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Message, not Medium, Boosts Response

During the past 13 years, I have spent much of my professional career dealing with direct marketers. As publisher of Computer Shopper, a Ziff-Davis publication, I worked with companies ranging from Dell, Gateway, IBM and Compaq to computer product resellers such as CDW and Insight. I have had a front-row seat for entrepreneurs whose focus was on generating cost-effective response from any and all media used to generate sales.

Just five years ago, publications like Computer Shopper and print catalogs were the primary delivery mechanism for many of the PC industry’s top vendors. If your mailbox at home is anything like mine, you realize that many direct marketers in all industries continue to use printed matter to deliver their commerce messages.

Direct marketers got the importance of one-to-one marketing a lot earlier than most. They continue to have a keen understanding of how important it is to create an appropriate message and deliver it to a customer when he is in a buying mode.

I spent countless hours reviewing sales conversion reports with many clients. This analysis pinpointed specific customer and prospect segments that generated maximum return on investment. Lists, delivery vehicles and specific messaging were analyzed to create the best combination of elements to produce a result. Today, the direct marketing channel represents a $40 billion sales channel. The key challenge to offline direct marketers continues to be acquiring and retaining customers against a competitive landscape that jams consumer and business mailboxes.

Many direct marketers discounted the effect of the Internet as a sales tool when it first arrived on the scene. Many talked about the huge amounts of money they had spent on infrastructure and how disappointed they were in the response they received. Traditional media was blowing away the Internet just five years ago. Many decided that the “risk” of allocating marketing dollars to this new platform was too much. When the explosion of consumer and business acceptance hit, it came quickly, and those that had not staked a claim in building their interactive storefronts were crushed. Smart direct marketers changed their business models and worked with partners that understood how to tap into the power of this new delivery mechanism.

Effective direct marketing rests on a commitment to being in constant learning mode. The smartest of the direct players understand that they need to analyze, test and evaluate all the time. Unlike the offline world, the Web provides a great platform to study the competitive landscape. All a marketer needs to do is type in its competitors’ addresses, and it immediately gets access to the strategy being deployed.

Marketing strategies and messaging are available to all, and response to market changes can be immediate. It’s all about response. What strategy, message or offer will elicit the best response? Response can be defined many ways, such as attracting new customers, retaining existing customers, increasing number of visits, increasing average dollar spent per visit, driving visitors online to an offline offer, etc.

Industry publications and Web sites continue to tell the story of lagging response rates on “traditional” interactive ad units. I have seen headlines that are laughable: “Banners Dead” — as though a tool could have a life unto itself. This would be like saying, “Print is dead” … “Television is dead” … “Radio is dead” … “Cable TV is dead” … “Magazines are dead.” It’s too simplistic a view.

Marketers of all kinds can be lazy at times. It’s easy for them to blame the delivery mechanism rather than themselves. The challenge in all media platforms is to construct messaging that uses the platform and is compelling — messaging that elicits a response. The next time you look at an advertising message in any media, ask yourself, “What is it that they are trying to accomplish?” If you’re like me, you will be puzzled most of the time.

E-mail has been touted as the “killer app” and, indeed, from a direct marketing perspective, it holds great promise. Just think about the power of the opt-in audience: individuals who have decided they want help sifting through the millions of pages of content and offers on the Web. They welcome you into their world with the hope that you will be a respectful guest. As a direct marketer, the potential for this platform is incredible.

E-mail delivery provides the marketer with an unparalleled level of tools for strategic analysis and design. The opt-in e-mail box is chock full of information about the likes and dislikes of the recipient. Proper use of this information holds tremendous promise of higher click rates and superior response. Proper analysis of this data can provide your company with tremendous insight into maintaining an ongoing relationship with customers.

Like all other direct response delivery mechanisms, e-mail will only be as effective as the marketer’s ability to craft an impactful and compelling message. There are many companies in our industry that sell the latest cool technology as a panacea for eliciting better response. Though graphics, streaming video and audio, and telephony all provide excellent breakthrough technologies, your work on crafting a competitive message is the key to better response. Crafting the appropriate message, one that allows you to leverage the power of e-mail, is hard work. You must commit yourself to being a student of your customer and the competitive landscape. You must seek partners willing to work with you as a solutions provider committed to maximizing response and ROI.

Learn from the early mistakes of the Internet. Be careful of those promising instant success or a quick fix. Work with partners that have a level of expertise in direct marketing — both offline and online — those who truly understand the dynamics of your business. When we partner in this way and do the work, the e-mail platform will come alive and generate the response for which you have been searching.

• Al DiGuido is CEO of Expression Engines, New York, an e-mail marketing services and technology company. Reach him at [email protected].

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