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When technology releases people from the drudgery of manual labor, they become free to focus their intelligence and creativity on core tasks, which in turn enhances their effectiveness and the value they deliver to their clients.

The list industry is no exception. The research, paperwork and administrative details can be a heavy burden for a large list broker with considerable staff resources and can threaten to overwhelm smaller brokerages with limited staff. Right now, only crude, compiled lists are available on the Internet. Online availability of mail-order buyer, subscription, attendee and other response lists remains a dream.

But it doesn't have to be that way. The technology exists today to implement, cost effectively, massive automation to increase the efficiency of the list-rental process. By automating the details, we can free our brokers to maximize the time they spend applying their intuition, experience and intelligence to come up with the best list recommendations possible for mailers.

A decade ago, the only available technology for automation was Electronic Data Interchange, which was rejected because of cost and implementation issues. But now, the Internet makes automation not only possible but affordable.

What list functions could we automate to increase efficiency? Here are six areas I can think of right off the bat:

Online usage. Instead of people calling the list managers and owners to find out tests and continuations on lists, it would be great to get this information from a centralized database. This would free brokers to spend more time analyzing lists to improve their recommendations instead of on the logistics of getting the information in the first place.

Online list counts. Nothing is as frustrating as planning a mailing at 2 a.m. for a 9 a.m. presentation to your client or boss and not having access to list counts because the list manager is at home sleeping. After all, how can you plan a campaign — or even know if sufficient names are available — if you don't have the counts?

With automation, direct marketers would not have to wait for a list manager or owner to return their call; they could access list counts online from a central source. (Some list brokers already offer instant online list counts with around-the-clock access through their Web sites.)

Online status reports. Currently, to make sure your list order is filled, you pick up the telephone, call the list manager and ask for confirmation. This is a time-consuming, frustrating (voice mail and phone tag) and wasteful practice.

According to the Direct Marketing Association's List Metrics Report published last month, more than 90 percent of the list brokerage community has access to e-mail. Why can't the list manager or their service bureau automatically update a centralized server with order status as soon as the list is run and shipped? The broker could either log on to a password-protected Web page that would give the shipping information or, better yet, receive a confirming e-mail. The confirmation would include quantity shipped, shipping date, methods of shipment and any tracking number.

Data transmission. Electronic information can be sent anywhere in the world at any time for free over the Internet. So why are we still shipping files on magnetic tape? Transmitting all data to the service bureau electronically would cut a full day off the order fulfillment and shipping process. This is a significant savings of time, especially on three- to five-day orders, where it might literally mean the difference between getting a file into the merge-purge or not mailing it at all. Electronics transmission also would save money on tapes and delivery charges.

Online ordering. To ensure accuracy and timeliness of data — including usage, counts and status — all orders ideally should feed into a centralized online ordering system. Universal product codes to identify list name, mailer name, broker and manager can be used to ensure that all systems are talking the same language.

Electronic approvals. In his new book, “Business @ The Speed of Thought,” Bill Gates observed that the amount of paper consumed doubles every two years. Once upon a time, the computer industry predicted a paperless office. Instead, the use of paper is increasing geometrically.

Every list order needs to be approved by the list owner. This includes approval of a sample-mailing piece.

To create an electronic approval system, these samples would need to be supplied in digital form. Direct mail pieces created on the computer are already available as digital files, and those created manually can easily be scanned into digital format. For automated approvals, the digital files are simply attached to e-mail and sent to the manager or owner for their review.

There's no doubt that automation would help the list industry increase efficiency and speed. But a key question, of course, is who's going to pay for this centralized system? I recommend we create an automation “superfund.”

All brokers and mailers who wanted to use the centralized automated system would contribute to the fund based on their size and volume. A really easy way to administer this is to empower list managers to add a flat $5-per-order fee onto each and every invoice sent to the list broker/mailer. The list managers would pay their fair share by doubling whatever was received and remitting to the superfund each month. Once the fund is established, a request for proposal could be sent to computer companies and the job rewarded based on the relative merits of the responding companies and their solutions.

The list industry needs to begin working toward centralized online automation of lists and list data now. Technology will never replace the services of a good list broker. But it will enhance brokers' ability to make timely decisions on which lists to recommend, streamline the ordering process, reduce costs and ultimately help the brokers and their clients to get more profitable results.

Stevan Roberts is president of Edith Roman Associates Inc., Pearl River, NY. His e-mail address is [email protected]

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