Do You Know What Direct Marketing Is? Really?

Do You Know What Direct Marketing Is? Really?

Is direct marketing still relevant in the digital age and what value, if any, can it offer us in the future? The Blue Group’s Robin Sinclair asks the question.

Robin Sinclair
Posted by Robin Sinclair

Last week I had an epiphany. I was at a marketing conference getting the latest on technology and the customer experience. Electric shirts. Goggles that google. All that good stuff. Sitting next to someone new, I introduced myself and explained that our agency offers direct marketing. “What! That old-school sh*t – pumping out the same mass message by snail mail,” he said.

Then it hit me – this guy was an idiot. But beyond that, I realised a large proportion of our industry today, simply doesn’t know what ‘direct marketing’ is.

But does it matter? Has it simply been replaced by terms like ‘data-driven’? Is it fashion? The fear of being sarcastically skewered by a digital native? Or just plain ignorance?

Perhaps it’s all of the above. But I would argue denying ‘direct marketing’ its crucial place in today’s marketing lexicon is both misguided and disingenuous. In fact, ‘direct marketing’ strategies are as relevant as ever, and probably the best way to describe what most advertising and digital agencies do today.

I wonder if in our rush to jump on the latest jargon bandwagon, we are ignoring a basic truth that is staring us in the face. And that if we acknowledge this, it could help better inform what we actually do. And perhaps show a clear way forward through the confusion of ever-changing technology.

Has big data really changed everything?

Anybody involved in direct marketing for longer than a double mouse-click can tell you that DM has always been data-driven. Data is in its DNA. And this experience tells us that what matters, is not how much data you have, but how you use it. In fact, too much data can be a distraction, rather than an aid to effective marketing.

But don’t get me wrong. I love data. The ability to track and predict behaviour and preferences by analysing on and offline data generates wonderful opportunities to engage customers with relevant, timely communications. And whether that is delivered in an email, tweet, mail pack, or a conversation at point of sale is irrelevant. Because it’s not the medium that defines the activity, but the strategy. And it’s pure direct marketing.

Is digital the new direct?

No, it’s not. Digital is the old direct in a shiny new suit. But that’s not a bad thing. It’s critical that we don’t confuse channel or technology with strategy. It seems self-evident. But why then do we have ‘digital agencies’? Does that mean they only think in one dimension? A ’Free to Air TV only advertising agency’ would seem absurd today. So why the self-limiting label of ‘digital’?

Of course, I’m doing a disservice to digital agencies here. On further interrogation they would explain that they are doing much more than pushing messages onto three screens. In fact, they are using data to inform their decisions and segment their customers, they are applying the rigours of A/B testing and continually adapting to make their activities more effective. That is great. And it sounds familiar, because they are all principles of direct marketing.

Be Catholic and embrace the vision

It may be more helpful to think of digital as a series of multiplying channels through which direct marketing strategies are prosecuted. This helps to reduce the head-spin of trying to stay ahead of ever-changing new technology as a primary objective. Because direct marketing as a discipline is channel agnostic. Or perhaps more accurately, it is ‘channel Catholic’. It embraces all channels equally and uses them in combinations based on their propensity to deliver the best outcomes in any given campaign. Not as a starting, or end point.

From this perspective, a new vista of opportunities opens up. We can now see the possibilities provided by a holistic view of the customer that’s continually refreshed and refined by a virtuous circle of data-based insights generated on the fly. These are used to engage customers with relevant, timely messages across all media; social, mobile, in-box, mailbox, in store, online and even in the traditional 30 second TVC. It all makes sense when they are all singing from the direct marketing hymn book.

Does it really matter what terms we use?

Well it depends. If we define direct marketing only by what it was in the past, then there’s no value in it. But by acknowledging its heritage and very real current relevance, we can start to unlock what it can mean in the future.

So whether you call yourself a digital marketer, a data-driven marketer or a direct marketer, it is important that you know what you are doing. That you understand that the strategies you’re using have a history that can be leveraged to inform the future. And that ultimately, what you are doing is direct marketing.

Robin Sinclair is the director of the blue group, an independent agency specialising in financial services, energy retailing and not-for-profits.