Keep your customers happy and they’ll keep on coming back

Exactly how the near-future unfolds for the global direct marketing industry will be determined by three key factors, according to DMA president and CEO Robert Wientzen, namely: technology, public policy, and the ability of marketers to well serve the needs of...

Exactly how the near-future unfolds for the global direct marketing industry will be determined by three key factors, according to DMA president and CEO Robert Wientzen, namely: technology, public policy, and the ability of marketers to well serve the needs of their customers.

It is that last point, in particular, that Wientzen emphasized in his keynote address at the Direct Marketing Association’s 83rd Annual Conference and Exhibition, held in New Orleans Oct. 15-18, and attended by more than 15,000 conference delegates.

‘Throughout the millennia, when it came to relations between buyer and seller,’ Wientzen said, ‘you could boil it down to two words: ‘Caveat emptor.’ Buyer beware. With the rise of the Web, that is changing. It’s rapidly shifting to ‘caveat vendor.’ In other words, seller beware.

‘This buyer empowerment will only accelerate as technology steadily marches onward,’ he added. ‘No matter how great a product is, or how strong its brand, or how cool its Web site is, or how much money it spends on advertising and marketing, little of it will matter if you’re not delivering on your promise to the customer.’

Wientzen told the direct marketers gathered at the conference that despite the ‘dot-carnage’ that has befallen so many new technology-focused companies in the marketplace, ‘the pendulum is heading back to direct marketing. Back to the traditional values and the tools many of you have used successfully for years.’

The proposition that direct marketers are particularly well-positioned to be the tactical leaders in the marketing world’s battle to tame the Internet is one that carried through many of the DMA conference sessions. That includes the Oct. 17 keynote delivered by Christopher Locke, co-author of The Cluetrain Manifesto, a best-selling book that challenges many assumptions about the nature of digital marketing.

The Internet, according to Locke, is stimulating ‘a powerful global conversation’ through which ‘people are discovering and inventing new ways to share relevant knowledge with blinding speed.’

Although intending that assessment to be a ‘wake-up call’ for marketers who continue to talk at their customers instead of engaging them in meaningful two-way dialogue, Locke acknowledged the strides made on that front within the direct marketing industry over the last several years. He said that if marketers can master the ability to speak to their customers in a manner that is ‘articulate, entertaining, engaging and knowledgeable,’ they should succeed in winning and preserving the loyalty of all their stakeholders over the long run.

Locke’s commentary fell on at least one set of receptive ears in that of Constance Turner, marketing and communications director for Toronto-based Enbridge Consumers Gas, who was among a small group of Canadian delegates attending the New Orleans conference.

‘It seemed – much more so than at other conferences I’ve attended in the last year or so – that there was much more of an understanding and acceptance among everyone there that we are moving into a totally different paradigm in terms of how marketing will be done in the future,’ she says.

Based on what she learned at the conference, Turner, who is also chair of the Canadian Marketing Association’s Branding Council, says, ‘It’s clear that there will be much more marketing to ‘communities’ on the Internet, and that there will be a lot more word-of-mouth marketing than we see today. Our challenge, as we start building stronger one-on-one relationships with our customers, is to determine how best to utilize those different networks.’

Contacted after her return to Toronto, Turner says the ideas she picked up on in New Orleans have already spurred discussions within her company. Specifically, she wonders whether there is a way to make employees feel more productive and in charge of themselves and also encourage them to serve customers better.

‘I came away with a sense that we have a need for change in how we’re doing things, and some pretty interesting ideas that can be discussed within the context of our own business.’

Somewhat less impressed with the conference, overall, was Geoff Clarke, vice-president of direct marketing with Toronto-based Norwich Union. Stressing that his primary desire in going to the conference was to learn about new tools and techniques available to database marketers, Clarke says he was a little disappointed with the calibre of the conference sessions he attended this year over last.

‘What I like to get from these shows, which I didn’t feel I got this time,’ he says, ‘were keynote speakers who give you an opportunity to sit back and see where the industry is going with some of the broader pictures.’

Nonetheless, Clarke says he has every intention of attending next year’s conference, which will be held in Chicago. ‘The DMA shows are good to go to,’ he says. ‘You can’t always guarantee you’ll get a good program, but I still think it’s good to get out and see the broader picture.’

Meanwhile, Allen Schopp, creative director with Blitz Promotion Data Direct in Toronto, says he, too, was a little underwhelmed by the content of some of the conference sessions he attended, which were primarily in the creative track. Yet, he says he was impressed enough by several of the products and services being promoted on the exhibit hall floor to have made the trip to the conference worthwhile.

‘I went hoping to be inspired, but left thinking that I didn’t really learn anything new. But, the show itself was quite good. I saw a lot of new innovations there, especially some pretty exciting Internet stuff, and some new ways of ‘packaging’ traditional direct mail that I hadn’t seen before.’

According to the DMA, more than 600 exhibitors were present at this year’s event, displaying their expertise in a broad range of product and service areas, from digital printing and electronic list management to streaming e-mail technology and customer relationship management (CRM) solutions.

Among the Canadian exhibitors at the conference were Toronto-based ICOM Information & Communications, which was promoting its full array of services and products, including TargetSource, its 18-million-name U.S. consumer database, and mail service specialist Postal Promotions, which announced that it is now offering several new e-commerce services and that its name was being changed to PostLinx Corp. (see related story, p.D2).