Immediately striking at the Direct Marketing Association's 82nd Annual Conference and Exhibition last year in Toronto was the location of the Internet companies — in a comparatively small room that seemed as if it were somewhere on the outskirts of Buffalo.
Obviously, the placement was due to the companies' short length of membership in the DMA, but it was symbolic nonetheless.
Were young upstarts infiltrating the direct marketing industry? Or were industry vets simply tolerating them on the perimeter until they ran out of venture cash?
On the other hand, were the folks in the middle of the gargantuan exhibit hall dinosaurs just waiting for the comet to hit? It certainly seemed so.
Today, though, the tables have turned.
From an editorial perspective, what once seemed like an endless flood of press releases with headlines such as “JustWhenYouThoughtABusinessPlanCouldn'tBeStupider.com Receives $6 Million From Gullible Venture Partners” has slowed to a trickle.
Dot-coms have wasted a lot of money. As a result, investors are getting tight with their money, and the days of fire-hose branding are apparently over — which means the dot-commers no longer have the obscene, deficit-spending advantage they had over their traditional counterparts a year ago.
And direct marketers know that their understanding of acquisition and retention marketing and fulfillment is exactly what is missing as many of these companies vanish.
It'll be interesting to see whether the show floor at the DMA's 83rd annual conference in New Orleans this week reflects the shift.
However, direct marketers have at least one quality that will continue to get in their way as the current stage of Internet marketing unfolds.
Direct marketing historically hasn't received the respect it deserves. As a result, many of its practitioners have huge chips on their shoulders.
Don't believe me? Just pull one out of a crowd and tell him or her that the Internet is direct marketing, but that not all the old rules apply. If the resulting expression of disdain doesn't make you want to give him or her a quick backhand, you are indeed patient.
So what's different about the Internet? Even beyond the well-publicized differences between postal marketing and e-mail, people generally go online with specific tasks in mind. To give credit where it's due, Internet marketing consultant Sandra Gassmann, president of Sage Marketing, New York, reminded me of this recently in a lunch discussion on this topic.
How does it change things? It means the marketer must find ways to become part of the task's goal, or learn how to interrupt it in a way that is compelling and welcome enough to divert the user from his or her intended path. Certainly easier said than done, given how much of offline marketing's success often relies on inertia.
Direct marketers will never get the credit they deserve.
But they certainly have the foundational tools to find answers to the task-interruption dilemma for each dot-com with a solid business model — that is, if they can put a lid on the attitude.