Direct Marketing: Going Straight to the Customer
Direct marketing activities bypass any intermediaries and communicate directly with the individual consumer. Direct mail is personalized to the individual consumer, based on whatever a company knows about that person’s needs, interests, behaviors, and preferences. Traditional direct marketing activities include mail, catalogs, and telemarketing. The thousands of “junk mail” offers from credit card companies, bankers, and charitable organizations that flood mailboxes every year are artifacts of direct marketing. Telemarketing contacts prospective customers via the telephone to pitch offers and collect information. Today, direct marketing overlaps heavily with digital marketing, as marketers rely on email and, increasingly, mobile communications to reach and interact with consumers.
The Purpose and Uses of Direct Marketing
The purpose of direct marketing is to reach and appeal directly to individual consumers and to use information about them to offer products, services and offers that are most relevant to them and their needs. Direct marketing can be designed to support any stage of the AIDA model, from building awareness to generating interest, desire, and action. Direct marketing, particularly email, also plays a strong role in post-purchase interaction. Email is commonly used to confirm orders, send receipts or warrantees, solicit feedback through surveys, ask customers to post a social media recommendation, and propose new offers.
Direct marketing is an optimal method for marketing communication in the following situations:
- A company’s primary distribution channel is to sell products or services directly to customers
- A company’s primary distribution method is through the mail or other shipping services to send directly to the customer
- A company relies heavily on sales promotions or discounts, and it is important to spread the word about these offers to consumers
- An advertisement cannot sufficiently convey the many benefits of a company’s product or service, and so a longer marketing piece is required to express the value proposition effectively
- A company finds that standard advertising is not reaching its target segments, and so better-targeted marketing communications are required to reach the right individuals; for example, using direct mail to reach wealthier people according to their affluent zip code
- A company sells expensive products that require more information and interaction to make the sale
- A company has a known “universe” of potential customers and access to contact information and other data about these customers
- A company is heavily dependent on customer retention, reorders and/or repurchasing, making it worthwhile to maintain “permissioned” marketing interaction with known customers
Data: The Key to Effective Direct Marketing
The effectiveness of direct marketing activity depends on marketers using databases to capture the information of target customers and the use of this information to extend ever-more-personalized offers and information to consumers. Databases record an individual’s residence, geography, family status, and credit history. When a person moves or makes a significant purchase like a car or a home, these details become part of the criteria marketers use to identify who will be a good target for their products or services. With electronic media, the information flow about consumers opens the floodgates: marketing databases capture when a consumer opens an email message and clicks on a link. They track which links piqued consumers’ interests, what they view and visit, so that the next email offer is informed by what a person found interesting the last time around. These databases also collect credit card information, so marketers can link a person’s purchasing history to shopping patterns to further tailor communications and offers.
Mobile marketing adds another dimension of personalization in direct-to-consumer communications. It allows marketers to incorporate location-sensitive and even activity-specific information into marketing communications and offers. When marketers know you are playing a video game at a mall, thanks to your helpful smart phone, they can send you timing-, location- and activity-specific offers and messages.
Direct Marketing in Action
How does this work in practice? If you’ve ever paid off an auto loan, you may have noticed a torrent of mail offers from car dealerships right around the five-year mark. They know, from your credit history, that you’re nearly done paying off your car and you’ve had the vehicle for several years, so you might be interested in trading up for a newer model. Based on your geography and any voter registration information, you may be targeted during election season to participate via telephone in political polls and to receive “robocalls” from candidates and parties stomping for your vote.
Moving into the digital world, virtually any time you share an email address with an organization, it becomes part of a database to be used for future marketing. Although most organizations that engage in email marketing give the option of opting out, once you become a customer, it is easy for companies to justify continuing to contact you via email or text as part of the customer relationship you’ve established. As you continue to engage with the company, your behavior and any other information you share becomes part of the database record the company uses to segment and target you with offers it thinks will interest you.
Similarly, marketers use SMS (text) for marketing purposes, and direct marketing activity takes place in mobile apps, games, and Web sites. All of these tools use the data-rich mobile environment to capture information about consumers and turn it into productive marketing opportunities. QR codes, another direct-to-consumer mobile marketing tool, enable consumers to scan an image with a mobile phone that takes them to a Web site where they receive special information or offers.
