Direct response marketing online or offline is a test-and-invest matrix of methodologies. The core statement “embrace change or you will fail” is what my “’tweenage” daughters would refer to as “No duh, Dad.”

Since our online vehicles consistently reach rapid maturity, we’re forced to reinvent what works today in order to enjoy success tomorrow. 

So where’s the big issue? How do you inspire your diverse client base to accept new technology and direct response tools such as instant messaging (IM) or chat? No matter the corporate culture, cool or conservative, it’s always a small battle to get them to walk a new path, even if it’s the road to riches.

The new tool: direct response chat

There is some supporting research to suggest that companies' successful use of IM will only get stronger than it is. According to The Radicati Group’s research,  IM use will grow exponentially by 2007, with 349 million IM corporate accounts sending many of the one trillion plus IMs projected to be sent every day.  

Our group uses a diverse mix of IM brands for a diverse range of discussions, including campaign status reports, vendor Q&A and, of course, the ever popular “gossip groove,” which has become widely distinguishable by the very telling “IM laugh.” However, as this medium continues its maturity process the sales and marketing channel will evolve at a greater clip.

Several years ago, SendTec built a proprietary technology that lets us know what offline marketing vehicle ultimately caused a customer or prospect to appear on the Web site, where they went within the Web site, and how much time they spent in the site/sections.

If a person surfs with interest (validated by active pages viewed over a pre-determined period of time), we reach out to them with a pop-up message, not unlike a retailer walking over to a person browsing a rack and asking if they can help them find their size. Our online version initiates contact ,and tries to convert a browser to a buyer with a simple “Hi. My name is Sally. Is this your first time to [the names have been changed to protect the innocent.]” 

So is it an invasive tool, a cool tool… or both?

How’s your IM "hip factor?"

It depends on how integrated IM is in your lifestyle. For people under 25, IM is often their preferred mode of communication.

Being a father of two ’tweenage girls, I engage in a dinner table debate almost on a nightly basis. The topic stems around the use of IM as a communication vehicle for my daughters to talk to their friends. I ask why they can’t  just use the phone. I'm easy prey for my girls, who know exactly what Dad does for a living. “But Dad,” my daughters counter, “all of our friends whose parents are clueless about technology use it!” Is that an “ouch!” or more like an “exactly!”? 

MTV has done it, Nickelodeon has done it, and Disney has done it. These huge brands integrate IM responses as a lifestyle and entertainment tool. It makes complete sense to those 'tweenagers and teenagers watching TV who thrive on using their IM to rapidly communicate their thoughts on everything from fashion faux pas to cartoons and music.

Like it or not, IM is the new phone in the home. As a parent, I am completely frightened, but as a marketer, I am inspired to find innovative, effective uses of this robust communication tool. The marketing challenge boils down to creating an IM campaign that is cool enough to engage interest, prompt discussion that will scale, and drive an action yet also maintain responsibility and accountability.

It’s easy to use shock tactics or creative language. However, those tactics quickly invite government scrutiny, and could potentially ruin what is a great new marketing frontier.

According to The Radicati Group, 62 percent of the 590 million worldwide active IM accounts belong to users under the age of 30. Heck, 34 percent are under the age of 20. If IM is the next home phone and email has presumably skipped this generation, then how are you prepared to responsibly generate a response from this demographic?

Yahoo! has a great IM tool for marketers called IMV. IMV integrates chat into a brand-based template or skin for their IM. So if I am a tweenage girl with a strong desire to express my individuality, I might accessorize with a “Choco-Kitty” brand skin on my IM software. Once set-up is complete, the brand appears in the IM screen as wallpaper with links ready to enable me to buy merchandise or send to my friends. The opportunity to tie brands to skins is vast. However, the key is to integrate the opportunity to transact.

According to Yahoo!, they have 18.5 million unique IMV users a month, and they are seeing growth of between 433,333 and 500,000 downloads per month. While AOL leads the IM space and MSN continues to close the gap, it is with great interest that Yahoo! has chosen this path -- due to the obvious appeal for direct marketers. The challenge is to capture this marketing channel in a responsible, effective fashion.

Avoiding CAN-SPIM

While I was in radio, we hired a hip program director whose style was to play popular songs into the ground. During one casual verbal exchange, I asked him why he churned and burned his play list. He profoundly responded that a single is only a hit until something new comes along, then it becomes a classic, and he wanted to be known for playing more hits than classics. 

My soon-to-be-fired friend failed to recognize that creating demand for a tune by playing it less often over a longer period of time essentially stretches time spent listening to our radio station and sequentially adds advertiser value to the station. 

We have a future marketing hit on our hands in IM/chat as it connects many worlds to each other in a responsive interaction. By avoiding spimming we can stretch IM/chat‘s effective life and add advertiser value to the medium for the long haul. 

Greg Morey is account services director for DirectNet Advertising, a division of SendTec, Inc. SendTec provides end-to-end services for direct marketers that drive businesses and ROI both offline and online. Morey's responsibilities include managing clients' campaign strategy, execution and delivery through online performance paths.