Envelopes as little billboards

Patented: Consultant can adorn mail with ads targeted to specific customers.


January 06, 2000|By Mara H. Gottfried | Mara H. Gottfried,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

Baltimore business consultant Joshua Reiter has always been an inventor. First it was his idea for peanut butter slices, similar to processed cheese in cellophane.

Then he thought: Wouldn't it be a good idea for a business to put an ad on telephone lines so consumers could hear it every time they dialed a number, before the phone actually starts ringing?

Neither idea panned out for Reiter, 38, who owns two consulting businesses. Reiter Consulting Group International offers business management consulting. His clients include Duke, National University in San Diego and Tufts. ApplicationsOnline works with universities to develop online admissions and financial aid applications.

"I was going to sleep one night and I was bummed out because my ideas weren't working," said Reiter, who is also an adjunct faculty member at the Johns Hopkins University and Loyola College. "I thought about all the letters and bills I get every day and the ads I throw away."

Reiter's nocturnal musings led to a patent for a computer system that places advertisements specifically targeted to consumers' buying habits on the envelopes of bills they receive regularly, such as phone, utility or credit-card bills.

The Harrison, N.Y., native was granted the patent in October 1998 and has since worked on getting the idea licensed to advertisers or direct-mail companies. Reiter said he has concentrated more on licensing in the past six months. Some direct-mail marketers have contacted him, but Reiter said he is more interested in making connections with the U.S. Postal Service.

Karen Benezra, executive editor of Brandweek, an advertising trade publication based in New York City, said she isn't so sure about Reiter's idea. For it to succeed, she said, it would have to be executed in a creative, noninvasive way.

"I'm not sure if this is a good way to communicate with consumers," Benezra said. "I don't know if consumers are going to want the fact that they like pink fuzzy slippers broadcast on their mail to their neighbors and postmaster.

Using demographic information collected by retailers, Reiter said his system matches consumers' tastes to print ads, at a few cents per envelope.

Parents with small children, for instance, might find an ad for Toys `R' Us or Cheerios on the envelope of their Visa bill. A middle-aged bachelor could discover an ad for Adidas running shoes on his Bell Atlantic bill.

"Instead of passive advertising, if I understand who lives in a house, I can then find advertisers who want to target that person," said Reiter, who holds a doctorate in education from Hopkins and worked for International Business Machines Corp. for nine years as a marketing representative and quality consultant. "They have to see the ad because it's on the envelope."

Reiter said this benefits businesses in two ways: credit-card and utility companies can save money with their regular mailings by selling ad space on the envelopes and corporations can target a potentially receptive consumer.

Marjorie Valin, spokeswoman for the American Advertising Association, noted the importance of targeting consumers, particularly in a market already saturated with advertisements.

"Obviously, with so many advertisers in the marketplace, advertisers are seeking to get their message to their customers and put it directly in front of them when they have the opportunity," she said.

So far, Reiter has lost money on his venture with the expense of applying for the patent and hiring a patent attorney.

But David Weaver, president of Mail Advertising Service Association in Alexandria, Va., said Reiter could be successful because his idea is a clever one.

"That's the kind of thing we applaud," he said. "We always look for ways to bring ads to the consumer as specifically as we can."

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