A number of fast-moving phenomena are transforming b-to-b direct marketing, including the impact of marketing automation and Web analytics, crowd-sourced data gathering, the growing influence of content marketing and the need to integrate traditional with digital channels.
In fact, one might ask, what is direct marketing these days if it encompasses so many different channels and disciplines?
“ "Direct marketing' is probably a term that needs some repositioning,” said Rob Sanchez, president of direct marketing and list management company MeritDirect. “But in a sense, it's being able to take marketing and advertising and make [them] measureable.”
Sanchez said that along with traditional brand-intensive tactics such as print ads and TV spots, the growing adoption of QR codes in print, the rise of interactive TV and social campaigns that tie these traditional channels together, all contribute to a measureable ROI.
From that standpoint, direct marketing today could be any outbound, integrated marketing effort that can be measured and, perhaps, tied directly to revenue.
“My view of direct marketing is integrating mail and email, [and] that's driven by content,” said Todd Sierer, director-product marketing at Edmund Optics, a producer of optics, imaging and photonics technology. “If you want to get people, you have to show up on the fringes. Text is good, but video is even more successful.”
Sierer oversees Edmund Optics' video content library, which totals about 60 videos mostly detailing the company's products and designs.
“Information is information and content is content. The trick is integrating [the two] across written, social and video [platforms], creating a hub on your site and sending it all out 17 different ways through various channels,” Sierer said.
Increasingly, content proves to be a defining characteristic of direct marketing.
“I wouldn't put video in the direct marketing tool kit per se. But somebody could probably say content marketing is a direct marketing message,” said Ruth P. Stevens, president of b-to-b marketing consultancy eMarketing Strategy, and professor of marketing at Columbia University's Graduate School of Business.
“It's all about using content as an offer to motivate prospects to leave behind their contact information. That's a direct marketing activity. A white paper, tweets [and] video are all part of that mission of data collection,” Stevens said.
However it's defined, direct marketing is undergoing tumultuous change. Among the factors pushing, prodding and augmenting it are:
• Social analytics. The use of earned and social media by both marketers and their customers is creating a huge amount of data that is beginning to be mined in new ways. And if anything defines direct marketing, it's the solid data on which it's firmly based.
“We're seeing an increasing adoption of social data being used for primary research, developing overall business and marketing strategy, and leveraged to better understand customer behavior,” said Kevin Kerner, managing director-U.S. at direct marketing agency Mason Zimbler, Austin, Texas, a division of Harte-Hanks Inc.
“Social is becoming a rich data source that can be used for many purposes outside of social,” Kerner said. “It's becoming easier to aggregate the data and make something out of it.”
Kerner also said that social information about themes, content and channels of influence can be “databased” and understood to inform marketing.
• Globalization and privacy. Global marketing is spanning all regions as large enterprises move to enter new markets. New privacy laws, like the reformation of the European Union's Data Protection Directive in May, are also having a significant impact on direct marketing. Companies conducting online marketing campaigns in the 27 EU member countries are now required to receive explicit permission, or opt-in consent, to track individuals' online actions, among other features.
Coinciding with the EU rule, Eloqua announced new “strict mode” features in its Eloqua10 marketing suite: automating the process of requesting opt-in consent from online visitors and automatically updating customer databases with contacts' opt-in statuses, regardless of the recipient's country.
• Crowd-based data collection. Salesforce.com's Jigsaw Data Corp. blazed the trail, and now the crowd-sourced model of accumulating rich data on customers and prospects is heating up. For example, business models such as DesignCrowd.com offer “crowds” of designers available to bid on marketing collateral and other materials to the group-buying phenomenon—typified by Groupon and LivingSocial.
• Direct mail. Segmentation, personalization and list-building are becoming more complex—and more complete—but these elements are just one side of the direct-mail coin. The other is the growing crisis at the U.S. Postal Service and its ultimate impact on commercial mailers.
“As a result, we will see more sophisticated direct-mail programs with highly tailored packages geared to much more targeted audiences,” said Jay Schwedelson, president-CEO of direct marketing company Worldata Corp. “Direct mail will migrate from a quasi-mass marketing tool to a truly niche-oriented channel. This will push marketers further into social, search and email as the core direct-marketing mediums.”
The future of email. Just as direct mail is being forced to change because of the cultural evolution in the way people communicate, email—pressured from a variety of sources—will also change.
“Email isn't dying, but email conversation rates are,” Kerner said. “As marketers, we need to look for different ways to give customers options to connect. Earned media and inbound marketing will become the primary vehicles for b-to-b marketers. I believe email will become a second-class citizen, or at least a much more selective tool versus a batch-and-blast mechanism.”