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Consumer Republic -- E-mail marketing is a new medium with an old message


A few months ago my husband received a letter from our car dealer wishing him a happy birthday. This dealer, bless his soul, will apparently go to any length to ensure our happiness and let us know he cares. That must be why he and the manufacturer sent us not one but three different customer satisfaction surveys in the first months or our lease, plus a fourth letter asking us to return the third one. I finally did, writing over it in big red letters: “For God’s sake, we’re satisfied! Leave us alone!”

By some lights, the surveys and your birthday wishes are just smart marketing. Our car dealer merely wants to cement a “relationship” that will lead to many happy years of us giving him our money. To us, however, the birthday card was nothing more than unctuous direct-mail hooey coughed up by an anonymous database. It felt about as warm and personal as that familiar junk-mail greeting, “Debra Goldman! You May Have Won $10 Million!”

Relationship marketing and its sister buzzwords have reigned as the marketing orthodoxy long enough for us to evaluate their success. As far as this consumer is concerned, it has proven to be mostly a fraud, like that car dealer’s junk mail with a heart. That goes for the Internet, too, with its promise that connectivity and databases will bring new intimacy to the marketer-consumer relationship. We’re told that once marketers learn all about our habits and preferences—with our permission of course—they will speak to us one-on-one.

But based on the evidence so far, the promise of mass personalized attention—especially in exchange for personal information—is 90 percent snake oil. If the future of marketing depends on personalized communications, marketing has a long way to go.

I was not always so skeptical. Early on in the e-commerce revolution, I ventured onto travel sites that offered me helpful personalized e-mail alerts. Tell us which routes you regularly fly, and we will keep you apprised of the lowest available fare, they said. Isn’t e-commerce wonderful, I thought. Sign me up! Then I started to get the e-mails.

Like clockwork, gobs of copy landed in my in-box touting Hawaiian getaways, weekends in London and fly-drive deals to Disney World. But the information I actually requested? At the bottom of the message, buried under much irrelevant promotional palaver, were a couple of lines with a URL link, telling me I could check out the latest fares on the Web site. Well, duh. So much for getting more relevant information in exchange for personal data.

Not long ago, I shared this complaint with an analyst at Forrester Research who told me she thought permission e-mail had a promising future. My story was just a case of bad execution, she assured me. E-mail marketing is a new medium. As time goes on marketers are sure to get better at it.

If you believe that, I’ve got a bridge I would like to sell you—or at least an e-mail alert I’d like to send.

The real quid pro quo in the marketer-consumer “relationship” was made clear in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed piece by DoubleClick CEO Kevin O’Connor. It is part of the strategy to rehabilitate the company in the wake of its PR debacle over the privacy issue. To summarize his argument: The Internet is a cornucopia of free information—or so it seems. In fact, nothing is free; you the consumer get all this great stuff for nothing because the advertiser pays the bill.

Advertisers, however, don’t do this out of the goodness of their hearts. They do it to reach eyeballs, and increasingly, insist on reaching targeted eyeballs. If consumers want to continue enjoying the bounty of cyberspace, they are going to have to deliver the personal info advertisers want. So get used to it. And by the way, we will never do anything underhanded with all the dope we’ve got on you.

In other words, advertisers do not need all this information about you so you can get what you want. They need it so they can get what they want.

This is nothing new, and all the connectivity and databases in the world will never change it. Marketers may say the consumer is king, but the ultimate power goes to the one who foots the bill. It just makes one nostalgic for the good, honest days of broadcast.

Back then, audiences may have been held captive to whatever advertisers had to tell them. But no one pretended they were doing it for our own good.

 

Debra Goldman, ADWEEK—March 20, 2000

Copyright © 2000 Adweek and BPI Communications Inc. All rights reserved.