What’s Working In Direct Marketing?

by Michael on 26 October, 2011

Just about everything if you read the headlines, or not much if you read the detractors. But headlines can be misleading, and often take the nugget that is right and generalise from it.

So what do you think of “Twitter followers of brands more likely to buy” as a rationale to invest the time in Twitter as a marketing tool?

Apart from being a statement of the blindingly obvious to me, akin to saying my children are the children most likely to buy me a birthday present (I wish), the whole of social media is now discovering marketing and data and analytics as opposed to statistics. Which is a good thing, long overdue and a cynic (like me) might think they are on Chapter 1, when they think they’ve invented marketing – but at least it’s going in the right direction.

Or email marketers saying that emails are being welcomed and opened as never before, contrasted with a headline that over half of email messages are deleted within 2 seconds without ever being opened. The analysis on the first one attributes improved results to better segmentation and targeting, and also relevance. This to me implies lower volumes and better results. Another survey I’ve seen says people are being much more selective about emails they receive, subscribing just to companies they trust, but then welcome them. This goes with better response rates on lower volumes within a committed customer base!

And in the more traditional area of off line, direct mail is achieving open rates of 91%, not that we ever used to measure on open rate, and I heard somebody from Royal Mail lamenting that financial services direct mail had ruined the channel by turning it from a direct marketing channel into a mass communication one. Well yes, but they lapped up the volume when it was there, and some of us have been saying for about 20 years that using the post with pseudo targeting and minimal cost per pack is direct communication and not direct mail, and has made it far more difficult for real direct mail to get the right price for proper targeting and creative, and also the right consumer perceptions.

Mobile runs the risk of following the same route as email as an outbound marketing route, which has nothing to do with how much Mcommerce there will be in 10 years time (£19 billion according to separate surveys from eBay and Barclays).

So what works?

Some answers come from another survey (Marketing Gap from fastmap) recently published, which says that social media largely is not working for new business acquisition. We’ve all seen some great case studies that say the opposite, but most of us don’t have iconic brands and huge marketing budgets to fund the resources and expertise to stand out. And in very public channels, how many copycats are there very quickly if something is seen to work?

But everything works in the right context with the right execution, which is about as vague as I can get.

Maybe better to ask what doesn’t work? Whatever the communication, it has to have relevance to the audience, it has to engage, it has to have some brand personality, it has to have benefits to the recipient including some sort of offer, it has to grab and keep attention, it has to be properly targeted – and many more similar points. Any half way decent direct mail copywriter would have told you this 25 years ago or more, and what doesn’t work are communications which don’t follow these principles. Which is quite a high percentage.

It seems to me that there is a shift for the better happening. The newer channels are coming out of their silos and discovering marketing, and it is marketing rather than technology that will drive integration forward and reintroduce best practices that we took for granted many years ago – engaging copy that tells a story that is credible for a brand, proper database marketing, and testing to name but three.

And here, finally, is a quick run through of some channels and what we think their strengths and weaknesses are – based partly on ability to achieve stand out in a crowded world. Of course, a brilliant campaign can achieve stand out in most channels, but we can’t all be brilliant all of the time. There are always exceptions too, which is why good marketing agencies like to understand their clients, their products and services and their target markets, to make sure they aren’t proposing standardised solutions when there could be something better.

But talking of standardised solutions:

Email – If you can get somebody to engage with you, then it is a great way to keep that engagement in a low cost way. But that is essentially retention not acquisition. We don’t use email for acquisition any more.

Mobile – You could say exactly the same as for email, so we shall.

Social – According to an IBM study, 82% of marketers plan to use more social media, but most are struggling with the volume of data generated and don’t know how to measure ROI. So why increase spend? There are some negative reasons – you simply have to monitor and respond positively and quickly, and you need to be out there. The strength though is in a customer controlled engagement environment, which can be very positive on loyalty but is hardly an acquisition channel. And the time costs need to be controlled.

Search, PPC, Adwords, Banners and similar – This is obviously moving into the acquisition arena. The question is not if but which ones and how much. But we can’t all be number one on natural search, and getting on page 1 and staying there is the challenge. To us, for most businesses, this is a matter of getting it right initially and then keeping it right at a low cost, and that is mainly a time cost.

Broadcast Media – If you can define the target market and find the right channel, particularly with localised channels such as radio, this can work well for acquisition or promotions. Just thought we’d throw that in out of the blue.

Direct Mail – We worked in direct mail before most of the other channels listed existed, so we do have a bias. But it also allows us to say that done badly, direct mail is a very expensive way of failing – you can fail at a much lower cost in email. Ask yourself though which channel has the most flexibility within channel imposed formats, most creative freedom, and the best option for long copy if you can tell a real story? And also has the highest unit cost? Our view is that if you can tightly define your target market, and get the messaging right, and then the pack format, you can achieve real stand out with direct mail more readily than the other channels. So direct mail is good for acquisition, but not for engagement or retention. It is still worth using for a new catalogue or new product or service where you need stand out within the existing customer base.

Michael Howe

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