Like the new kid on the block, the Internet is grabbing everybody's attention - well, every marketer's attention. But there are some customers who may hear, see and understand your message better if you use an older, less glamorous technology - the CD-Rom.
Information technology experts have been predicting the death of those little silver discs since the World Wide Web first burst on to the scene in 1993. But there's growing evidence that, for business and foreign customers, CD-Roms may be entering their golden age as a cost-effective way of marketing.
If you're promoting a conference centre, you can be fairly sure that your event planner customers have access to computers equipped with CD-Rom drives. Central London conference centre and restaurant the Brewery uses the CD-Rom's ability to deliver sound, images and even movies to sell its unusual venue. Orient-Express Hotels and Intercontinental Hotels and Resorts are targeting the corporate and leisure markets with CD-Roms, giving them away to guests and mailing them to corporate users.
And the cost? "In 1996 the approximate costings, to design and produce 5,000 copies was £60,000," says Katrina Bowditch, marketing manager at the Brewery. "This does not include the management time we here at the brewery put in."
But don't be put off by that figure. The cost of producing CD-Roms has fallen, and is still falling, rapidly. Production costs are currently about 90p per disc but much of the initial cost is in preparing the multimedia packages needed to present the information in a logical way, and in creating an interface that allows users to control what they see next.
Don't despair if you think your venue is too small to fork out that kind of money - the Department of Trade and Industry coughed up 50% of the cost of producing 3,000 CD-Roms for the 30-bedroom Best Western Appleby Manor as part of a project to publicise multimedia in business. Managing partner Nick Swinscoe says that the cost for a CD-Rom like his can vary from £5,000 to £25,000, depending on how much expensive movie content you plan to include.
A quick look at CD-Roms produced by the Brewery and large hotel chains reveals they were made using Macromedia, a software presentation package favoured by professional multimedia houses, the kind that charge professional rates. However, the popularity of the World Wide Web means that you may be able to avoid bringing in expensive Macromedia-equipped designers by using the presentation package that already sits, ready-made, on many potential customers' desks - their Web browser. It comes free with operating systems such as Windows 95 and Mac OS-8, and allows users to view your presentation as a series of pages that can include all the frills that CD-Rom delivers so well - the movies, tables and photographs on which they can click to see a bigger picture, as well as navigation controls that let them select the information that is appropriate for them.
Even the big boys take this approach. Intercontinental Hotels' manager of marketing development, Richard Hyde, says that that is how Intercontinental made available maps, tours and blown-up photographs showing its worldwide portfolio of hotels and global partner hotels. "There are meeting charts for meeting planners, floorplans - everything you need to know for conference organising is on there," he says. "It's very easy to use and you get a version of the Internet Explorer Web browser on the CD and a QuickTime plug-in to show movies."
A less obvious aspect of the cost of producing CD-Roms is the cost of updating them. Like any marketing material, they have to be kept up to date. As Bowditch points out, they're just like brochures in that respect.
"What triggers changes are changes in our hotel portfolio," says Hyde, who is planning a third edition of the Intercontinental CD-Rom for the autumn. "We've also been acquired by Bass, so for the next version we may have links to other Bass brands, such as Holiday Inn or Crowne Plaza."
However, as he points out, that's no problem: "The beauty of interactive multimedia is that it is very easy to update."
Swinscoe agrees. "I can print CDs in-house on my computer - blanks currently cost 87p plus VAT," he says. "There is no need for huge stocks."
Another cost to consider is how you distribute your efforts. The Brewery gives them away to guests and mails them to corporate customers and those that it knows are interested. Telephone callers can be offered one by post, too.
Swinscoe also gives them to customers and says: "I know from talking to them that they show it to their friends much more readily than they would the traditional brochure, thus spreading the word more efficiently."
He's studied just how efficiently, by examining requests between November 1997 and March 1998. "My research shows that potential guests who have seen a CD-Rom are twice as likely to book at the hotel than those receiving just a traditional brochure," he says.
At Intercontinental, CD-Roms have become part of the sales force's armoury, allowing sales personnel to do full colour presentations on their laptops without having to take, in Hyde's words, 180 brochures with them. "They also allow clients to control the presentation," he says. Sales staff also use the CD-Roms as photo libraries, and send pictures of rooms to clients as an e-mail attachment. Intercontinental has discovered that pictures are the key element for many corporate customers, who use the ability to select which room to look at and blow up the image as part of their pre-event planning.
All this sounds, of course, as though it could imperil any investment you have already made in a Web site. Will you be duplicating the same work, or adding extra customers at too high a marginal cost? Not necessarily. In fact, they could work well together. "Our current project is a dedicated Internet site for The Brewery," says Bowditch. "It's not to replace the CD-Rom but to run alongside it, promoting the benefits of the CD-Rom to a worldwide audience."
CD-Roms' relationships with Web sites can be more complex than this, though. At Intercontinental, for example, Hyde has found that many corporate customers copy parts of the CD-Rom into their own intranet - their in-house Internets - to make the latest information seamlessly available to the staff responsible for bookings. "Quite a few of our clients do that," Hyde says. "We found European corporates are very proactive, especially in the UK and Germany."
Making updates to the CD-Rom available on a Web site allows companies to ensure that their information is even more up-to-date - it's even possible to design your CD-Rom so that it automatically retrieves the latest information, such as a price list, from your Web site whenever the customer uses it.
Intercontinental is also using its bulk buying capability to let staff win better buying deals. Its in-house CD-Rom details manufacturers with which the chain has struck deals, lists standard specifications on environment, safety information and supplier news and, crucially, includes an order management programme from which purchase orders can be placed directly with those suppliers.
Says spokeswoman Nicola Day: "We have also had messages back from various hotels in Mexico and eastern Europe which now have access to the nominated distributors of our standard products that they may not have known of."