2001 Direct Marketer of the Year
Silence of the Foxes
In 1993, AOL dipped its toe in the free software waters. "The reason I started sending live software out there was because it was very difficult to describe to someone who had not actually seen it," Brandt says. "Chat room? E-mail? Conversing on computers in real time? It's like trying to describe swimming to someone who has never seen water."
AOL began sending complimentary discs to people who requested them. Later in 1993, Brandt adapted an AOL self-mailer and included a diskette. The response was phenomenal. She sent out a series of confirming tests and finally rolled out with the free floppy mailings. The package generated an average 11-percent response, with some lists pulling as high as 16 percent to 18 percent. All lists were comprised of known computer owners.
"I started blasting out mailings as fast as I could," says Brandt. "We mailed so much I had to roll out based on two campaigns prior, which meant we were flying somewhat blind all along." At the same time, she lived in perpetual terror that she only had a limited window—that the others would do copycat mailings and flood the marketplace with diskettes. It turned out she had three years of being alone in the marketplace mailing floppies.
Why did the others not follow suit? For starters, where most marketing managers love to blab to the press how smart they are, Brandt maintained stony silence during those days. She made no speeches, took part in no industry panels and granted no interviews to the press. "I did not believe going public would benefit AOL in any way," she says. At the same time, the buzz at industry gatherings was that Brandt and AOL were nuts—totally off-the-wall—sending out hugely expensive mailings that broke all the rules of direct marketing. "Yes," she admitted to outsiders, "we really are stupid." Brandt, her marketing department and Steve Case remained mum and quietly continued to eat Prodigy's and CompuServe's lunch. In Brandt's immortal words: "It's not the cost, stupid!"