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Participating in a virtual roundtable with BtoB Senior Reporter Christopher Hosford were Stormy Dean, exec VP of database sales at database marketing holding company InfoGroup; Mike Brzozowski, exec VP and director of CRM at direct agency Draftfcb, New York; Carolyn Goodman, president-creative director at direct agency Goodman Marketing Partners, San Rafael, Calif.; Barry Kessel, CEO of RTC RM, New York, a Wunderman unit; and Rick Milenthal, CEO of marketing agency Engauge, Columbus, Ohio.

BtoB: What major direct marketing trends have you seen over the past year? Mike Brzozowski: We're starting to see the use of direct marketing as a means of managing customer relationships, with a lot of our work shifting toward analytics that drive trigger-based communications. The technology has finally caught up with the hype: to deliver the right message to the right person at the right time, based on behavior and responses.

Stormy Dean: Across the board we saw a dip in our revenue, probably 15% to 20%, as businesses large and small were cutting back. I think it amplified the trend of the movement away from direct mail into other media, whether it's e-mail or interactive stuff, or even dabbling in social. Even the post office is going broke. People are mailing less stuff.

Carolyn Goodman: Yes, but the buyers who are making the big decisions are still using a variety of ways to make informed decisions. If sales are off and lead volume is down, it's also because marketers have abandoned traditional channels of lead nurturing in favor of new channels, which not everyone is on board with. I get a little indignant that everything is “click here,” “download that.”

Rick Milenthal: It used to be that we would just distribute a message and interrupt what the audience was doing at a given time—whether it was seeking information or entertainment, or learning something. Now, people have the resources to reject anything they want to reject, so marketers have to be more like magnets, drawing people in and building a conversation based on strong insight and great creative ideas.

BtoB: Social media has grown immensely and quickly. How does this fit into the direct marketer's toolkit these days? Barry Kessel: I see a greater emphasis on getting people to engage in dialogue, asking people what they think and how we can serve them better. Companies need to grow ears. We have huge mouthpieces, but we also need to listen as often as we speak.

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Brzozowski: One of the more exciting things we've seen develop is the use of social media in managing customer relationships. You do have a community that's interested in your products. The question is, how to leverage social [media] in a way that's transparent to the people out there and also provides a good source of insight and research into what people are thinking. Social also enables you to do something that direct marketing hasn't done so well on, which is how to identify influencers and build advocacy; enhance product development and R&D practices.

Milenthal: In b-to-b, referrals and third-party testimonials were always important, because b-to-b is a considered purchase. Here, there is a culture in which what other people say is immensely important to the purchasing decision. This can mean millions, or hundreds of millions, of dollars difference to the b-to-b company.

BtoB: How are direct-intensive companies reacting to all these changes? Milenthal: For social in particular, executives are wary about participating in something they can't control. But the CEO as well as the CMO have to realize that the conversation will take place whether they participate or not. You have no choice but to be absolutely proactive in social networking and social media.

Kessel: In particular, when dealing with social media, the call to action can be very dangerous. Historically, direct marketers always went for the transaction, talking only to people who were ready to buy now. The new world view is to say, “When you're ready to buy, we'll be ready to meet you.”

BtoB: How have all the changes of the past year, from the economic meltdown to the rapid shift to digital, influenced the use of rented lists? Dean: The fact that you own the data makes you more flexible, so we're continually developing different tools for analytics and working with customers' data that comes with their own proprietary lists. We still have the traditional way of doing compilations, but we're now engaging with the digital base, the user-contributed networks, to get additional information.

Brzozowski: I agree. Information-heavy sources, such as those from Dun & Bradstreet, won't lose their value. They provide a lot of data that helps with analytics to add to whatever we can't get from customers directly. Where we've found clients doing well with acquisition is when they have interns calling to double-check names, addresses and contact information. I don't see enough of that happening. Many companies just buy a list that's not up-to-date, and then they have deliverability issues.

BtoB: E-mail has become a direct marketing tool of choice. Any caveats here? Brzozowski: As an acquisition tool, it's not that effective; but for retention, e-mail is a wonderful tool. You can do it with a high degree of customization to provide continuous communications. However, everyone thinks it's a cheap channel, and it is, but it requires quite a lot of maintenance to be effective, especially in b-to-b.

Goodman: In addition, some are not selling e-mail lists that follow the rules of data-gathering and respecting the customer. I just participated in a LinkedIn discussion about this, and one person said that even if a person opts out from what you consider one company division, you can still e-mail him by tagging him at another division. But don't split hairs by telling me that after unsubscribing from the printer division I now have to unsubscribe from the PC division. This stuff only gives data and lists a bad name.

BtoB: It's been said that the world of marketing has experienced permanent change. What permanent changes have you seen? Kessel: The old world of marketing was driven by awareness, but I find that awareness solves very few business issues any more. Things have shifted from broad messages to personal, pertinent ones. And the driving force is this: The more personal the message, the greater chance there will be of breaking through and changing perception.

Dean: I think the permanent change is that there is no permanent change. That's the point. The speed of change is so rapid that the recession actually caused people to be more inventive and nimble, and pushed them more to social, which is nothing more advanced than a way to do word-of-mouth. And everyone knows that the most effective form of advertising is word-of-mouth.

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