3 Direct Marketing Principles, Recast.

Hi. My name is Adriel, and I’m a recovering direct marketer.

I’ve been a direct marketer for 15 years. It started in college, writing letters and running online campaigns at The Direct Marketing Association. Soon I was direct-marketing my way through the dot-com wave and in and out of banking, non-profit, and technology companies.

“Segment your audience.”
“Put time-limits on your offers.” Write copy that keeps people reading. Present your offer firmly and clearly. Free gifts, free shipping, and sweepstakes. Use an engagement mechanism. 20 percent of your customers will generate 80 percent of your repeat business. Test, test, and test some more.

These are just some of the principles drilled into your head as a young direct marketer. And for good reason. Direct marketing works on the premise that what makes people respond to an offer is surprisingly predictable. Even if only 3% of the people you contact actually buy something, you can make a lot of money on that predictability, as long as you’re controlling your costs accordingly.

Even as marketing evolved considerably over the past 15 years, it’s impressive how these core tenets have remained true.

What we call gamification today is just a fancy word for an engagement mechanism; the next evolution of sending a direct mail piece with a penny and a scratch-off card. Demand-side-platforms (DSPs) and contextual advertising are nothing more than new ways to segment and reach audiences. Frequency capping can be compared to the merge/purge process list brokers have been running for decades.

That said, there are a few direct marketing principles I’ve had to reconsider, particularly with the rise of social media.

1. The 40/40/20 rule.

In any direct response campaign, 40% of your results are based on who you target (audience), 40% is what you’re selling (offer), and 20% is how you communicate (creative).

A guy that doesn’t own a car isn’t going to buy car insurance, even if the offer’s presented in person by a runway model. Well, maybe he would. But you get my point.

What’s missing from the rule? Context. What’s acceptable in one medium won’t fly in another.

Social media is increasingly moving toward the center of our personal lives, and attempts to commercialize it with offers are met with fierce resistance; even if they’re good offers, directed at seemingly interested audiences. Facebook’s stock has lost half its value since their IPO, in large part because advertisers are asking lots of questions about the effectiveness of advertising on their site.

People have become really intolerant of companies breaking accepted norms in the channels they hold near and dear. Social media marketing is one of my responsibilities at SAP. In my area, we limit the promotion of offers to no more than 10% of our social media posts. As a direct marketer, this kills me. As a recovering direct marketer, I’ve found it’s what the context of this channel demands.

2. If it can’t be measured, it’s not worth doing.

This one’s like telling water not to be wet. Measurement is what direct marketers do. All a direct marketer wants to know is how much money the campaign brought in, compared to how much it cost.

Trouble is, this thinking can be trouble if it causes you to look at social media as a tactic rather than a communication platform.

Somehow social media inherited the expectations of measurability found in other digital marketing tactics like email or paid search. That’s a mistake.

Social media permeates everything. Try to quantify its cost or how much money it’s bringing in as a stand-alone activity and you’ll wind up with an incomplete picture at best.

(I suspect these first two issues of context and measurement are behind Facebook’s struggles to grow advertising revenue…)

3. Negative option beats positive option.

A negative option offer assumes you’re saying yes, unless you say no. It’s implicit. Ever see a form with a checkbox that reads, “Check this box if you would not like to receive email from us.”? (emphasis added)

A positive option offer on the other hand, requires you to do something proactive to say ‘yes’. It’s explicit. “Check this box if you’d like to receive email from us.”

Negative option will typically outperform positive option, sometimes two to one. But this is the era of permission. Tolerance for implicit permission is at an all-time low. Asking for explicit permission to send someone email has been a best practice for some time.

The expectations in social media are even deeper. I engage with people I have a relationship with. Permission is specific. Following you on Twitter or Facebook doesn’t give you the right to send me direct messages. Joining your LinkedIn group doesn’t give you permission to constantly blast me with mass offers. And those you piss off can complain a lot louder and faster than ever.

So what’s a direct marketer to do?

As a direct marketer, I might argue that social media simply isn’t a direct marketing medium, and leave it to someone else to figure out. But as a recovering direct marketer, I think that’s a cop-out. The issues of context, measurement, and permission in today’s marketing go beyond social media. Consumers’ expectations of how companies should engage with them across any medium have evolved. Buying is no longer a linear process. And we must adapt.

So perhaps a better way to put it is:

Hi. My name is Adriel, and I’m an evolving direct marketer…

Follow the conversation @Adriel_S or #marketingpfft

18 thoughts on “3 Direct Marketing Principles, Recast.

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