Marketers Reach Consumers at Life's Big Events, Ads Target Couples Planning Their Weddings

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While tackling the assignment of developing a business plan at the University of Michigan's business school in 1991, Rob Reynolds and Jeff Bull created a hypothetical company that took the angst out of crucial life events while serving up targeted marketing messages.


"I always liken us to the guy who started FedEx. I think he got an 'F' for his idea," said Reynolds, who noted that his professor was skeptical about the concept.


Seven years later, however, Reynolds, president of LifeServ Corp., and Bull, CEO of the Denver-based company, have 300 people downloading free software each day that helps them plan their weddings and supplies them with a host of relevant merchants. LifeServ receives money from the merchants when their ads are passed onto the consumer.


The software, dubbed WedServ, caters to the 2.5 million couples spending $40 billion for weddings and honeymoons each year, but LifeServ is introducing software for other markets as well.


By late spring, the company will offer software for couples having babies and, by late summer, software for people buying, renting, furnishing or building a home.


"We have what we call 'lifeware' -- software that is useful for your life," Reynolds said, adding that software for planning for retirement, caring for elderly parents and even preparing for bar mitzvahs should roll out before the year 2000. "If you let your imagination run wild, there are so many significant life events."


Consumers can download LifeServ's wedding-planning software from www.wedserv.com or by calling a toll-free number. Before downloading, they register by providing their name, address, engagement date, wedding location, size of the wedding party and wedding date. They then review a list of 38 categories, including florists, caterers, honeymoon destinations, car service and china, and check off those they are interested in.


"In the wedding market, there is a pretty definite buy cycle. If you know the wedding date and the date they downloaded the software, then you can pretty much tell what they need to buy between now and then," said Reynolds, noting that consumers usually download the software almost 10 months before the actual wedding.


The customers' checklist determines which multiscreen, graphical ads will be loaded onto their software. Those ads are delivered to customers as they use the software and even enable customers to link directly to the advertisers' Web sites.


About 90 percent of the customers interested in receiving more information permit LifeServ to pass their names on to the advertisers, who have agreed not to resell the names.


"We have people who are going through a life event where they want to buy this stuff -- and they have told us that they want more information," said Reynolds, adding that merchants are charged about $3 each time their ads are included in a couple's software. "You can't get a marketing channel that is better than that."


LifeServ not only gives its customers free software, but actually creates an Internet site for them that is accessible through a unique password. Couples can upload wedding information they entered into their software and maintain an online gift registry that can be accessed by friends and family.


LifeServ offers to e-mail or mail the couple's guests to inform them of the site, a service that could open an array of marketing opportunities, according to Reynolds.


"We would be thrilled if we get 125,000 to 200,000 couples this year and double that the year after," Reynolds said. "With that you get 20 to 30 million potential guests to the site -- 20 percent of which are on the Internet, but that's still a couple of million. Now those people are going through life events. We are going to tell them that we have these other services and ask them which life events they are going through."


LifeServ just debuted an advertising campaign that includes print ads in six major bridal magazines; banner ads and links on 10 wedding-related Web sites; point-of-sale ads at 500 bridal stores; and a presence at 400 bridal shows over the next six months. The company touts about 400 local vendors who advertise on its software and just began promoting its product to national advertisers.


WedServ also offers a free e-mail and telephone service that allows couples to ask experts questions about planning their weddings, and an equally comprehensive program can be expected for the other target markets.


"If we can create a relationship with our consumer during a significant life event where they are worried or anxious and information hungry," Reynolds said, "and we can provide them with good advice and service, they'll stick with us for life."
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