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Direct marketing ain’t what it used to be—it’s better!

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When I started my career, direct marketing was treated somewhat like the black sheep of the advertising world. Agencies that specialized in direct marketing were considered less creative and more scientific than their sibling brand agencies. People entering marketing wanted to work on television campaigns, not direct mail.

But marketers grew to love the discipline of direct marketing because it allowed them to justify their marketing budgets. They could show management exactly what the return on investment was from their marketing dollars. They loved it so much they were afraid that if they messed with the tested, tried and true techniques of direct marketing—by trying to incorporate a brand message—it might have a negative effect on those precious results.

Back in the ’80s, the SKM Group worked closely with one client to develop direct mail kits, all with measurable test cells that tested one factor at a time so we could pinpoint what made a difference in the results. Incorporating this client’s brand image was never a part of the discussion. Advertising and direct marketing never worked together because this wasn’t considered important. Direct mail by itself worked great. It boasted the benefits of targeting accuracy, measurability, delivering a total message and creating an emotional bond.

For a while, direct mail worked almost too well, with everybody taking notice of its effectiveness. A natural growth process followed, with volume increasing dramatically. Mailboxes began to fill up with all kinds of offers. Nothing stood out any longer, and response rates began to fall. Consumers invented the term “junk mail” to apply to our communication efforts.

So we got even smarter. By using database modeling and analysis techniques, we mailed less and got the same number of responses, making it even more profitable. And consumers received less junk mail, which made them more receptive to the messages they received because they were properly targeted.

In the late ’80s, marketers started to wonder about the positive effects of incorporating a brand message into direct marketing and the multiplying effect of multiple channel touches for consumers. And the term “integrated marketing communications” was born.

Today, more and more of our clients understand the importance of a coordinated, integrated marketing effort. Not only do we incorporate the brand into their direct marketing, we utilize many combinations of media to support their businesses, creating testing matrices that are very complex. We have come to understand that many customer touch points affect whether a response is generated. Measuring results becomes more difficult as you need to look at the combinations of the various media instead of a singular marketing touch being responsible for the result.

The direct mail piece is now more often than not part of a complete marketing program. It might be the lead piece kicking off the campaign, grabbing the consumer and demanding some engagement or interaction. And it’s often as creative a marketing piece as any you’re going to find, and branded for maximum impact.

I believed it can be argued that this melding of marketing functions has now made direct marketing experts the knights on white horses of today’s business instead of the black sheep. We are uniquely qualified to bring a results-oriented approach to the mix of all media. After all, we’ve been doing it forever; we can’t help ourselves. It is totally ingrained in our every thought. Direct marketing has moved beyond measurement and, coupled with its marketing siblings, is helping clients achieve business goals better than ever before.

In the coming years, I think we’re going to see a great revolution in marketing. As consumers increasingly choose when and how they wish to be communicated with, we need to stay close to them and make them aware of where they can find us when they are ready and interested. The learning curve may be a bit steep, and we may have to work a little harder and a lot smarter, but I believe the results will be more than well worth it.

Sue Kerrigan Meany is president-CEO of SKM Group, an integrated marketing communications company. She can be reached at smeany@skmgroup.com.

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