Integrate Dot-com, Traditional Strategies

Anyone who knows me will attest to my lifelong love affair with the automobile. Cars are my passion and hobby. I generally buy or lease a new one every two or three years. With the advent of Internet-based automobile shopping sites, it has never been easier or more relaxing to rummage through the selection process.

I’m also an avid Internet user. With the Web, I can surf the major manufacturers from the comfort of my home, familiarize myself with new models, customize them to my own specifications, explore pricing options and even arrange for financing and delivery if I decide to buy.

It’s easy and relaxing, but something important is missing. There is an empty feeling, a void. Even the most sophisticated, interactive Web technology fails to capture the excitement of a showroom, marketplace atmosphere. The Web doesn’t let me saunter up beside my glimmering objects of affection to kick the tires and slam the doors. On the Internet, I don’t get that intoxicating new car aroma. I can’t feel the power of acceleration or the nimble control in cornering. And I certainly can’t engage in stimulating negotiations with an eager salesperson. The Web is a convenience and it is very, very informative, but it will never fulfill our need for tactile feel and genuine human interaction.

The same case can be made of the new dot-com direct marketing list providers that are proliferating today. Researching and acquiring lists on the Internet is a convenient way to access consumer and business-to-business data for important direct marketing campaigns. As more individuals and businesses rely on e-mail, outbound campaigns will continue to grow in significance, changing forever the way direct marketing is able to reach better-educated, higher-paid consumers.

But today’s dot-com list providers, with their myriad e-mail addresses, have not discovered a Holy Grail that will completely reinvent our industry and force seasoned marketers to abandon more traditional approaches to their craft. The efficiencies are apparent, but the drawbacks deserve some attention, too.

First, the ever-increasing number of dot-com lists that are growing in popularity throughout our industry today seem to be generally lacking in demographic data. It is difficult to match enhanced data with today’s e-mail addresses, prohibiting marketers from learning more about their targets. Are they male or female? Where do they work? What do they earn? What else do they buy?

Second, the technological nature of today’s dot-com list providers is often devoid of human contact. For marketers who know exactly what they want and rarely rely on brokers for information on counts, selectivity and list hygiene, the Web is fine. But that is rarely the case. More frequently, marketers are eager to work with experienced list brokers who help them navigate an efficient, cost-effective path across today’s complex direct marketing landscape.

The challenges that we face as auto buyers and list renters are not unique. The Internet has created a similar set of challenges for a wide-ranging group of service industries, most notably in securities trading, personal insurance and other financial services. In direct marketing, as in these other industries, Web-based technologies do not represent a new way of doing business. They represent, on balance, after the initial excitement subsides, just another piece of the integrated puzzle, settling in side by side with traditional, standard-based approaches.

For example, I see today’s new Internet-based approaches to direct marketing working hand in hand with traditional disciplines in interesting ways.

First, with regard to data, list owners and managers should work closer together exploring ways in which to enhance the expanding rolls of e-mail addresses. It is not enough, in my view, to simply rent lists of customers or subscribers that feature “blind” e-mail addresses but lack other important demographic data like age, gender, occupation, income, etc.

By doing so, we are not providing mailers with the focused selectivity that is so vitally important to today’s increasingly fragmented market. And from the list owners’ perspective, the lack of serious data – and the obscure data that do exist – will ultimately translate into less effective lists, less profitability in list rentals, with subscribers or customers who increasingly opt out because they are not being addressed in a targeted fashion.

An example of a Web-based enterprise doing a good job of managing this challenge is Beyond being merely a collection point for e-mail addresses, not only obtains e-mail addresses of new subscribers, it also requests that a brief demographic profile be completed simultaneously.

This enhanced information is then used to target mailings – both traditional and technological – beyond what a limited e-mail contact would allow. For example, because the demographic makeup of subscribers is primarily upscale, better educated males, it was able to work recently with 1-800-Flowers on a pre-Valentine’s Day mailing that reportedly was very successful.

Connecting to a database is one thing. Connecting with experienced brokerage professionals with a depth of direct marketing knowledge is another thing altogether. My second point is that, too often, it seems the dot-com providers deprive marketers of this vital human contact.

I’ve been in this business for more than 20 years. And while a great deal has changed over time, one thing has remained constant: It is people working together, collaborating to solve complex marketing challenges, that ultimately ensures success.

The success of any campaign is contingent on the mailer’s ability to obtain specific information about counts, selectivity, shipping status and other nuances that affect projects. This form of partnering leads to solutions that are uniquely suited to achieve specific objectives. It is precisely this customer-focused philosophy that has contributed to our success and to the success of my service-oriented colleagues.

Without this vital collaborative approach, mailers are left alone to their own devices to navigate their way through a rapidly changing, increasingly complex marketing landscape. Without an opportunity to interact with knowledgeable industry professionals, it is increasingly difficult to optimize strategies and budgets. Effectiveness and cost-efficiency are put at serious risk.

Traditional brokerage professionals work closely with clients, nurturing their programs to ensure they achieve or exceed predetermined goals and objectives. Today’s Web-based providers would do well to adopt comparable standards of service to complement their inherent strengths.

As I first predicted in this publication, in a column published Nov. 4, 1996, the Internet has become a dynamic and important part of the direct marketing community. We welcome the Web surfers and e-mail users who now proliferate among us, and we welcome the emerging new companies that feature dot-com addresses as the centerpiece of their offering.

But just as I suggested more than three years ago that we must “begin to understand the dynamics of electronic commerce and to embrace the value of this new generation of list information,” the time has come for the new breed of dot-com list providers to understand the dynamics of traditional direct marketing, and to embrace the information and service standards that our traditional generation worked so diligently to establish.

Together, we can take our industry to new heights of excellence.

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