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Beware, marketers: Shiny, new technology has a pesky way of developing rust spots as it ages

Back in the Dark Ages—by that I mean the 1980s—marketers were agog over the potential to expand their range of consumer targeting through the use of that new medium called the facsimile machine.

Restaurants could fax promotional offers and their menus to nearby businesses, and the employees could fax back their orders. Boy!

Then along came e-mail, which did not exactly kill faxes but certainly rendered fax marketing nearly impotent. Who actually communicates by fax anymore?

I’m not letting you in on a big secret when I say that restaurant chains have used e-mail to send coupons, promotional news and other announcements to customers listed in their databases. What an effective marketing tool that e-mail is.

Then along came websites, microsites, blogs, text messaging, cell phones, cell phones that play movies, cell phones that take photos, cell phones that tuck you in at night. Let’s not forget social-network sites.

I don’t mean to frighten you, but you may want to reconsider your e-mail programs, because a new study reports that social networking, along with cell phone use and text messaging, are beginning to erode the effectiveness of e-mail marketing.

New York-based JupiterResearch, which analyzes the impact that the Internet and other technologies have on business, found that consumers are slowly shunning e-mail in favor of social networking and other forms of communication.

The number of consumers who say promotional e-mail messages caused them to buy something is going down.

In 2007, 51 percent of e-mail users said e-mail inspired them to make at least one online purchase, and 47 percent said they made at least one off-line purchase. This year, however, 44 percent of e-mailers said they made an online purchase, and 41 percent bought something off-line.

Other forms of communication are causing a diminished use of e-mail, the study found. Twenty-two percent of the respondents said they use social-networking sites instead of e-mail, with “scores more” using instant messaging, text messaging and cell phones instead of e-mail, the study found.

The cause of all this is something just about everyone is familiar with: We receive too many e-mail messages, and too many of them are junk e-mail, or “irrelevant communications,” as David Daniels, the lead analyst of the report, diplomatically described them in a news release.

“People receive such a high volume of e-mail that they are unable to pay attention to every message,” he went on. “It is so important for marketers to be relevant and succinct when they send messages to consumers’ inboxes.”

Consumers are losing confidence in e-mail due to high message frequency and spam, and they’re unsubscribing to e-mail programs that they opted into because they’re getting far too many offers.

When the report was released in August, David Schatsky, JupiterResearch’s president, said something astounding: “Marketers need to be aware that consumers are using other forms of communication and must ensure their strategy adapts to consumers’ changing behavior.”

The statement is astounding because it implies some marketers are totally unaware of consumers’ shifting media habits. Can that be true? Some marketers are clueless?

They probably are, and you’ll know who they are when you read about them filing for bankruptcy.

Although the restaurant industry has its share of bankruptcies, as a whole it seems well aware of consumers’ changing media habits. I’ve reported on the many chains that have launched social-network sites, blogs and text message promotions.

Some, however, still rely on e-mail as their major marketing vehicle. It’s fine if that works for them, but they ought to be prepared for the day when response to an offer isn’t what it used to be.

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