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Direct mail picks up, but so do e-mail and scrutiny

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Five months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and four months after the initial anthrax scare, the volume of direct mail is back to its normal level, industry executives say. But things haven’t returned to business as usual for mailers.

Although the biggest threat to maintaining a steady flow of mail has been the recession, the tragic events of late last year sparked several changes among b-to-b mailers. These include greater selectivity in choosing the target audience and tighter scrutiny of the materials being mailed. It is now standard practice for many companies to list a toll-free phone number or Web address on envelopes and to use an e-mail or telemarketing campaign in concert with a postal drop.

Hopping on the e-mail bandwagon

The anthrax scare has also prompted previously reluctant b-to-b mailers to finally hop aboard the e-mail bandwagon.

"Marketers considering e-mail have been spurred to get into it sooner than expected," said Jim Hathaway, VP-business development for Grafica Inc., an integrated direct marketing agency whose clients include AT&T Corp., Avaya Inc. and PSE&G Inc. "It provides an opportunity for agencies to prove that e-mail lists are reliable and can be just as an effective marketing tool as postal lists."

American Slide Chart Corp., for example, which designs and manufactures dimensional marketing products, increased its e-mail testing following the anthrax attacks. "It’s another way for us to introduce ourselves to people who might not know us nor our products, and we need to incorporate it," said Judy Studenski, exec VP of the Wheaton, Ill.-based company.

The anxiety caused by the anthrax attacks has had some effect on recipients’ handling of direct mailings. A recent study conducted by Brann Worldwide found that 29% of business professionals are opening less mail in the wake of the attacks.

"People are pragmatic, and clients know what works best in the marketing mix," said David Finkel, CEO of Wilton, Conn.-based Brann Worldwide, whose clients include Microsoft Corp., BT Cellnet and E*Trade Group Inc. "Whether it’s the recession, anthrax or media fatigue, it’s our responsibility to help clients evaluate through polling and auditing which marketing vehicles are performing and how customers are behaving."

Fine-tuning the guidelines

B-to-b mailers, who generally mail in bulk, are largely immune to mail attacks such as those committed late last year.

"You’re dealing with big sorters, printers and stuffers that move at very fast rates," said David Sable, president-CEO of Wunderman Worldwide, New York, a direct marketing agency whose clients include Xerox Corp., AT&T Corp. and Registered.com. "If something happens, the mail is very easy to track."

Still, Sable and others agree that the anthrax scare has heightened awareness among mailers. "We’ve noticed that because mailrooms are screening the mail so closely there’s the possibility that bulk mail could be characterized as junk mail," said Grafica’s Hathaway. "We need to change our expectations in terms of lead time, get things out the door quicker and let people know they should be expecting something."

H. Robert Wientzen, president-CEO of the Direct Marketing Association, said marketers must also be sensitive to any additional costs larger companies may now take on as they upgrade their mailroom operations following the anthrax attacks

"There’s a fear that with increasing costs companies will begin to question the mail process," Wientzen said. "Marketers have to think strategically so mail is more targeted, more relevant and provides more value to the recipient."

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