Year in Review: Looking Back With Former ERA Chairman Jeffrey D. Knowles

What do you think are your greatest accomplishments as chairman of the ERA board of directors?

First, the launch of the Online Retailing Alliance is a major step forward for the ERA. It has created a home for Internet retailers under the ERA umbrella. It’s a tremendous opportunity for ERA because the Direct Marketing Association hasn’t fully captured the online retailers, nor has any other organization.

At the annual convention in Las Vegas we’ll be announcing the creation of an advisory board for the ORA, which will include major Internet players like Google , eBay  and InterActiveCorp, as well as a number of other companies.

We’re looking for this to be a springboard for increasing membership among Internet retailers, shaping the government affairs agenda, coming up with educational programming and research and finding new and better ways to communicate with this segment of our membership.

There will be overlap from the ORA advisory board and the ERA board of directors, and we’ll also be inviting other ORA board members to attend some ERA board meetings, as well as be involved in strategic planning.

Another thing I’m particularly pleased about is the successful relaunch of the ERA’s Asian outreach. We had our first convention there in the early 90s. The ERA was vibrant in the region until the Asian economy flagged, and then fears about the SARS epidemic really put a damper on things.

Our convention in Hong Kong in April was successful, attended by over 100 people, including new companies, which hadn’t been involved with ERA before. DRTV is strong in Asia; the Japanese market alone is almost as large as the entire European market.

When you combine that with the staggering potential of China, it’s clear that this is going to be a very important region for the ERA. With the globalization of the direct response industry due to satellite and the Internet, the ERA cannot survive as simply a North American organization.

Finally, I think the electronic retailing self-regulation program  has been one of the most successful program launches in ERA history. It’s had a marked effect on the industry.

The program has demonstrated that it can handle volume and also work extremely effectively with companies to remove unsubstantiated claims. It’s helping to clean up the industry by targeting questionable shows much earlier, and having them modified or taken off the air.

In the short term the program has had a depressing effect in terms of total dollar sales, because some of the monster hit shows with questionable claims have been taken off the air. Ultimately it will help maintain the long-term health and prosperity of the industry. It’s established the ERA’s credibility with regulators and the media.

What do you see as the biggest challenges facing the ERA?

We need to change the perception that the ERA is primarily a DRTV organization, and attract more Internet retailers. It’s not an easy challenge, but it’s a gap that has to be bridged. The reality is that marketers have to function in a multichannel world. The ERA has to adapt to a changing environment whether driven by new technology or consumer behavior.

How about opportunities?

To expand membership by reaching out to the Internet community, and through international growth. A substantial segment of our membership is based outside of North America, and the percentage of international members continues to grow. We need to reach out to Latin America as well.

Looking into your crystal ball, where do you see the industry in five years’ time?

The biggest change I see in the future is the ongoing shift towards the Internet, driven by expanded broadband service that will enable video to be delivered clearly, without lag or fuzz. That shift will begin to dominate the DR landscape.

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