A great illustration of how companies use consumer information for direct marketing purposes comes from a New York Times article that interviewed Andrew Pole, who conducts marketing analytics for the retailer Target. The article discusses how Target uses behavioral data and purchasing history to anticipate customers’ needs and make them offers based on this information:
Target has a baby registry, and Pole started there, observing how shopping habits changed as a woman approached her due date, which women on the registry had willingly disclosed. He ran test after test, analyzing the data, and before long some useful patterns emerged. Lotions, for example. Lots of people buy lotion, but one of Pole’s colleagues noticed that women on the baby registry were buying larger quantities of unscented lotion around the beginning of their second trimester. Another analyst noted that sometime in the first twenty weeks, pregnant women loaded up on supplements like calcium, magnesium, and zinc. Many shoppers purchase soap and cotton balls, but when someone suddenly starts buying lots of scent-free soap and extra-big bags of cotton balls, in addition to hand sanitizers and washcloths, it signals they could be getting close to their delivery date.
As Pole’s computers crawled through the data, he was able to identify about twenty-five products that, when analyzed together, allowed him to assign each shopper a “pregnancy prediction” score. More important, he could also estimate her due date to within a small window, so Target could send coupons timed to very specific stages of her pregnancy.
One Target employee I spoke to provided a hypothetical example. Take a fictional Target shopper named Jenny Ward, who is twenty-three, lives in Atlanta, and in March bought cocoa-butter lotion, a purse large enough to double as a diaper bag, zinc and magnesium supplements, and a bright blue rug. There’s, say, an 87 percent chance that she’s pregnant and that her delivery date is sometime in late August. What’s more, because of the data attached to her Guest ID number, Target knows how to trigger Jenny’s habits. They know that if she receives a coupon via e-mail, it will most likely cue her to buy online. They know that if she receives an ad in the mail on Friday, she frequently uses it on a weekend trip to the store.
The article goes on to tell the well-documented story of an outraged father who went into his local Target to complain about the mailer his teenage daughter received from Target featuring coupons for infant clothing and baby furniture. He accused Target of encouraging is daughter to get pregnant. The customer-service employee he spoke with was apologetic but knew nothing about the mailer. When this employee phoned the father a few days later to apologize again, it emerged that the girl was, in fact, pregnant, and Target’s marketing analytics had figured it out before her father did.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Direct Marketing
All this data-driven direct marketing might seem a little creepy or even nefarious, and certainly it can be when marketers are insensitive or unethical in their use of consumer data. However, direct marketing also offers significant value to consumers by tailoring their experience in the market to things that most align with their needs and interests. If you’re going to have a baby (and you don’t mind people knowing about it), wouldn’t you rather have Target send you special offers on baby products than on men’s shoes or home improvement goods?
As suggested in the New York Times excerpt, above, direct marketing can be a powerful tool for anticipating and predicting customer needs and behaviors. Over time, as companies use consumer data to understand their target audiences and market dynamics, they can develop more effective campaigns and offers. Organizations can create offers that are more personalized to consumer needs and preferences, and they can reach these consumers more efficiently through direct contact. Because it is so data intensive, it is relatively easy to measure the effectiveness of direct marketing by linking it to outcomes: did a customer request additional information or use the coupons sent? Did he open the email message containing the discount offer? How many items were purchased and when? And so forth. Although the cost of database and information infrastructure is not insignificant, mobile and email marketing tend to be inexpensive to produce once the underlying infrastructure is in place. As a rule, direct marketing tactics can be designed to fit marketing budgets.
Among the leading disadvantages of direct marketing are, not surprisingly, concerns about privacy and information security. Target’s massive data breach in 2013 took a hefty toll on customer confidence, company revenue, and profitability at the time. Direct marketing also takes place in a crowded, saturated market in which people are only too willing to toss junk mail and unsolicited email into trash bins without a second glance. Electronic spam filters screen out many email messages, so people may never even see email messages from many of the organizations that send them. Heavy reliance on data also leads to the challenge of keeping databases and contact information up to date and complete, a perennial problem for many organizations. Finally, direct marketing implies a direct-to-customer business model that inevitably requires companies to provide an acceptable level of customer service and interaction to win new customers and retain their business.
Direct Marketing in the IMC Process
Direct marketing, and email marketing in particular, plays a critical role in many IMC campaigns because it is a primary means of communicating with any named-and-known target audiences. It is a common vehicle for spreading the word about sales promotions and public relations activities. Direct marketing pieces can reuse and reinforce messages and images developed for advertisements, offering another touch point for reaching target segments. QR codes and other mobile marketing tactics may be used at the point of sale to engage customers and persuade them to purchase. Email marketing messages commonly include links to social media, inviting consumers to share experiences, opinions, marketing messages, and offers with their social networks.
Direct marketing can also be a useful tool in personal selling, as it helps marketers and sales representatives efficiently maintain ongoing relationships with customers and prospects as they are nurtured through the sales process. The rich data behind direct marketing also provides insight for sales representatives to help them segment prospective customers and develop offers and sales approaches personalized to their needs and interests.