Mail-handling fears expected to accelerate bulk e-mail use
October 22, 2001
Hundreds of unused bulk-mail pitches sit in a box under Joanne Urbanik's desk at Ultimate Software.
The anthrax scare forced the Weston, Fla., company that specializes in payroll and personnel programs to cancel a long-planned marketing campaign. Urbanik, the company's marketing director, is now looking to salvage fourth-quarter sales by reviving the campaign on the Internet.
Even before two postal workers in the Washington D.C. area died Monday of apparent inhalation anthrax, businesses and individuals across the country were rethinking their reliance on regular mail — giving additional impetus to growth in e-mail marketing, billing and other digital communication.
Urbanik said she will try to target individuals who have specifically agreed to receive e-mail offers — but some e-mail recipients worry they will also get bombarded by more unsolicited messages, or spam.
"I grimly expect there will be people who hitchhike on the anthrax scare and say, 'For your convenience, we will spam you,"' said John Levine of the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial E-Mail.
Ten people nationwide have been confirmed as having contracted anthrax. Most of the cases have been tied to tainted letters.
Though bulk mail has not been the culprit, and the number of tainted letters is low, Gartner analyst Scott Nelson said "the key here is perception, and (consumers) become afraid of unexplained packages."
Nelson said response rates for direct mail are already as low as 1 percent, and marketers can't afford to have more of their pitches junked. For financial companies, he said, even a small shift in response can significantly affect revenues.
Bulk mailings generated $528 billion in sales last year, according to the Direct Marketing Association. The group estimates that the anthrax scare will cost bulk mailers at least $1 billion to $2 billion in lost sales.
Recently, it sent out an advisory suggesting that bulk mailers delay mailings to businesses because of potential logjams in company mailrooms. And the group said mailers should consider using e-mail or phone calls as well to alert consumers of postal mail on the way.
Yet Bob Wientzen, the group's chief executive, expects disruptions in direct mail to be temporary.
"E-mail is growing as a marketing tool, but it will grow as an additional channel, not as the only channel," he said. "I don't think that e-mail will ever fully replace direct mail."
Customers, he said, continue to like getting catalogs by mail, and computer technology still cannot match the vibrant images possible with paper. In addition, Wientzen pointed out, millions of Americans still have no access to the Internet.
So far, the anthrax scare has not resulted in drastic increases in e-mail or drops in postal sales. But change could come gradually in the next weeks and months as mailers try to increase the likelihood of having their messages read.
"People who might have hesitated or who have been against e-mail as a marketing tool will reconsider their position," said Glenn Freedman, president of L.I.S.T. Inc., a Lake Success, N.Y., company that handles both postal and electronic mail campaigns.
Usage of e-mail for marketing, bill payments, greeting cards, newsletters and general correspondences has already been growing for years. The anthrax scare is merely accelerating the growth.
The Arizona Daily Star, for instance, is no longer accepting letters to the editor by postal mail. Readers are asked to use e-mail or fax instead.
Princeton eCom Corp., a company that handles online bill payments, said signups for paperless mortgage billing and payments have increased 20 percent to 25 percent in recent days. Paytrust Inc., another bill processor, said inquiries have doubled.
In the past, concerns about Internet bill payments and other online transactions have largely related to information security and identity theft.
Steven Schneider, a State University of New York professor who has been studying Internet use, said the anthrax scare shifts the tolerance level.
"When you go from worrying about a virus attacking your hard drive to a (germ) attacking your children," Schneider said, "people are more inclined to settle for damage to your hard drive."
By ANICK JESDANUN, AP Internet Writer. Copyright © 2001 - The Lubbock Avalanche-Journal