(In)Direct Marketing

Boy, is it ever refreshing that the mighty Direct Marketing Association (DMA) is finally facing reality and embracing the Internet as a legitimate, viable marketing channel. Best of all, this powerful body is encouraging its members to act responsibly in the online channel.

This is a far cry from the bad old days. Under former president and CEO Bob Wientzen, the body managed to spark fury among members, the online community, the media, the government, heck, practically everyone, with what was effectively a pro-spam stance. Wientzen’s failure to comprehend (much less embrace) online eventually cost him his job.

Nearly three years later, things have thankfully simmered down. The online community is back on speaking terms with the DMA and its new leader, John Greco. In the case of yours truly, this is a literal statement. When we ran into one another the other morning at the organization’s massiveDM Days conference, we casually shot the breeze like normal people. No handlers, no enraged PR minders, and no staffers surreptitiously slipping me their home numbers so we could have a not-for-attribution talk. Heck, I was even invited to participate on the keynote panel and to help judge the ECHO Awards.

It’s a whole new era at the DMA, all right.

Direct Marketing or Marketing Directly?

Greco is making a concerted effort to build awareness and the practice of responsible online marketing among the DMA’s members. His opening address stressed direct marketers must be involved with Web-based marketing as a matter of survival. “Social networks,” he said provocatively, “ultimately have the potential to displace lists.”

He could be right. And not just social networks, but mechanisms such as Google Checkout that allow consumers to buy online without adding their information to the merchant’s database.

So much for e-mailing those with whom you have a preexisting business relationship.

With the e-mail channel facing obstacles (we haven’t even gotten into deliverability), Greco is talking search, which he called “fundamental” to marketing at least three times in his keynote. But he also wants DMA members to view the Web as an “all-encompassing environment” for marketing.

Of an anticipated $166.5 billion in direct-marketing expenditures this year, Greco said, $19.6 billion are expected to flow online, excluding e-mail. Only direct mail and telephone marketing are currently bigger, but online is poised to “blow past” these channels — it’s growing three times faster than they are.

Greco therefore, and quite correctly, is exhorting DMA members to stop thinking in terms of direct marketing and start finding ways to “market directly.”

Only these are direct marketers. And their professional association is asking them to stop doing what they do. That’s a major mind shift.

Old Dogs, New Tricks

This isn’t without reason. According to the DMA’s own 2007 data, purchases made in response to an online ad pushed the Internet ahead at 42 percent, far exceeding any other medium, except catalogs. But while the DMA still emphasizes the widely adopted and arguably direct channels, such as e-mail and search, the Web is becoming increasingly social (the subject of the keynote panel I was part of). If Web 1.0 was a challenge for direct marketers (and they were hardly alone), Web 2.0 is where the real disconnect from direct occurs.

Direct isn’t a conversation. It’s all about the conversion.

Metrics are what direct marketers live and die by. Forget how compelling the creative, how finely tuned the copy. Say “brand awareness,” and these guys will laugh you right out of the room.

More than any other form of marketing, direct is about the number of conversions. Nothing else matters. Not engagement, not awareness, not intent to purchase. They purchase — or they don’t. Direct is that simple. Social media are much more complex.

Greco is right; his constituency is marketing in a new environment. But I’m not so certain marketing directly will be any more successful in this landscape than direct marketing. In addition to utterly rethinking metrics, direct marketers, perhaps more than other constituencies, will also have to rethink one-way messaging.

Once they do, it’s no longer direct marketing anymore. Or is it?

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