With some prodding from Eric Mohr (http://www.linkedin.com/in/ebmdirectmarketingservicesllc )I gave some thought to the reputation of Direct Marketing in the digital age. I read and absorb hundreds of electronic messages every day in the marketing sphere, everything from blog posts to group discussion posts, to e-mails promoting upcoming webinars on marketing topics touting digital marketing techniques, ad nauseum . . .
What that gives me, besides a huge headache from message overload, is a good scan overview of what’s up in the marketing space, who’s promoting what and what techniques marketers and consultants are using to help their clients succeed (usually). After all that reading, there was something in the back of my mind that bothered and irritated me about most of the promotions and webinar topics – and it finally dawned on me that they looked eerily similar to the promotions and conference topics I was seeing two decades ago pertaining to direct marketing techniques!
Now, don’t get me wrong, I understand that the new digital marketing sphere isn’t a straight rehash of direct marketing – there are many differences in delivery, technology and targeting operations. What bothered me is the approach that new marketers took, the tone if you will, of the communications, which tends toward the downward focused and toward a certain smug word choice that hit me as an experienced marketer from a bad direction. The underlying meta-text in many of these messages tends toward something like “Gee, you haven’t figured out how to use e-mail effectively? We’ve known about it for a long time, here’s what we ‘experienced’ digital marketers have learned in the last two years”.
Guess what, digital marketers, direct marketers who are experienced and have applied their experiences to the use of e-mail, video marketing, targeting and social media, have had it figured out for nearly half a century! There still needs to be a good headline(read: Subject line), the offer has to be compelling to drive response (read:traffic), you can still break up the copy sentence length to help improve readability (read: chunking), you still need to send the message to the ‘right’ people on the ‘right’ list (read: geo-tracking for local promotion, keywords and webtracking for global campaigns), and most importantly, you still have to have good data, and use it appropriately, to reach out to the audience, engage their attention, and prompt a response (read: drive click-thru).
Clearly, good DM skills, like copy writing, offer formulation, list selection and data mining still have a place in the success of digital marketing, regardless of what the new label for them is. So, why have the large consumer companies tended to gravitate toward the “new digital marketing” agencies to set up e-mail campaigns, social media programs and the like, if those skills reside in abundance at their usual DM agency? Because, like everyone else, hanging the “modern” or “digital” moniker on something makes it the new, shiny, spiffy cutting-edge ‘thing’, that everybody feels is the magic bullet that will solve their marketing problems. What the digital folks have going for them is the carefully crafted perception that digital marketing is “cheaper” or even “free” compared to all that paper, printing, postage, nixies, BRE accounts, etc., and in some respects that’s true. But I don’t know anyone who selects a major agency or marketing firm based on whether they use the cheapest methods. They select them based on creativity, skills, and innovation of approach, passion and inspired thinking. So how did the less experienced (by their own admission and by historical fact) agencies end up capturing this business that the old, experienced guys are perfectly well suited to capture?
Two reasons, I think.
1) The old guys failed to adapt, like saber-toothed cats. When digital was developing, these more experienced marketers often doubled down on their traditional skills, beefed up their relationships with traditional clients and grew them, rather than branch out and create digital divisions or think tanks to investigate and develop talent and expertise in those areas.
2) The younger guys were deeply steeped in computer skills and culture, and saw the opportunities computers represented based on a comfort with the new paradigm in a very hands-on way. It’s a short step from sending e-mail instead of printing and mailing business letters to bulk e-mail and social media promotion, when you already spend a majority of time behind a terminal out of knowledge and curiosity. If a computer is your greatest tool in life, everything starts to look like a good digital adaptation.
The downside is, much like the shift in the publishing world from printed books and magazines (done by professionals) to desktop publishing in the late 80s early 90s – having the tools doesn’t impart the underlying skills and abilities to make the final product effective. Many a butt-ugly company newsletter was produced by unskilled administrative help, involving many unusual fonts, bad design, poor use of things like bold and italics, bad rules and underlining, and a host of ills that the pros learned to avoid in their formal training. But they could do it cheaper, get it out in ‘good enough’ form and move on to something else.
Same is true here – the digital guys understand the delivery mechanisms and constraints being used today much better, avoiding spam filters, enhanced delivery, subject lines that conform and pass through firewalls, embedded imagery and the like – but that doesn’t make them copywriters, or graphic designers, or impart understanding of consumer purchasing behavior or emotional engagement – ever talked to a computer geek at a party – not the height of emotional involvement in the conversation, was it?
We’ve got the tools on the digital side that traditional direct marketing could only dream of even ten years ago – the ability to track audiences down to the individual level based on behavior, not just transactional history – a huge boon to experienced marketers! Now if we can just get the two camps together, to use those tools effectively based on years of tried and true techniques of engagement, not just delivery, marketing can rise to the level of a pure science and really drive revenue and loyalty like never before – something to put on your Christmas list for this year, gang . . .
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