The Net's Real Value to DMers

In the past, direct marketers faced innovations that have changed our industry forever. Think back to when merge/purge was in its infancy. Many predicted it would cost too much and was an unwelcome step in the process. While some had to be dragged into merge/purge kicking and screaming, others embraced the change and saw it as the wave of the future, cutting costs in the long run, increasing deliverables and improving the results.

Today, we face another challenge: the Internet. Will the outcome be as positive as merge/purge?

Bill Gates, Microsoft chairman/CEO, said, “The Internet will become as fundamental tomorrow as the automobile is today.” I agree; here's why:

USA Today reported that 10 million people in the United States and Canada purchased something online in 1997. If that sounds impressive, wait until you hear this. Those 10 million people represent a 47 percent increase from the previous six months. Internet commerce is by far the fastest growing segment of our economy. It is predicted that by 2000 $50 billion worth of products and services will be sold over the Internet!

More and more ways to access the Internet are being created. Technological advancements have made it possible for telephones and televisions to connect people to the Internet. By the end of this year, smart phones will have reached many of you, making it possible to dial up the Internet without a computer.

Indisputably, the Net is here to stay — and it's changing rapidly.

OK, so what if it is the most revolutionary development as of late? What has it done for direct marketers lately?

In issue after issue, you've heard commentary about buying advertising space on the Net or starting up your own Web site, using tried-and-true direct marketing tactics with this new medium, and even pointers on turning lookers into buyers. Instead, I'd like to give all the hype a twist and tell you the two most important ways the Internet is helping direct marketers do business:

* Already 10 million people are comfortable purchasing online. The shift in buying habits opens up a new selection criterion that your database will need to contain. Are your customers or prospects online buyers? It's not enough to know what they buy and how much they spend. If we are going to leverage the power of the Internet, direct marketers need to know what medium consumers use.

The Net is a whole new selling avenue, and you need to know who is buying this way so you can begin to send targeted messages. Consumers who are using it are conditioned for immediate response. Turnaround time of 24 hours isn't acceptable any longer when there's a medium out there that can deliver in minutes. The challenge to direct marketers is to deliver messages to this information-hungry market quickly. Only the Internet can satisfy that demand and provide response rate results with the same speed.

* Direct marketers can use the Internet to gather additional content and research the latest trends to guide their messages and strategies. In the end, that improves effectiveness and customer satisfaction. So use the Internet to your advantage by quickly tying into related sites to research information or provide better customer service with 24-hour access to business and consumer databases.

Equally important, all direct marketing and list management companies have to change the way we do business to compete with the lightning-fast capabilities of the Internet. For example, the Net has made it possible for direct marketers to research list sources, count queries, comparison shop and even order online. Direct marketers can quickly and easily create custom mailing lists, find brand new businesses, select specialty lists, order a business profile or receive weekly or daily updates to their databases. Our clients don't have to wait until we're open to find what they're looking for, even if it's 2 a.m. Saturday or 7 p.m. Wednesday.

Just like merge/purge was an innovation that scared people and caused ripples throughout the industry, so is the Net. Remember, merge/purge was considered costly and nonessential, yet it became the backbone of the way we do business. The Internet is only going to help everyone by making our customers smarter and us better target marketers. After all, our business is called “direct marketing” not just “direct mail.”

Sheldon Zaslansky is president of Walter Karl Companies, Pearl River, NY, a division of infoUSA.

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