Fulfillment Goes Digital
If you’re currently leveraging the Web to enhance your organization’s fulfillment efforts, you’re probably on to something. But if you haven’t yet integrated digital fulfillment in your marketing program, consider how it can help you achieve your goals and why it may behoove you to explore this approach.
Perhaps your goal is to increase response, reduce time to market, improve customer satisfaction or gain a competitive advantage? Whatever it is, digital fulfillment may be precisely what your marketing program needs to reach that next level. Highly customized brochures, downloadable software, streaming videos and e-mail are among the formats being used to deliver requested information and promotional offers, as well as to distribute products via the Web, and these formats are popping up across all industries.
“What I’m seeing in the day-to-day world is consumers are more demanding, more Web-centric and Web-savvy, and they expect instantaneous results,” says Tony Sziklai, president of Moulton Logistics Management, a Van Nuys, Calif.-based fulfillment company. “Digital fulfillment takes it to the next level for a lot of direct marketers who have been using traditional channels. Now they can really bring their consumer to the Web and do all kinds of creative things and make more money in the process.”
Go for the Benefits …
When it comes to the benefits of digital fulfillment, one that resonates well with marketers is the ability to decrease overall costs, particularly when it’s feasible to transition to electronic product distribution. “Software that can be downloaded directly is extremely low-cost,” says Jay Catlin, president of Valencia, Calif.-based AMS Fulfillment, citing one application for digital fulfillment. Another cost-related benefit Catlin highlights is how the Web approach can eliminate the need for an intermediary to capture the data, such as a call center. “The benefit that I like for [those marketers collecting customer data] is the fact that it’s a low-cost response mechanism. All the data is right there to capture, and the time to do that is to start between the consumer and the Web site,” he explains.
Using the Web to fulfill requests for information has additional benefits, particularly from a sales and cost perspective, as Catlin points out. “You might get a consumer or a company to the point [where] they’re 90 percent sold without having a sales person involved in the process, and a sales person just brings it home,” notes Catlin. “So that initial selling and gaining a comfort level with a customer can take place over the Web.”
According to Catlin, this approach can be effective particularly when selling high-ticket items in the B-to-B realm—such as technical equipment and machinery—and a format such as streaming video can be used to educate prospects on how a product functions.
Another key advantage Sziklai notes is faster fulfillment turnaround, which he says can have a positive ripple effect and lead to a better overall customer experience. “Let’s say that the Web application is tied directly to the fulfillment database, then the benefits are clear,” says Sziklai. “You have faster fulfillment turnaround [and] much more of an interaction between the end customer and the process, so the customer feels better. … They feel like they get an instantaneous reaction to what they want. I think that’s changing fulfillment.”
The level of customization that digital fulfillment allows for is perhaps one of the most important rewards associated with this approach—one that Catlin has seen work to the advantage of many in the automotive industry who create highly customized brochures based on a prospect’s specifications. “For larger sale items where a person is going to make an inquiry and you’re going to spend a little bit of time marketing to them before they make a big purchase decision, this is a value-add,” he explains.
Going the digital route for fulfillment also allows for a more readily trackable campaign, according to Barry Blumenfield, CEO of Norwalk, Conn.-based BMI Fulfillment Services. “We get much better source code information to track back where people are responding from when there are direct, trackable links,” he says.
… But Beware the Pitfalls
Although the benefits are clear, digital fulfillment does present marketers with some operational pitfalls. According to Sziklai, some marketers build elegant, Web-based digital fulfillment tools that are not properly integrated with their overall program and don’t function as they should. “If those systems fail and don’t provide quick turnarounds, then the consumers can get very angry, and that’s a backfiring situation,” explains Sziklai.
Five Considerations for Going Digital
Integrating digital fulfillment into your marketing program will require considerable planning, but the benefits speak for themselves. Following are a few points to ponder to better incorporate the Web into your fulfillment approach:
Relevance: Identify your audience and be sure there is a logical application for digital fulfillment within your marketing program. According to Sziklai, it’s not always relevant or appropriate to use digital fulfillment. “In some cases, consumers want physical products, and they don’t feel like they’re getting that extra value from downloading something over the Web,” says Sziklai. A digital approach might work well for entertainment products, but Sziklai notes it is less effective for a wealth-creation seminar. “People want to touch and feel that. They actually like the collateral material.”
Proofread: Don’t underestimate the value of an approval process, and focus on making your end form as error-free as possible. “The top consideration is there’s no such thing as too many proofreaders,” says Blumenfield. “We have seen over and over again offers going out that were not properly screened and proofed and contained errors … So that’s a real problem.”
Test: Send multiple tests to be certain communications appear the way you intend on both high-speed browsers and dial-up, and that they get through screens and spam filters, advises Blumenfield. “Do some tests of all of the links beforehand to make sure that everything comes through and data is delivered in the proper format,” he says.
Data cleansing: With an increasing amount of data being keyed into databases by consumers, the quality of data is diminishing, according to Blumenfield. It’s important to use validation efforts on the back end, such as address standardization and requiring double entry for key fields, such as e-mail addresses. “My issue from this standpoint is it’s all about the data that comes in,” says Blumenfield. “We need to make sure we have good data because if you have bad data on a Web order, it’s going to cost you time, effort and money to try to fix it before you can fulfill it.”
Direct mail rules apply: “I try to remind people when they get into marketing on the Internet that they need to remember that it’s still direct marketing and all the same rules apply as in a direct mail campaign,” says Blumenfield. “You have to have the right offers to the right audience at the right time to get people to respond.”
Fulfillment clearly is making great strides in the Web realm, and new applications are popping up everywhere. Regardless of the industry or the motivation for transitioning to digital fulfillment, it’s certainly worth considering integrating this approach into marketing programs. “I don’t think there’s any category that cannot benefit, other than those that would target people who are not online—but that’s just not the case anymore,” concludes Blumenfield.
Marissa Fabris is a freelance editor based in West Chester, Pa.