In “Toughest Year,” DMA Looks to Technology

ORLANDO — Amid a “perfect storm” of challenges, direct marketers are finding hope in new interactive technologies. That was the message from Bob Wientzen, president and CEO of the Direct Marketing Association (DMA), in a kickoff speech at the organization’s 86th annual conference in Orlando.

The convention comes at a particularly tumultuous time for the DMA. Public battles are raging over the Do-Not-Call registry, how best to fight spam, and how sales tax should be handled for online and catalog transactions.

“This past year has been the toughest year that our organization has faced, politically and with the media,” said Wientzen in his welcome speech to conference attendees, numbering in the thousands (the DMA declined to release more specific registration figures).

While the storm of controversy still rages, the DMA is increasingly bringing interactive marketers into the fold, a shift evidenced by the prominent role online and interactive media played in Wientzen’s speech. The growing importance of such media is also illustrated by the DMA’s recent efforts to play a role in the spam battle. It recently shepherded the release of e-mail best practices guidelines issued by its Association for Interactive Marketers (AIM) subsidiary. (Delays in the release of those guidelines led several AIM members to quit the organization and accuse the DMA of watering down the recommendations.)

No wonder the DMA seeks to play a greater role in the interactive arena. Research it released Monday, cited by Wientzen, found e-mail the most cost-effective of all direct response media in generating return on investment (ROI). The medium bested others in cost effectiveness for driving direct orders, and in lead-generation.

For all e-mail’s promise, the specter of spam haunts the industry. Wientzen cited spam as a major political and media challenge for the DMA, and said the organization had been working on the problem for the past year. Despite the DMA’s efforts, spam laws have passed in 36 states, most notably in California, where a new law is causing intense consternation industry.

“Obviously, this law will put a lot of you out of the e-mail business in California come January,” he told attendees. “This unworkable law is the poster child for why we need a single, nationwide policy.”

The DMA doesn’t expect federal legislation until next year. It hopes a version of the “Can Spam Act” will pass. The measure would require honest subject lines, accurate header information, the mailer’s physical address, and te honoring all opt-out requests. Anti-spam advocates have criticized the bill, also known as the Burns/Wyden bill, for not going far enough, partially because it supports an opt-out, rather than opt-in, standard.

Whatever the troubles with e-mail, the DMA appears to see its future in the interactive arena. In the DMA’s Quarterly Business Review survey, results of which were released at the conference, the organization found respondents anticipated spending increases to be in three categories: customer acquisition; e-mail marketing and Internet integration; and e-commerce solutions.

“Even though many of our member companies’ sales may be stagnant or down, the industry’s total sales continue to grow for two key reasons,” Wientzen said. “First, there’s the Web, which has become a very powerful portal for at-distance shopping. And the second reason is the increasing number of non-traditional users of direct marketing that [sic] have fueled industry growth.”

Capping off his speech, Wientzen discussed emerging technologies he expects will play a role in direct marketing’s future. Among these are iTV, SMS, WiFi and 3D imaging. He also spoke of the promise of radio frequency identification (RFID), an inventory tracking technology that’s been praised as promising, but has also raised privacy advocates’ hackles.

“Technology will continue to present us incredible opportunities to market smarter, faster, and more cost effectively,” Wientzen said. “Also, the steady shift from general, mass marketing to targeted direct marketing will offer us incredible opportunities.”

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