E-Biz Alternatives

The threat of anthrax-contaminated mail spurs businesses to take a serious look at e-mail marketing and billing.

The threat of anthrax-contaminated mail may not have U.S. corporations overhauling their internal mail processes, but it does have companies considering electronic communications for additional business activities, such as bill payment, for the first time.

Technologies for e-mail marketing, online billing and account management, and electronic signatures are generating more interest in the wake of the anthrax fears.

"Weve been talking for a long time about doing it; now were thinking it may be the time to look at e-mail [for direct marketing]," said Stephen Hilton, vice president for research and development at DineRite International LLC, a Dallas software company.

But even though the company is ready to buy, Hilton isnt sure how effective it would be, given the current crop of software available to him.

"I think this [anthrax scare] is going to drive it to become a more mature technology, but its not there yet," Hilton said. "For the little guys out there, there arent a ton of options."

Princeton eCom Corp., which develops electronic bill payment and presentment software, reported a 15 percent to 20 percent increase in its telephone bill presentment and payment service over the past several weeks. Officials in Princeton, N.J., also said that a mortgage company that uses its software has seen a 20 percent to 25 percent increase in initial enrollments for online billing services from what it had projected six months ago.

Similarly, eDocs Inc., of Natick, Mass., which develops online billing and account management software, said that its customers have seen a 10 percent to 20 percent increase in usage of the software in recent weeks. Likewise, the company has seen an uptick in sales inquiries, according to officials.

Gartner Inc. last week forecast a 45 percent increase in the use of e-mail over the next year as a result of the anthrax attacks; previously, e-mail usage increased about 40 percent per year.

But, as these numbers imply, most businesses already use e-mail for a sizable part of their communications. And should the anthrax threat reach critical mass, moving away from paper mail would not be that hard for companies already relying heavily on e-mail, according to Mike Symmers, senior manager at Accenture Solutions, in Chicago.

"Nearly 100 percent of businesses are ready to do that," Symmers said. "And scalability isnt terribly difficult with e-mail."

As a precaution, IT managers should make sure their e-mail systems are secure enough for critical business communications and have enough capacity to handle a spike in demand, analysts say.

For those who rely on paper communications with the outside world, establishing an electronic strategy is difficult.

"Direct mail is not the most agile of industries," Symmers said. "Weve got the holidays coming up, and I would question their ability to do much in the way of changing their strategy, even if they wanted to."

Indeed, the Direct Marketing Association Inc. last week said that 92 percent of the members it surveyed have no plans to change their mailings.

"Were not doing anything different, other than warning people to be careful," said a business continuity manager at a major securities company, who asked to remain anonymous.

"About one-third of our applicants are from outside the country, and they may not have the best Internet access," said Kevin Baradet, network systems director at the S.C. Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University, in Ithaca, N.Y., and an eWeek Corporate Partner.

But Baradet acknowledges that he may not have heard the last word on electronic communications. "If we got a letter and someone became ill, then things would change," Baradet said.