Opportunity: Handle With Care

Computers spread viruses, but they don’t spread anthrax.

This tidbit hardly qualifies as a silver lining, considering the enormity of the cloud America, and the world, is under. But it is, ironically, good news for our industry. The anthrax scare is clearly affecting direct mail, and all indications point to email and other forms of Web advertising as the obvious alternative. The trick is going to be using this knowledge to guide marketing online with discretion and tact.

The Web audience was big before September 11, and the events of that day made it even bigger. Over the past few weeks, we’ve witnessed a number of sea changes in our culture. Events are being cancelled. There’s a growing suspicion of snail mail as a result of the anthrax threat. We’re seeing a steep decline in consumer spending due to spiraling unemployment and the fear of going to large public places, such as shopping malls. Meanwhile, dozens of expensive print and broadcast campaigns are being trashed or totally revamped because they are deemed inappropriate for the new world in which we awoke one day last month.

If that’s not a wake-up call for the redirection of marketing dollars to a medium that is faster and cheaper, offers immediate action, and is more dynamic and customizable, I don’t know what is. The challenge now is converting marketers who have allocated little to none of their budgets to online efforts, without appearing to be taking advantage of a hideous situation.

I was at an industry event in New York the other night. A sizable marketing crowd was there. The buzz was pretty good for a change. People were saying things like, “Email is getting huge… This week we signed a whole bunch of new deals.” Only they’re saying it sotto voce. Who wants to look like they’re cashing in on a crisis?

When I’m wearing my editor’s hat, the talk gets a lot more cautious. “Intuitively, because of the amount of fear that seems to be out there, real or perceived, it’s possible that email traffic and interactive marketing may be on the increase,” Michael Faulkner, senior VP of segment services and affiliates at the Direct Marketing Association (DMA), told me, “but there’s no trend information or quantitative data to tell us what will happen.”

Well, no. But there is common sense. This week, the DMA hustled to issue (via email, of course) guidelines to its member companies that address security issues. Among its suggestions were notifying customers via email that a direct mail piece was on its way and adding corporate logos and personalization elements to envelopes.

Look, I’m not afraid of opening my mail, and I’m not advocating the death of the direct mail industry (although less of that — and of spam — would be most appreciated). Let’s face it. If marketers are going to notify consumers via email that “the ad’s in the mail,” why would they limit the message to just that fact? As long as they’re going to the trouble, they could include promotional messages, links to their sites, and brand messages.

Second, the “add a logo or personalization” suggestion isn’t going to cut it if this scare intensifies. At the risk of sounding like a fear monger, consumers realize that anyone with a decent laser printer can slap a pretty good facsimile of a corporate logo on an envelope — and that’s the low-budget approach. Besides, direct marketers are loath to identify envelopes with logos, which broadcast “I’m junk mail — junk me” messages to the recipient.

Personalization? We’ve all seen photographs of the hand-addressed envelopes to Senator Tom Daschle and Tom Brokaw that contained anthrax spores. They looked awfully personalized to me.

OK, that’s a little extreme. But there are other, more tangible reasons why direct mail has lost its edge, at least temporarily. Given new security measures and transportation difficulties, my mail’s been arriving much later than usual. What about yours? I’m writing on Thursday and have yet this week to see some of my magazines that regularly show up on Monday.

Robin Webster, president of the Interactive Advertising Bureau, told me that she hopes marketers, “will be clever enough to put two and two together,” and make interactive a larger part of their plan. “They need to recognize the world is different now, and you can’t just do the same marketing plan. Besides, with email you don’t have to put promos together weeks and weeks in advance, like I used to when I was in print.”

Webster also cautions marketers to take the high road and not resort to fear tactics to convince clients to use interactive methods. My ClickZ colleague and the CEO of Bigfoot Interactive, Al DiGuido, agrees. “Email’s the most efficient, safe, and cost-effective method out there. But we don’t want to seem like we’re taking advantage of, or profiting from, a terrorist act.”

So Bigfoot, along with other email companies, is deliberately keeping a low profile these days. But… their phones are ringing, and they’re signing new clients. Including ones who weren’t returning calls a few weeks ago.

In the wake of something terrible, a door is opening for email marketers. Maybe the rest of the online marketing industry will profit as well. Please remember — this is because of a catastrophe. Be careful how you market yourself. Don’t push it. Do great campaigns for those new clients. Make the industry proud. Those clients could stick with interactive long after this scare is over. We could save a few trees, too.

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