Attendees at the Direct Marketing Association's fall conference here last week swarmed into sessions and exhibits that touted interactivity as tailor-made for their businesses. It marked the second straight conference where emerging media proved a hot topic.
"Right now, I believe the direct marketing industry as a whole is better equipped to deal with new media than general advertisers are," said Ted Leonsis, president of America Online Services Co.
But it's not as simple as putting a catalog online, and as delays of several market tests have shown, "it's been a tremendously volatile year in the interactive services business," said Martin Nisenholtz, director of content strategy at Ameritech Corp., Chicago.
Cyberspace shoppers are far more demanding customers, expecting nearly instantaneous, error-free service.
"Interactive consumers have a sword of Damocles they hang over your head that does not exist in any other form of marketing, and they're ready to bring it down," said William Tobin, president of PC Flowers. The Stamford, Conn., company sells through Prodigy, US Order's ScanFone and other platforms, and has just added a gourmet-food and gift service.
If marketers fail to live up to customers' expectations, "they hold the [online] service responsible, and they have the opportunity to walk onto a bulletin board and tell millions of others," quickly damaging a marketer's reputation, Mr. Tobin said.
"Online shoppers will not put up with what traditional retail shoppers will." So marketers must invest in speedier delivery systems, better inventory management and more responsive support systems, Mr. Tobin said, without merely "dusting off" existing models for handling retail or catalog sales.
Others face different obstacles in marketing the same products on multiple formats.
"The biggest challenge here is a creative challenge," said Michael Atkin, VP-marketing for Lands' End, Herndon, Va., which has invested a "substantial" portion of its marketing budget in new venues like Prodigy and Bell Atlantic's upcoming Stargazer system. "How do you go out and create a brand and a way to sell that is in concert with your catalog? We can't be two different companies."
Some executives urged tighter links between new-media purveyors and established direct marketers, who are the best business prospects. Despite the presence of both camps here, they noted the irony of a nearly simultaneous interactive marketing conference (see story on Page 14) in Scottsdale, Ariz.