Moving Toward a Multi-Channel World

Things are changing and they’re changing fast. Technology is making it possible for you and your competition to reach your target audience quickly, economically and efficiently. There’s no subtle way to put it anymore: If you’re not there, you’re going to lose ground. And it’s not only the big guys who are making a difference, it’s the little guys, too. Right now, it’s eat or be eaten.

Being there represents different things to different companies. Being there means the integration of e-commerce into your marketing communication channels. While this article talks to catalogers, we know that other marketers – whether they are general, direct or retail – are looking with the same concentration at the distribution channels open to them.

Factors for consideration: There are three critical factors that help with the decision of which channels to use to contact prospects and customers and how aggressively to use them. They include a company’s size, its product offering and customer base.

Product offering should be a primary indicator for deciding which communication channels to use. Anyone who has a food, floral, book or business-to-business product should be committed to, or at least experimenting with, e-commerce. (For the purposes of this article, e-commerce refers to Web and e-mail.)

As would be expected, the biggest challenge comes from apparel companies that are marketing to mid-age and older customers. While teen and adolescent markets have shown a strong propensity to buy over the Web, the challenge comes from their parents and grandparents. In this case, there are a number of options to consider. They include using e-commerce to communicate with the existing audience to provide or collect information, looking at marketing to a younger audience through the Web and using existing core competencies.

The profile of your customer will drive your thinking of how and how quickly to be on the Web. Clearly, if your existing customer is hi-tech or a current Web shopper, setting up an e-commerce strategy should be a no-brainer: Do it, if you haven’t done it.

If your customers are “walking the fence” regarding the Internet, chances are it won’t be long before they’re taking their first steps. And if you have another chance to communicate with them quickly and economically, you want to be there, ready for them.

The biggest challenge comes from the audience that is significantly resistant to Internet activity, because of their age, income or even mindset. (Let’s face it, there are still people who don’t know how to – and don’t want to know how to – program their VCR.) In this case, the opportunity might come from another audience. The strategy might be to find a way of leveraging existing resources to sell the product to a different audience.

The size of your company might drive the decision of how aggressively and to what extent e-commerce is used. For large companies with good resources, there’s almost no reason not to at least experiment with e-commerce. Here’s why: Even in the worst-case scenario (when you think your product doesn’t lend itself to the Web or your current target audience isn’t on the Web), there may be opportunities to leverage existing resources to create a new business in an economical way.

The challenge for medium to smaller companies is diverting resources to the development of e-commerce activities. Happily, most who are determined have found a way. There are numerous individuals and small companies that are now making their business out of getting companies on the Web.

In a way, setting up e-commerce is like building a house: You know a lot more when it’s done. Everyone has stories of what they would do, if they could do it over. That’s all the more argument for looking around before you develop your e-commerce. Like visiting homes, it means visiting Web sites – and using them. What do you like and dislike? What’s easy? What’s not? What keeps you at a site? What frustrates you? Take notes. Print out examples. You should have a big folder before you go to anyone who is going to help you develop a Web presence or e-mail communication.

How to decide what to do. Since most of us are so involved in managing day-to-day business and putting out fires, it’s often a challenge to mobilize an effort to thoughtfully evaluate new areas – even one so important to a business. If you have the resources, organize a team from within the company whose mission will be to assess the situation and make recommendations. It is important that senior management is supportive of this and there is some kind of vision coming from the highest ranks, or else there’s a good chance that even the best of efforts will be doomed.

Another option would be to bring in a consultant to help lead an evaluation of e-commerce for your company. It’s not enough to write a report. Interviews with staff and a full evaluation of company culture, resources and commitment are highly recommended.

Cost of entry. It really does depend on what you decide to do and whom you do it with. There’s no question that prices are still all over the place. But they have come down significantly and they’re starting to even out. That’s all the more reason to have a consultant come in and help with the evaluation, if there is minimal e-commerce intelligence at your company.

How to capture and build brand through multiple channels. If you ask me, that is the big question most marketers will be wrestling with during 2000 and beyond. Even some of the best and most sophisticated Internet companies don’t understand branding strategy. They may have great technical and human resources, but it’s another challenge to capture brand image and translate it to different media so that it is transparent to the customer and creates an impenetrable strength.

Any marketer who is involved with the Internet should be aware of government activities in this area. Congress, the FTC and other groups are watching the Internet closely and are especially sensitive to consumer concerns. In fact, the DMA now requires that privacy disclosures be prominently posted. Attempts to limit the collection and sale of data are being proposed all of the time.

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