DALLAS - The Internet and other resources have helped card marketers pinpoint consumers' needs and purchasing habits, but card companies are still trying to figure out how to take advantage of the additional information, according to speakers at Thomson Financial Media's card marketing conference.

Consultant William F. Keenan, chairman of the conference, said the round-the-clock nature of the Internet means that companies must compete "at the speed of thought" and monitor customer needs constantly.

The glut of direct mail offerings for credit cards with extremely low teaser and transfer interest rates has left "little room for profits and differentiation," said Mr. Keenan, president of the De Novo Corp. credit card marketing and consulting firm in Hockessin, Del. The challenge for card marketers is to somehow "create value that customers are willing to pay for."

To do this, he said, marketers need to listen closely not only to the needs that consumers articulate, but also to "go one step further - what are their unarticulated needs?"

The conference was held last week. Thomson, its sponsor, is the parent company of American Banker.

Executives from PocketCard Inc., which introduced the first prepaid card for teenagers last year, said it stood out from the bulk of consumer solicitations.

At the time "there was no competition - no one was marketing to teens at all," said Michele Turkel, vice president of financial services for PocketCard. Parents and teens responded enthusiastically to the card, she said.

Parents "really wanted to control their children's spending, or at least monitor it," Ms. Turkel said. Teenagers "thought the product was so cool" because it was their "first step in living in the adult world," she said, but they found the parental monitoring aspect "not so cool."

PocketCard put a sophisticated design on the card so it would not look juvenile and thus turn off teens who wanted to seem more adult, Ms. Turkel said.

Being first-to-market brought the card lots of coverage in high-profile newspapers and magazines, Ms. Turkel said. In terms of free publicity "we are the John McCain of the industry," she said.

Ms. Turkel and other speakers said marketing is crucial not only to acquiring customers, but to keeping them happy and committed to the company or the product.

She stressed the importance of not taking customers for granted, and cited American Express Co. as an example of a company that has kept down customer defections despite a relatively high annual fee for its cards.

Amex, she said, wins a lot of loyalty simply by sending out a friendly "we're so glad you've been a customer for 10 years" letter one month before the annual fee bill.

Luce Veilleux, vice president of marketing services for Royal Bank of Canada, said it noticed about four or five years ago that it was losing market share in credit cards. It them began building a database that was meant to help "understand clients holistically," she said.

The database has helped enormously, Ms. Veilleux said. Now Royal Bank can intercept customers who look like they are about to jump ship with their credit balances.

"Speed was very important," Ms. Veilleux said.

Another benefit was discovering that the bank's telephone list was very poor, she said - about 50% of the numbers for customers were wrong.

With more ready knowledge about its customers, Royal Bank was able to hold on to them by offering better deals, loyalty programs, frequent-flier miles, or whatever benefit seemed to fit their profile, Ms. Veilleux said. "If you want to retain a customer, you have to offer him the right thing at the right time."

Though some conference speakers said direct mail had become an unproductive approach to attracting new customers, at least one speaker said its demise was greatly exaggerated.

Patricia Kelly, Eastern regional director of BannerDirect, a direct marketing company, said there were ways to foster a symbiotic relationship between direct mail and Internet marketing.

"E-marketing is still in its infancy," Ms. Kelly said. "Direct mail can be its experienced mentor." For example, she said, direct mail pieces could go beyond the traditional solicitation format by reminding potential customers to check their e-mails for special offers.

Ms. Kelly said that the subject line of an e-mail solicitation is the teaser, and unless it is enticing, the prospect will delete it. The body text of a solicitation should be kept short and should be visually compelling. Animation and streaming video "produced two to three times better results than text e-mails," she said.

Marketing campaigns should be tested and challenged constantly to make sure they stay fresh and effective, Ms. Kelly said. "Always test," she said. "Test every time, and everything possible, so for your next campaign you can optimize your results."

Ms. Turkel said that marketers like to talk about personalizing their solicitations to individual consumers, but need to go the extra step to insure they are addressing the person properly.

" 'Michele' is male in France," Ms. Turkel said. "I get a ton of mail to 'Mr. Michele Turkel.' "

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