Opponents object to the growing avalanche of daily messages that clog the box. Proponents continue to remind us that e-mail is a technology support tool whose universal acceptance and use is inevitable.

I think of my own recent experience involving an inaccurate and somewhat out-of-date database of 5,800 client and prospect names. The file was littered with duplicates but, worse still, it had been more than a year since anybody had received a mailing from me which, after all, was the purpose of the database in the first place.

After six months of hard work and necessary expense, the database is now "clean" and it's been reduced to 1,600 qualified contacts. Here's the best news: each one has an attached e-mail address, which means that starting in January all 1,600 contacts will receive a monthly e-mail newsletter from their good friend, Alf Nucifora.

No messy printing. No expensive mailing. No lost or returned envelopes. Write it, type it and deliver it the same day, at a fraction of the cost of the traditional printed piece and with greater reassurance that it will be delivered in one piece.

The statistics confirm the revolution that e-mail is fomenting. There are now more than 81 million e-mail users in the United States, accessing 200 million e-mail boxes. By 2001, nearly 50 percent of the U.S. population will communicate via e-mail.

Today, the average e-mail user receives 31 messages per day, which projects to 618 billion e-mails per year. By comparison, the U.S. Postal Service delivered 186 billion pieces of snail mail in 1998. By the end of 2000, it is projected that more than 7 trillion e-mail messages will be sent annually.

But there are problems. "Spamming" is becoming rampant, and as annoying as regular junk mail or the dinner-time telemarketer's intrusive phone call. Even more distressing is the fact that companies that advertise e-mail as a preferred means of communication with the customer are becoming increasingly untimely in their responses.

Recent surveys show that most major consumer marketers take days to respond to a customer's e-mail inquiry hardly a sensible approach if one accepts the premise that the intrinsic essence of e-mail is speed and immediacy.

Given that the consumer has decided to embrace the technology, it's now incumbent upon the marketer to re-think e-mail's essential role. It should no longer be viewed as just a communication device, a replacement for the fax or the letter. Smart marketers will view it as a proactive and preemptive marketing weapon, a pipeline into the customer's office and home in which, with permission or by invitation, a marketing message, a sales reminder or an invitation to buy can be adroitly placed.

Remember, more than 50 percent of current e-mail users have responded to an e-mail advertisement, with almost half of those actually buying the product or service in question.

Although it's still in its infancy as a marketing resource, there are existing examples of effective use of the technology for marketing purposes. At the most basic level, some providers are attempting to revolutionize the direct mail business by allowing small-business marketers to e-mail their messages to an online, third-party printer and fulfillment house that will literally design, print and post the snail mail letter or direct mail piece quicker and cheaper (www.eletter.com).

Others, like Tim Lasso, a third-party, Web applications provider (tim@lassopower.com), are developing e-mail marketing systems that are built on a platform of credibility and accountability. Lasso sees multiple benefits emanating from e-mail marketing, including targeted delivery, viral marketing opportunities and rapid communication.

But Lasso is firm in his belief that e-mail must abide by the rules if it is to curry the consumer's favor. This means building up a mailing list through referral marketing (providing incentives) and not by buying lists that inevitably lead to spamming. It also means delivering a message that conveys authority with personality and avoiding downloads that add to the recipient's frustration and provide a breeding ground for unwanted viruses.

The bottom line is that e-mail reduces per-inquiry costs versus telephone and other contact channels; assures higher quality, more consistent responses to customer inquiries; and generates valuable marketing data to boot.

As e-mail usage explodes, the attendant problem of dealing with the overload becomes critical. Some companies, including small businesses, are now outsourcing their e-mail management function in order to maintain communication quality, leverage the technology without a large capital investment and obtain a customized, scalable solution based on company and end-user needs.

One such provider is Atlanta-based Intellimedia (www.intellimedia.com). According to President Ben Dyer, while there has been no effective tracking of e-mail usage to date, e-mail communication is unquestionably where customer contact is headed.

Intellimedia cites the e-mail handling process that it manages for AirTran, one of the nation's largest discount airlines. The customer management system, developed and managed by Intellimedia, provides 24-hour turnaround on the hundreds of e-mail messages that the airline receives each day. A detailed archive tree is maintained to insure that the customer's history and profile can be accessed at all times. Intellimedia provides constant feedback reports that, among other things, are then used by the airline in upgrading and redesigning its Web site, a classic learn-as-you-go mechanism that is essential when dealing with a technology undergoing exponential growth.

There can be no doubt that e-mail communication is currently misused and abused. But we should accept the reality that the customer will accept the e-mail message if it's delivered with permission, precision and good grace. Our challenge is to develop the marketing platform that meets and exceeds those expectations.

Alf Nucifora is an Atlanta-based marketing consultant. He can be contacted via e-mail at zubicon@aol.com, his web site www.nucifora.com, or by fax at (770) 952-7834.

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