The View From The DMA Floor

The annual Direct Marketing Association (DMA) conference is always an interesting event for me to attend because, as someone who comes from a direct marketing background, I like to see how this offline arena is working with and being affected by my current field of e-mail marketing. Remember in 2000, when we all thought e-mail would cannibalize the print world? While there's been quite a shift in spending in the online and offline spaces, I have to say the offline world is as powerful as ever. Until we discontinue teaching via books and paper, this form of advertising will stay with us for centuries to come.

In the direct marketing world, e-mail is more than a promotional channel; it takes into account many other dimensions of customer service, site response, transactional systems, human resources and channel distribution considerations. Understanding e-mail's value becomes much more difficult.

While the e-mail, list, lead generation and search companies still worked side-by-side with the magnet-makers and the envelope-stuffing machines, there was a different dynamic operating than was evident at the 2003 and 2004 conferences.

During the pre-conference sessions, there was a mix of many disciplines that you would traditionally see at a DMA event (print, direct mail, creative for offline, data mining, list management, analytics), yet there was a new emergence of e-mail specific sessions and interests that you didn't typically see in the past.

While I floated around many workshops, I gauged the levels of audience attendance and overall responsiveness. The e-mail sessions were well-attended, in many cases standing room only. The hot subjects were about understanding deliverability, authentication and compliance. In the past there was more focus on legal issues, as well as discussions on what worked in a campaign.

During the general sessions, it was interesting that the masses who couldn't attend the pre-conference ones were flocking to the e-mail sessions. Again, these were standing room only. About 30 percent of the people in my session "Theory and Practice E-mail" professed to be advanced e-mail marketers with over three years' experience, but most were relatively new to this channel. What was unique is, we introduced some new thoughts about segmenting audiences and the valuation of programs, and the audience seemed to be scurrying to write notes. Leading a two-and-a-half hour session on e-mail, I was also surprised at the responsiveness of the audience. Is e-mail more interesting today or are more people just beginning to pay attention to it (or were we just more engaging presenters)?

The trade show floor cast an even stranger view, as I was hard-pressed to find the e-mail marketing service providers intermingled amongst the 22 aisles of vendors. It was strange to see some of the most familiar e-mail service providers hidden among the mailing list firms. Even stranger was the inability of these ESPs to clearly express their value propositions in their company message.

What does this all mean to you? From my perspective as a speaker at ad:tech, OMMA and DMA, I've seen new trends in the types of people wanting to learn about e-mail, and in their level of understanding, the challenges they face and how they differ by type of conference. The problems I see are all the same, yet the perspectives seem quite different. The internal dependencies on building and managing e-mail programs are changing, and responsibility for managing these channels is extending past the traditional Web and marketing groups.

The moral of the story is, e-mail marketing is alive and well--yet the perspective of the channel is shifting, and technical, compliance and deliverability issues are even hotter commodities today than yesterday. Last year the big issue was the CAN SPAM Act; today the focus is on deliverability and strategy.

While not usually the most colorful channel to talk about, a few of us evangelists are still trying to spice up our view of this often-thought-about, always-used, yet seldom-understood anomaly called "e-mail."

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