No Country for Old E-Mail Thinking

I spent a portion of my weekend in Las Vegas at the Direct Marketing Association’s annual convention. Fresh off the world economy’s rollercoaster ride, I wanted to gauge the mood and tempo of Sin City. Suffice to say, the tradeshow floor clearly showcases an industry challenged by the media landscape’s new reality. Booth after booth promoted premium incentives, printing equipment, postcard manufacturing, and label and envelope-addressing equipment. Sprinkled among this sea of legacy direct-mail dinosaurs was a smattering of database companies trying their best to show that they “get” interactive marketing — by simply appending interactive tools to their database anchors. There were silos everywhere: e-mail companies, search companies, analytics shops. There seemed to be no organization of potential providers on the show floor, reminding me of a badly laid-out flea market.

By now, I had hoped we could have done better. Is it any wonder that marketers continue to be confused as they navigate the new world of customer acquisition and retention strategies?

On the show floor, a battle raged between denial and reality, each side capturing passersby with trinkets and flashy exhibits, hoping to make the case why their solution is the answer to the communications challenge. In a year when “change” seems to be on everyone’s lips, few really understand their individual roles in creating change.

You can obtain all the advice, case studies, and best practices on organizations and strategies that are “working.” You are still left the choice to learn from these new ways of mapping your interactive and e-mail strategies or stay the course, hoping for a return to the good old days when no one asks ROI (define) questions.

If you aren’t interested in changing the way you do business — abandoning the old and embracing the new — it’s time for you to look for a new career. If you work for a company whose leadership hasn’t truly embraced interactive communications, it’s time to leave. If you are a leader who isn’t calling your marketing team into the corner office and questioning every aspect of your off- and online strategy with an eye toward optimizing your spending, it’s time to leave. How many more weeks like last week are you willing to endure without aggressively changing your thinking and executing bold, new strategies? How many more people have to be laid off? How many more companies need to fail before we all get it?

Instead of questioning the value of your spending around the e-mail communications program, take a close look at all the costs in your overall marketing and media budget. The adoption of the interactive channel and e-mail communications as its dialogue enabler is not to be questioned. Stop listening to all those folks in your shop that are tied to the old; they’re dooming your company. Listen to your kids. Listen to the Internet generation. The bulk of consumers in the next three to five years will be the Internet generation. Sending them 50 print catalogs a month won’t get the job done, not by a long shot. E-mail, SMS (define), chat, Facebook, and the like are their primary communication and shopping channels. The longer you hang onto the hope that the decreasing percentage of your audience that still shops via catalog and telephone will reverse the trend, the more in denial you are and the deeper your problem.

There’s no bailout coming for your company’s failed communications strategy. To avoid falling deeper into the abyss, you must have a dramatic change of execution. Those of you who think that you can handle this challenge this late in the game with in-house resources, you’re only kidding yourselves. Your IT organization has always been too busy to truly understand the speed of innovation around e-mail platforms and other interactive channels. They continue to find other priorities that are “more important.” They don’t study the market, and they don’t have the expertise to build or execute what you need. I’ve heard countless stories from marketers who are still waiting for campaign reporting data from their in-house solutions weeks after they’ve submitted their requests. Unacceptable.

If you haven’t appended every offline postal name in your database with an e-mail address, do it now. If you haven’t deployed a strategy to move your all your customers to online billing, do it now. If you don’t have an initiative in your marketing organization that’s obsessed with maintaining in real time your customer’s behavioral and transactional profile, do it now.

How many more times will you need to hear that today’s consumer wants relevant, personalized messaging? If you don’t collect and leverage data in real time and provide consumers with relevant e-mail communications, you’re a spammer. You could be oblivious to spam in the offline print and catalog world. The overflowing, 10-yard recycling containers at my local dump are a constant reminder that so much wasted time and effort continues in our marketplace. Today, there’s page-turner technology that allows us to send personalized, relevant catalogs, direct mail, and publications via the e-mail channel. There’s no room for “I tried it. It didn’t work.” That’s old thinking. Make it work. Keep experimenting.

Time to ask more from your e-mail service provider (ESP). I know many of you want to do this in house. At the very least, work with e-mail providers that offer assisted ASP (define); right now we need to act with great urgency. The more help you get from those who work within the e-mail arena to help you adapt your strategy to the new world, the better. This isn’t the time for the DIY model. Work with ESPs that not only understand the mission-critical nature of the medium on its own but also comprehend e-mail’s role as part of the integrated media mix. The only way to optimize and create the efficiency required in today’s challenging economic and competitive arena is to share insight across the entire interactive tools spectrum.

If all of this makes you angry, that’s a good sign. For those of us still willing to roll up our sleeves, that frustration and anger will be channeled into new creative thinking and programs. Our world demands DNA change in its leaders. It’s my hope that these words stir some of you to action and to the leadership positions within your organizations. Together we can and must change the marketing world for the better. How many more company failures? How many more jobs lost?

Care deeply enough in what must be done to look past your fears. This is our professional and personal legacy.

Nuf said.

Al D.

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