Anthrax Scare Could Boost E-mail Use

E-mail marketers are loathe to discuss it, but the industry is preparing for an upswing in demand as the anthrax mail scare threatens their traditional counterparts.

Already, several major online direct marketing firms are reporting increased attention from new and current advertisers, in anticipation that the efficacy of offline direct marketing will be hampered by fears of mail-carried bioterrorism.

“Yes, it will have an effect,” said Interactive Advertising Bureau chief executive and president Robin Webster. “This opens up an opportunity for the online arena, which we’ve always seen as more than a medium. While I don’t like to take advantage of a horrible situation, the audience was big before Sept. 11, and it’s bigger now.”

“Marketers need to sit back and say ‘the world is different now, and you can’t just do the same marketing plan’,” she added. “‘Here’s another opportunity if you haven’t thought of it before.’ It’s a good way to deliver whatever they wanted to before.”

A spokesperson at one Boston-area firm added, “We’ve discussed the situation internally, as anyone would do, and yes, we have seen new clients coming forward. It’s horrible to think that we’re benefiting from this, but … we expect to see an increase.”

Other e-mail players agreed.

“There’s definitely been an up-tick in terms of interest,” said Bigfoot Interactive chief executive Al DiGuido. “Companies that had us on the long list have put us on the short list. Calls are being returned and the interest level is high.”

DiGuido said his company, based in New York, was seeing an increase in demand primarily for its services that append e-mail addresses to marketers’ existing databases, which is typically a precursor to the launch of a new campaign. Along those lines, creative work, too, has picked up, he added.

“E-mail’s been here for a long time, and there are marketers who have taken their time understanding it,” he said. “We don’t want to seem like we’re taking advantage of, or profiting from, a terrorist act. This certainly isn’t the way you want to be front-page news … [but] this situation is throwing a stronger spotlight on something that was growing already.”

At any rate, others with a stake in the issue say that the threat to the traditional mailing industry has yet to materialize.

“Intuitively, because of the amount of fear that seems to be there, real or perceived, it’s possible that e-mail traffic and interactive marketing may be on the increase,” said Michael Faulkner, who is the DMA’s senior vice president of segment services and affiliates. But, he added, “It’s real early. There’s no trend information or quantitative data to tell us what will happen. E-mail traffic is up [but] I don’t think you can do cause and effect right now. You’d have to have more time pass and do more studies.”

Faulkner added that it could be some time before the industry begins to feel the effects of an anthrax-related slowdown in direct mail response.

“Companies are testing and will do small mailings as they normally do,” he said. “It will be weeks at the minimum. If we follow the trends and continue to see an increase in e-mail marketing, that could be an indicator.”

If that’s indeed the case, it could spell yet another major headache for the U.S. Postal Service, whose governors raised postal rates by a penny in January. Last month, the service said it would cut 13,000 jobs and asked the Postal Rate Commission, an independent regulatory body that oversees the unit, for an additional rate increase, by as much as 9 percent.

Increased rates and lower productivity as a result of layoffs and production center closings is likely to affect the country’s direct marketers’ willingness to go the snail mail route. (The Direct Marketing Association, for instance, said it had “grave concerns” over the latest postal increase request.)

Though while such developments would prove harmful to the USPS as well as traditional mailers and agencies, the news would continue what appears to be growing momentum for e-mail marketing. Online ad leader DoubleClick said earlier this month that its recent string of acquisitions in the e-mail space had contributed to its direct marketing divisions bringing in 40 percent of its revenue. CEO Kevin Ryan earlier this year also told analysts he expected e-mail to grow from a $1 million to $100 million business for the company by next year.

In the meantime, the USPS said in a statement from Postmaster General John “Jack” Potter that it is taking “every reasonable measure to assure the safety of our employees and customers,” including safe handling procedures for mail.

At the National Postal Forum earlier this week during which he announced a postal inspection task force, Potter added that he would not “sit back and allow our nation’s confidence in the mail to erode.”

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