respondents owned competitors' sewing machines, a great deal of valuable information was gathered by Bernina, including demographics, purchase intent and the consumers' buying process, sources customers use for sewing information, reasons for buying sewing machines and reasons for brand choice. Equally important, 2,800 new, qualified e-mail addresses were added to the Bernina database for use in upcoming marketing campaigns.


Bernina also has used online opinion software to help with product development. An e-mail survey was sent to 1,500 sewers from Bernina's e-mail database. Recipients were asked to evaluate and prioritize new machine features and designs. The company achieved a 40 percent response rate within one week, providing invaluable input into future product designs. Many respondents commented that they appreciated being included and looked forward to the new products. They are prime targets for a direct marketing campaign when the new products become available.


The emergence of opinion-gathering software tools is likely to have an increasingly positive impact on the direct marketing industry. A new channel has been created that makes it simple, fast and cost-effective to gather and draw conclusions from a range of online dialogue and opinion. Examples such as Bernina's results show that consumers and businesses will volunteer information - such as e-mail addresses - if what they receive in return is of value to them.


Besides providing direct marketers with higher-quality contact lists, online opinion software tools also provide the insight needed to develop more targeted and effective direct marketing campaigns. And that's good for everyone.
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