Direct mail vs. e-mail Featured

9:46am EDT July 22, 2002

Like a lot of business owners, Ted Swoger has spent the last few years trying to figure out where his direct mail company might fit into the e-commerce boom.

For his company, MarketPlace Direct, it has been an issue of growth — and survival — as documents delivered over electronic channels continue to replace paper ones sent by mail and erode traditional direct mail services.

There have been other distracting obstacles along the way. Swoger bought out his partner in 1998, a time-consuming undertaking. And realizing that having operations in two locations was a drain on resources, as well as a hindrance to growth productivity, the company moved into the former Sexton Foods facility in Stowe Township late last year.

Swoger, a veteran of more than two decades in the direct mail and printing business, knew that the business he had grown so comfortable with was likely to undergo some dramatic changes. The technology revolution certainly would change the way operations were carried on in the print shop and fulfillment center. But more fundamentally, the way businesses communicate with every audience — their customers, their suppliers and their employees — would continue to undergo a revolution that promised to affect MarketPlace Direct’s core business.

Despite the changes, Swoger also realized that there would be some fundamentals that wouldn’t vary much. Making sure the customer got the best service his company could offer would remain a requirement for success, and it’s a principle that allowed Swoger to bring along some of his old customers.

When he and a partner founded MarketPlace Direct in 1994, the tag line they chose was “information distribution services,” a phrase that describes what the company does but leaves some wiggle room, as well.

“I figured then that what we’re doing today may not be what we’re doing five years from now,” he says.

Swoger’s objective has been to figure out where his services best fit in the marketplace. Instead of simply drumming up more direct mail business, MarketPlace Direct has eased its way into e-commerce.

He’s taken steps to position his company so that it can still offer services that are connected to its core business, such as addressing, mailing and fulfillment activities. And MarketPlace Direct is adding services, made possible by partnerships with other companies that meet e-business needs, as well as lines that complement its existing business.

The paperless chase

The company’s experience with PNC Bank, a major customer of MarketPlace Direct, demonstrates just how dramatically its business can be affected by technology changes. PNC used to send out memos to its 26,000 employees at multiple locations several times a week. MarketPlace Direct would print, stuff and deliver the documents to the bank’s locations.

In one fell swoop, that job slipped away when PNC began transmitting the information over its corporate intranet. Other communications, such as corporate benefits information, are handled by electronic transmission as well.

Internet business

Through a chance meeting at a Pittsburgh Technology Council networking function, Jay Jantz, MarketPlace Direct’s marketing manager, got involved with Wayne Scholar and Casey Smith, Carnegie Mellon graduates who launched Scholar Smith, an information technology consulting firm, last year.

Through that relationship, MarketPlace Direct was able to establish its own e-commerce division, MarketPlace Direct.Net, without building a new division from scratch. With its association with Scholar Smith, MarketPlace Direct.Net now offers its customers e-business consulting services. MarketPlace Direct, meanwhile, can provide mailing and fulfillment services to new Web clients.

“It has opened a lot of doors for us, too,” says Smith.

The partnership has gotten Scholar Smith in front of businesses such as PNC and Calgon Carbon, which otherwise might have been tough to reach. It also gives Scholar Smith the capability of offering fulfillment or other services to its clients.

Swoger’s plan is to gradually take over more of the Web services, such as site design and maintenance, as he trains existing employees in the technology.

And just last month, MarketPlace Direct strengthened its e-commerce package still further by joining a network of service providers linked to Cable & Wireless, a provider of Internet, data, voice and messaging solutions. MarketPlace Direct customers will be able to order services such as digital subscriber lines, Web-hosting services and dedicated Internet access.

Swoger is taking advantage of Jantz’s experience by selling a line of promotional products to MarketPlace Direct’s customers. Eventually, he says, the company will put up a site and offer a limited line of upscale items over the Web, along with related fulfillment services. It may not be Web page hosting or site design, but it’s a fit.

Says Swoger of his new e-commerce-oriented shot in the arm: “People need it, it fits our core business, so why not provide it?”

How to reach: MarketPlace Direct, (412) 937-9235 or www.marketplacedirect.net; Scholar Smith, (412) 395-3360 or www.scholarsmith.com

Ray Marano (rmarano@sbnnet.com) is an associate editor at SBN.