One of the things the Internet brings to the marketing world is remarkable impatience. Everyone expects instant gratification, at least informationally speaking. Yet many Internet marketers are stuck in traditional fulfillment land, sending materials via paper mail instead of email or on the web.
Maybe you’re not ready to convert your entire information fulfillment operation to the Internet, but you should start looking in that direction. Tomorrow’s prospects and customers will want to get what they need from you electronically. IDC reports that over 50 percent of online business users download information from the Internet several times a week. A recent Frost & Sullivan study states that email has already surpassed the telephone as a business communications tool.
The Power of Electronic Fulfillment
In its most basic form, electronic fulfillment is a simple email response to an email request or any other kind of inquiry. Although email is, for all practical purposes, still a text-only medium, it is powerful in that you can send an immediate response directly to the inquirer’s electronic mailbox. You can also embed web links in your email message so the recipient can visit a URL to receive additional information.
Responding via email can be effective and desirable, as long as the individual made an email inquiry or gave you permission to respond via email. (It is recommended that you ask the question, “May we communicate with you via email?” on a web response form, a reply card, or during a telemarketing call.) Products are available to automate email so you can respond to multiple inquiries at once. With some products, you can “auto-respond” to inquiries without human intervention.
An electronic inquirer appreciates an email response because it’s immediate. Again, one of the biggest issues with any fulfillment process is the time lapse between the act of inquiring and the receipt of information. Email is one way to dramatically close that gap and feed the need for instant gratification.
One application of email fulfillment that is both accepted and appreciated is the email newsletter. It has broad appeal to both customers and prospects. A prospect who is receptive to email and interested in a product or service is likely to subscribe to an email newsletter that keeps him or her informed on a periodic basis about that product or service. This method of fulfillment is far less threatening than receiving a telemarketing call. And the email newsletter is likely to receive more attention and get read more often than traditional direct mail.
Reader Service On the Web
Even reader service numbers are undergoing change in the Internet era. Several trade magazine publishers are providing Internet-based reader service numbers so inquiries can be made online. ZD Internet Magazine, published by Ziff-Davis, offers “InfoLink,” an online product information-request service. Enter a reader service number from an ad in the magazine at the InfoLink web site and get information via email or traditional mail.
Cahners Business Information also provides magazine advertisers with an “instant fulfillment” service to facilitate web response. This service allows an advertiser to post electronic information at a special web address, with a link to the advertiser’s web site. As a result, the inquiry is fulfilled instantly, rather than waiting days, weeks, or months, as might be the case with the traditional bingo card inquiry handling process.
Dell Computer has just started using an electronic version of the reader service number. It runs an “E-Value Code” in advertising and direct mail that matches up with a particular system. The prospect enters the code on Dell’s web site to access information about the product without navigating through several pages.
Integrated Web Communications
The largest technology information providers, including CMP, C|Net and ZDNet have virtually made a business out of integrating their print publications, conferences and events, and the Internet — all in an effort to consolidate information and do a better job of serving prospects and customers.
IDG is one good example. IDG publishes COMPUTERWORLD, Network World, PC World, and countless other magazines and books, including the successful for Dummies series. IDG also sponsors numerous industry conferences and events, such as ICE, the Internet Commerce Expo. IDG publications serve some 90 million readers in 88 countries worldwide — over 90 percent of the information technology market. In addition to traditional media, the company offers web-only publications, such as Java World, to qualified subscribers.
One of IDG’s big success stories on the web is Network World Fusion. This sister web site to the Network World publication requires separate registration. Web site visitors must complete an eight-page qualification form to gain access to the content. But the form is hardly a barrier; the web site has garnered 94,000 registered users in just 18 months.
All of this web activity prompted IDG to develop its own search and access service, IDG.net, which now permits registered users to personally navigate 140 web sites. IDG makes integrated use of traditional publications, web sites, conference events, email newsletters, and online surveys, as do the other technology information providers.
The whole concept of involving the online “reader” in a literal web of communications is a significant trend in the information technology market that may be suggestive of the future for all business-to-business marketers. Electronic fulfillment is a logical alternative to direct mail and fax fulfillment for numerous reasons, not the least of which is the incredible cost-saving potential. Not only does electronic fulfillment drastically reduce the cost of fulfillment, it also removes the time-to-market factor.
Electronic fulfillment can quite literally happen instantly, at least on the web. A prospect comes to a web site, completes a web response form and presses the Send button. With electronic fulfillment, information can appear as a direct response to the request. There is no time lapse.
Nothing has been available to the business-to-business marketer that even comes close to such an idea until now.