Mail-handling fears expected to accelerate bulk e-mail use as anthrax worries continue - - Tulsa, OK - News, Weather, Video and Sports - |

Mail-handling fears expected to accelerate bulk e-mail use as anthrax worries continue

Hundreds of unused bulk-mail pitches sit in a box under Joanne 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.

Across the country, businesses and individuals are rethinking their reliance on postal mail _ giving additional impetus to growth in e-mail marketing, billing and other digital communication.

Urbanik says she will try to target individuals who have specifically agreed to receive e-mail offers _ but some e-mail recipients worry they'll 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 contracted anthrax. Most of the cases have been tied to tainted letters.

Though bulk mail hasn't been the culprit, and the number of tainted letters is low, Gartner analyst Scott Nelson says ``the key here is perception, and (consumers) become afraid of unexplained packages.''

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 can't match the vibrant images possible with paper. In addition, Wientzen points out, millions of Americans still have no access to the Internet.

So far, the anthrax scare hasn't 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.

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 (bacteria) attacking your children,'' Schneider said, ``people are more inclined to settle for damage to your hard drive.''
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