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The Year 2000 Problem: Should Marketing Care?

Around the world, businesses devote large amounts of money and programming resources to solve the Y2K problem. Whether the millennium will be a nonevent, some foresee cataclysmic ramifications. While this is all going on it is very easy for marketing professionals to ignore it, saying that there will be no impact on them. Is such a position warranted? And if not, what will be the impact on marketing departments?

Marketing will be affected in at least three different ways.

* First and most importantly, as marketing begins to move into the world of process automation, it's going to find that IS will have no resources to assist it. The Gartner Group estimates that up to 40 percent of IS resources will be consumed by this problem, and that number will grow as 2000 approaches. The result? IS will not be there to work on discretionary projects such as Internet access, database marketing and marketing information systems. At the same time, marketing is becoming increasingly interested in automating the marketing process because it brings tangible benefits to the firm and allows them to compete in an increasingly competitive marketplace. This means that right at the time marketing needs IS the most, IS will not be able to help.

* Many marketing programs are increasingly dependent on data. Affected data could have the same attributes as a computer virus. Whether data is purchased as overlays (i.e., age of head of household) or collected from internal sources, the failure to ensure accuracy can cause everything that comes in contact with that data to be corrupted. This will affect direct mail, profitability analysis, trend projections and statistical reports. The only thing worse than no data is bad data.

* Marketing is going to be called in at the 11th hour to handle the public relations generated by all of this. Especially in business-to-business marketing, campaigns will be produced to either trumpet that a firm is 2000-compliant or to try to downplay the impact. Some firms have already been sued over mistakes made with the year 2000 problem, and marketing is invariably called in to help the firm put the best light on the suit. Either way, marketing is going to be engaged in a huge public relations campaign on the issue as we approach the end of the decade. This will become especially apparent as more attention is drawn to the issue in general and trade publications.

The Problem's Solution. So what should marketing do about all of this?

Work with IS now on a solution to the problem. Actually, marketing should have been doing this for the past two years. IS will have some hard decisions to make and will have to rewrite large portions of code or buy new systems. Marketing can work with IS now to maximize the value of these projects, in some cases, solving other marketing issues at the same time.

Alert everyone in the marketing department to the problem and have them look for signs of problems. The more attention that is brought to bear on the problem, the more likely a department is to catch the issues before they surface.

Work out contingency plans to continue expansion into technology-enabled marketing in the event that IS cannot support marketing for some period of time. Think about Internet service providers, for example, that may be able to keep an interactive-marketing initiative going over time.

While the year 2000 problem is going to have an impact on virtually every firm, marketing can make plans now to minimize the impact. Failure to do so will cause the problem to be even worse than it would be otherwise. In fact, plans put in place now by marketing may mean the difference between surviving into the 21st century, or folding at the end of the 20th.

Scott Nelson is vice president of strategic marketing services at Prime Response Inc., Denver.

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