Is What’s Old Really New in Direct Marketing?

I led a panel discussion at a recent marketing event debating the value of “old” direct marketing techniques in the “new” modern marketing arena. Certainly, data-driven marketing is “the new black” in customer engagement – and so if you consider that direct marketing is the forerunner of all response marketing, then certainly it seems that the old is gold.

Many successful multi-channel marketers are finding out that our roots in good old direct and database marketing are powerful assets in our new “big data” world. Strategies like segmentation, targeting, responsive marketing, and next-best offer are not new concepts, but they do have new flavors, digital and non-digital applications, and opportunities.

We talked about the fact that this question may just be semantics, but of course, words matter (says the columnist who tries to communicate and inspire and provoke using words!). I started out feeling that the debate didn’t really matter, that direct marketing has evolved like every form of marketing, every function of business, and that tried and true techniques do work, when they are adapted to the digital age, the world of social and “big data” and our audience preferences. However, I have come to believe that it does matter what we call what we do, and that marketers themselves are not inspired by terms and concepts that feel outmoded or put them at a disadvantage for career advancement and funding.

Perceptions of our industry from consumers and policy makers also matter. DMA (disclaimer: my current employer) presented at an FTC Workshop this month on “Alternate Scoring Products,” which turn out to be good old marketing analytics. Some of the examples of yesteryear are still great examples of data-driven marketing:

  1. In 1888, Sears predicted that consumers in the rural West would more likely be interested in the catalogs they sent, because they wouldn’t have access to stores with those products.
  2. In 1912, L.L. Bean predicted that people who had Maine hunting licenses but lived out of state would be interested in a catalog of hunting gear, so he purchased that list of licensees from the State of Maine.

In modern terms, Microsoft recently released some research showing “consumers are absolutely desperate for more personalization during their purchase journey.” Consumers don’t want to encounter gaps between brands’ online, mobile, and in-store presence – they want to have a seamless experience wherever they encounter that brand.

I think that is where the real difference and evolution of our industry lies. It’s not in the fact that we used data then and use data now. It’s not in the fact that we have different data or that we have more or can use advanced technology and marketing automation to connect in real time. It’s that marketing journeys are extinct. What lives is the customer journey. And that customer centricity is the foundation for all our efforts to connect with customers, on their terms, in the channels they prefer, and at the times that make sense for them.

Permission marketing was revolutionary. Its legacy survives in things as simple as choice to as complex as predictive analytics and propensity retailing. Its surviving ancestor is customer centricy – where the customer is truly in charge of the branded experience and both contributes to the experience, markets it (shares it), and draws from it the value needed. Marketers are participants in that journey, but they don’t own it. Marketers are left to understand patterns in the “pressure points” – those powerful insights we gain from data-driven analytics – in order to make those experiences easy to find and enjoy across channels. The key drivers from a business standpoint are the “pressure points” around conversion, price, and loyalty.

The different between what is old and what is gold is that it’s customer-“pulled” and not marketer-“pushed.”

The most essential item in the marketer toolkit today is trust. Good old-fashioned trust. Leon Leonwood Bean knew it. So did Montgomery Ward. Tony Hsieh of Zappos and Jeff Bezos of Amazon carry the torch. Across our great nation, people are happy to provide information in exchange for a fabulous data-driven experience.

What do you think? Is direct marketing an accurate description of what you do, or do we need a new word, or just a new definition? Does it matter what you call what you do – as long as you generate results? Please comment below.

Image via Shutterstock.

Related reading