Big Ship, Slow Turn

Psst…. did you know email and search are direct marketing media? Yes, it’s true. Apparently, it’s not a secret anymore.

I spent the early part of this week immersed in all things direct at the Direct Marketing Association (DMA) annual conference in Orlando, Fla. What I found took me by surprise. The interactive folks with whom I spoke were a little shocked, too. It appears interactive techniques are finally getting some respect from the direct marketing establishment.

“A few years ago, everyone here was trying to ignore the Internet as a facet of their business model, but that has changed dramatically,” said Jay Schwedelson, corporate vice president at list management firm WorldData, in a conversation on the show floor.

Now, some may not view this as a positive development. Much has been made of the DMA’s cluelessness in regard to interactive marketing. The debacle over the release of the Association for Interactive Marketing’s (AIM) email best practices document is a case in point. Seen another way, it’s a step forward that the DMA cares enough to get involved in AIM’s doings. For years it seemed the DMA thought interactive wasn’t worth bothering with. Now, some say, the group is slowly starting to “get it.”

“The DMA is starting to understand the issues surrounding email and that it is different from offline direct mail,” said SilverPop VP of Products Kevin George, who has worked with the DMA on AIM’s Council for Responsible E-Mail (CRE).

Starting to understand, of course, is hardly high praise. But like it or not, the DMA is the 500 pound gorilla in the industry. It commands mainstream press attention, however misguided the coverage may be. The group’s been around since 1917 and boasts 4,700 members. When it takes even a baby step forward, the ground shakes.

The first sign of improvement was the program for this year’s conference. One attendee I spoke with recounted going to a session a few years back and finding a wizened direct mail guru teaching email marketing. He defined email solely in direct mail terms, and focused on the ways in which email couldn’t do what direct mail could, or so she said. E-mail’s unique capabilities clearly weren’t appreciated. In contrast, this year we saw people immersed in interactive (ClickZ columnists Kevin Lee and Kathleen Goodwin, for example) leading the way.

Then, there was DMA president and CEO Bob Wientzen’s introductory speech. Before he began talking, I sat in the darkened auditorium with pen and notebook dutifully at hand. I honestly didn’t expect to hear much more than a brief mention of the spam issue. What with the U.S. Postal Service constantly raising rates and the battle over the Do-Not-Call list flaring, who has time to worry about interactive? I was wrong. The spam issue was front-and-center. No wonder. The organization also released results of an ROI study that found email the most cost-effective direct marketing medium around.

“Clearly, something has to be done if we are going to preserve email as a marketing channel,” said Wientzen in his remarks.

Of course, a tsunami of negative publicity in the mainstream media surrounding DMA positions on front-and-center issues, from spam to Do-Not-Call, have likely done their share to temper the organization’s policies.

At last, the DMA determined spam is a problem. The organization even said in the CRE best practices document — shocker of shockers — it recommends opt-in. It doesn’t take a position on the definition of spam, but it did something. It followed up this week, issuing spam guidelines in partnership with the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) and the American Association of Advertising Agencies (AAAA). These guidelines largely mirrored the CRE document, but even go a little further.

The direct marketing industry appears to be lagging very far behind in search. There’s no burning scandal in the search industry, with the possible exception of paid-result disclosure. Search certainly holds a lot of potential, which direct marketers are just waking up to. This slow emergence from deep slumber is probably a major factor in why search is forecast to grow so dramatically in coming years.

Search vendors I spoke with at the conference said there was plenty of interest among attendees, but little sophistication.

“It’s probably the ultimate tool for direct marketers, but it’s a different tool than they’ve been using, so it’s taking a while,” said Dakota Smith, VP of marketing for LookSmart.

Search’s growing complexity doesn’t help, but search vendors spoke positively about educating their potential customers.

“Anytime an industry is so well established,” said Dave Carlson of GoToast, “it’s going to take time for them to change their thought processes.”

And a slow process it is. Several folks I spoke with reminded me the group used to be known as the Direct Mail Association. It had taken years for them to acknowledge electronic media and change the ‘M’ to stand for “Marketing.” Now, interactive folks are beginning to have an impact on direct marketers as far as email is concerned, though there remains a lot of work to be done. Search will do the same, eventually.

It’s a gigantic ship, but it’s slowly beginning to turn.

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