Ask the experts: Direct marketing

Monday, May 16, 2011

Every month Business Today asks our panel of experts advice on common marketing issues.

John Cherry, professor in the Harrison College of Business at Southeast Missouri State University.

What is direct marketing, and why is it important?

JOHN CHERRY: Well, simply, it's everything your buyer needs right here, right now: price, what you get, when and where and all the information needed to close the deal. The buyer's address, phone number and email. Not a word about the "whys." Just the "whats." It's abrupt, it's strong it's…direct! Direct marketing can be delivered through the mail, through the Internet, through broadcast media. It may be a welcome way for your buyer to solve her or his problem easily and simply. On the other hand, it can come across as a "kiss on the first date." Plenty of time for that later!

Direct marketing differs from other marketing efforts, like advertising, professional selling and sales promotion, inasmuch as it is intended to produce an immediate, measurable response. This latter feature, immediate, measurable response, is the key here. But ideally, your business maintains a continuous presence in your buyers' minds, and advertising is the tool that separates your business from the competition. When everything is working properly, your customers are aware of your "value proposition" that makes it unique. And the interval between your customers' appreciation of your products' superiority and their actual purchase of your product is the crucial time -- not unlike the playoff rounds in NCAA basketball or the NFL playoffs -- when all is won or lost in that all-important area of execution. What I want to stress is that direct marketing isn't in itself execution; it's the culmination of a well-executed marketing plan.

Let's just back up for a moment, and remember how your customers made it to your mail list, and to your top line: 1) They became aware of who you are and what makes you different from everyone else in the pack; 2) They learned specific things about your company: the superior reliability, performance, and value you offer; 3) They put your product, company or service into their "final four," possibly after trying your product, listening to a sales presentation or being "wowed" by your advertising.

In marketing, we call this progression the "hierarchy of effects," and we like to counsel our clients according to where we or they think they are in this continuum. Every thriving business has to drill down on the basics: penetrating their target markets through advertising and promotion to increase awareness, and layering on top of this an understanding and appreciation of the specific things that make us winners. As in sports, training up to this level requires patience, discipline and commitment to the fundamentals of the game: getting to first base, to second, to home… or grinding out 10 yards at a time, piling up first downs on the way to the end zone. Building awareness, creating an understanding of what sets you apart. And your competitors are doing the same thing, naturally.

In every coach's playbook, however, is a contingency plan to break the stalemate. Late in the fourth quarter, in the bottom of the ninth inning, we have a thing called "direct marketing." Into our customers' laps, their iPads, their mailbox, we drop a promotional piece that is intended to get our customers out of the slow dance from step 1 to 2 to 3…and make them buyers. It has every one the following elements -- the product, the benefit, the price, an order form -- basically, everything the buyer needs right this minute to purchase your product.

As any coach will tell you, in the pressure of a close game, in the final minutes, it all comes down to execution. Direct marketing is a powerful tool to get your buyer to step 3; to "lock in" the gains of persistent, disciplined pursuit of steps 1 and 2. But please understand, direct marketing -- persistent, intrusive and direct as it may be -- is no substitute for an ongoing, focused promotional effort to make your buyers aware and informed. On the other hand, it might just be the thing to pull out the win. The upside is that you can directly compare marketing expenditures to revenues -- how many calls, visits, inquiries, referrals, et cetera you got in exchange for your direct marketing expenditures. The buildup to direct marketing is execution.

Drew Janes, owner/producer of Relentless Media Productions.

Marketing -- whether direct or indirect -- isn't the lottery, and a direct marketing initiative isn't going to take you straight to the top. Just as you would never pop the question before the moment is right, you don't want to approach your audience with a direct appeal before they know who you are and why you're not just the best, but the only choice. So give them step 1: who you are. And these customers will be ready for step 2: what makes you different. Then and only then, step 3: getting the business. Direct marketing just might close the deal. Some businesses go directly to step 3; most don't. It takes time, focus and effort just to get to the finals. But if you've laid the groundwork, direct marketing might make you a winner. You might even get another date!

Drew Janes: Direct marketing can give your business a boost of personality and communicate to your audience in a way that could minimize wasted marketing dollars. Direct marketing is sometimes defined as directly marketing to the customer via personal advertising techniques.

As a business owner, you should capitalize on direct marketing to reach your customers in a way that traditional advertising can't. You and your customers can benefit from direct marketing by making it personal and giving your brand a "character." Your direct marketing strategy may have a "call to Action" where your customers are encouraged to do something: visit the website, make the phone call, use the coupons, etc.

Direct marketing can also be used to give life to your brand and give a direct message to a particular audience. Zappos.com, the online footwear retailer, recently launched a direct marketing campaign using puppets to promote its approach to customer service. It wasn't the traditional approach to communicate customer service, but the message was precise, clear and funny. The ad features puppets designed like actual Zappos.com employees and focused on interaction between Zappo's customer loyalty team and customers. Some spots use recordings of actual customer-employee calls.

Dana Hukel, president and CEO of BOLD Marketing.

Whichever way you decide to take your direct marketing, remember to communicate your message directly to your customer and let the personality of your brand speak through unique forms of advertising that benefit your audience.

Dana Hukel: Direct marketing allows business owners to convey a message, sell a product or introduce a new service direct to the customers who are most apt to conduct business with them. It allows you to establish a relationship with the customer on a level that traditional media often cannot provide. The opposite of traditional advertising where businesses reach mass audiences of all demographics and profiles with their messaging, direct marketing allows business owners to pinpoint exactly who they want to receive their message. The result can be more measurable marketing efforts and potential gains in ROI.

For example, your business' primary audience is parents of young children. Through a direct mail postcard campaign, you target parents in a certain ZIP code who have young children and an average household income of $45K. Recipients respond to this direct mail by visiting a website that asks for their email address in order to receive a discounted coupon or special offer. The result: You have just reached a specific audience, through a marketing tool that is measurable, and have captured the capacity to contact them in the future for additional sales opportunities. This is direct marketing and the benefits are evident by decreased marketing waste, increased customer loyalty and trust, and measureable ROI.

Sample direct marketing tools include direct mail postcards, specialty publications for a targeted audience, email databases, mailing lists of homeowners meeting specific criteria, social media and Facebook ads, coupons, door drops and smart phone apps. However, the opportunities available for direct marketing are endless with the evolution of the Internet, mobile phones and social media.

The most important takeaway is this: The keys to successful direct marketing are to define and understand your key audience, and offer a specific, trackable call-to-action to evoke a response from the customer that will lead to future interactions with your business. If you miss either of these, your direct marketing efforts will not reach their full ROI potential.

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