Ginger Conlon, editor-in-chief of Direct Marketing News and a respected journalist who has been at the helm of venerable customer relationship and marketing publications such as CRM magazine, 1to1, and Sales & Marketing Management, recently asked me to spar with Tim Suther, the Chief Marketing and Strategy Officer of Acxiom, a marketing data company. She wasn’t asking me to get into the boxing ring with him, though I’m a tough Polish girl from Reading, PA who rarely backs down from a fight. Instead, she presented the opportunity to contribute to one of my favorite DM News columns, “Gloves Off,” a regular feature where two marketing professionals provide very different responses to the same question. The question Tim and I debated was whether it is time to do away with the term “direct marketing.”
I encourage you to read Tim’s complete response, but it came down to him seeing “direct marketing” as a channel: direct mail. And he suggested replacing “direct” with “data-driven” to acknowledge the supremacy of data in effective marketing. I don’t disagree with the importance of data to planning, managing and measuring marketing success, but I see direct marketing as much more than direct mail.
I recently read a Target Marketing interview with Larry Kimmel, the former CEO of the Direct Marketing Association. Something he said rang true: “There are three components that are revered in contemporary marketing: data, customer-centricity, and accountability. That’s what direct marketing has always been.” The interview with Kimmel is an excellent read, and I encourage you to do so.
Marketing is perceived as strategies and activities designed to gain penetration in a “market.” Those are broad and general terms, just like when mass marketing was broad and general. Marketers and consumers have become more sophisticated they have become increasingly segmented. Add to this the narrowing of media consumption and the wide adoption of social media – admit it, even your mother is on Facebook – and the art and science of marketing had to adapt. And it has. Marketing has become highly targeted. “Direct” was marketing’s first nod to data. The ability to deliver addressable marketing materials (or activities, such as in a call center interaction) have expanded with both upgrades to “hard” technologies (variable print and address code labeling, for example) and “soft” (the Internet paved the way for mass email and got regulated into more personalized email).
I think few people today would argue that direct marketing isn’t just direct mail and that its scope crosses many channels—so many that it’s hard to keep up sometimes for those of us in the field. What seems equally important is to recognize that it’s essential to integrate our marketing efforts for best result, and to ensure that we have the cross-channel analytics in place to evaluate what parts of our strategies are working and which aren’t. It’s a bigger challenge today to do direct marketing—however you (re)define it—than ever before.
Direct isn’t a bad word. It was direct mail marketers who really understood the value of segmentation. And to this day, they are the ones who really get the power of “one,” whether it’s through email or some other direct means. So maybe we should respect the direct marketing legacy for having been a catalyst for where the power of the Internet, marketing automation, and mobile communications is taking us. I say we keep the old standard in homage, if nothing else.
Ginger seems to have decided in my favor (yaay!), writing that direct marketing is “the same as it’s always been, when it’s at its best: targeted, relevant, and engaging—and supported by data. It’s a practice; not a channel. So, whether marketers are focused on email or search or digital, or their work is primarily on integrated programs, if they’re using data to inform their decisions, to segment their customers, and to make continuous improvements, they’re applying the principles of direct marketing. So we say embrace it, proudly.”