Interactive Marketing: Business by e-mail creates consumer service demands

Interactive Marketing is an occasional feature focussing on news, issues and emerging trends in all areas of interactive marketing.Strategy invites column submissions. Enquiries should be directed to Mark Smyka, editor at (416) 408-2300.This column is by Marc Solby, a Toronto writer...

Interactive Marketing is an occasional feature focussing on news, issues and emerging trends in all areas of interactive marketing.

Strategy invites column submissions. Enquiries should be directed to Mark Smyka, editor at (416) 408-2300.

This column is by Marc Solby, a Toronto writer and multimedia project manager with Videoway Multimedia.

This is a smiley :-). You have to look at it sideways.

It means ‘I’m joking,’ or, ‘I’m happy,’ and it’s a staple of electronic mail.

In the coming years, it may find its way into your corporate vocabulary beyond zapping your pal down the hall.

As interactive networks begin to connect marketers and consumers, much has been written about the potential for individualized direct marketing.

The flip side, however, is that marketers will find themselves increasingly accessible to their true bosses – consumers.

Once they are neatly online, consumers won’t hesitate to tell you when they are :-) and when they are :-(.

Whether you are a manufacturer, retailer or an agency, if you have an address accessible to an interactive network, then you’ll have to manage the mail.

As in: ‘Hey, I tried your new cereal, Fire Roasted Marshmallows. My kids hated it, said it was ‘brutal,’ and I had to pitch the box. By the way, the ad is incredibly stupid too – just thought you’d like to know.’

While there are many things to be learned from this enhanced relationship, the foremost problem is volume. The sheer number and variety of consumer demands is astounding.

A major consumer goods manufacturer with a 1-800 number on its packages receives at least 20,000 calls a month – that doesn’t include letters.

You would need upwards of 50 people to handle the flow of requests.

Any consumer affairs professional can tell you the war stories – promotional requests, health and safety concerns, distribution problems, complaints about retailers and thousands of other unforseeable requests.

One brand manager I know just threw out 50 consumer letters that he couldn’t find time to answer. I doubt he’s the only one, and that’s only snail mail.

In your company, consumer affairs may be comfortably handling the volume of requests, but as accessibility grows and consumers make greater demands, the response system will have to be sophisticated.

Spending the time and money to develop an effective interactive consumer response system will be a strategic advantage.

Getting involved with an interactive test market will give you a sense of the online consumer environment and the consumer demands that result.

Even Ontario Premier Bob Rae has decided he wants to hear from us. You can now reach him at his e-mail address on the Internet (premier@gov.on.ca). I’ll tell you in a future column whether I get a response.

The individual consumer dialogue turns everyone into a service marketer, most notably, companies that are used to shipping boxes to distributors and retailers.

They will have to respond to: ‘I like your frozen entrees, but I don’t like green peppers. Which ones don’t have green peppers?’

These are the people that pay the bills, and they want to be treated like the vips they are. That extra effort will increasingly justify the premium price and customer loyalty guarded by brands over more generic competition.

If you’re some kind of traditionalist who still wants to ignore your responsibilities to demanding online consumers of the future, consider one other thing about e-mail.

It greatly enhances the communication among your consumers.

Through online forums where strangers can electronically chat and post messages, consumers can consult and compare like never before; as in ‘I was thinking of buying a Hyundai Elantra, what do you think of yours? What do/don’t you like?

It makes that rule of thumb about a negative consumer telling 10 people seem a little outdated.

Luckily, it’s not all about grim, whip-cracking cyberheaded consumers.

With a good database of your own (you won’t be allowed to share lists), you will be able to send relevant e-mail to preidentified key prospects.

If they like what they read and hear, your note will link them to a multimedia ‘brochure’ with still-frame images (eventually, video), text and sound that’s perpetually available on the network.

If they’re still with you, they may instantly get access to or send you a request for more information, or even, yes, look at your product, and, when they do, you’ll have to be there for them :-)