The Direct Approach: Rite of Passage

Direct marketing has clocked up its first quarter of a century but cannot afford to stand still - we must act differently to win over canny consumers.

Our industry is about 25 years old and has been on the receiving end of a fair amount of criticism recently. Are we reacting with the assured confidence of the young adult, certain of our own abilities and the knowledge that deeds tend to be more important than words? Or, like an adolescent, are we too ready to blurt out "It's so, like, totally unfair" or "It wasn't us"?

We raise eyebrows when TV shows identify direct mail as the country's biggest source of irritation, or when BT wraps its privacy product around the Telephone Preference Service. But what if they are right? What if these people understand consumers better than we like to think we do?

Our hypothesis is simple. If we want consumers to treat our industry differently, we will need to behave differently. Let's be clear: we are proud to work in this industry and, frankly, feel a great sense of humility when reviewing the best work our sector can offer. But there is much to suggest that standards need to improve if we want to boost future returns.

And we all have a role to play in raising our collective game - it's not enough to be among the better direct marketers and to expect those we think are at the other end of the scale to get their acts together.

For years, the electric kettle and the remote control have enabled consumers to avoid TV advertising they don't like, while a simple shake of their Cosmopolitan is normally enough to remove the inserts. Now consumers block telephone calls, e-mail, post and pop-ups. By 2007, $6.6 billion of TV ads in the US will be zapped each year using TiVo, according to the research company The Yankee Group. Consumers think all this is good - the Google toolbar even tells them how many messages they have missed.

But being ignored isn't the worst that can happen: these days, customers' bad experiences can become very public. Consumer product reviews can be read widely while websites such as the-scream.co.uk turn up the volume a little. Here consumers talk frankly in chatrooms, adding to the growing amount of daily blogs.

Consider also that SMS was credited with playing a major role in the outcome of the Spanish election and we must conclude that consumers are in control. Fortunately, they seem clear on what they require from brands: understand me, be relevant to me and entertain me when and how I choose.

There are five ways direct marketers can address these challenges. First, reassess what is good enough. Customers compare their service experiences across product categories. If your mortgage provider makes it easy for you to call it during an application process but your low-cost airline does not offer a comparable service when you are booking a flight, that's fine - until a competitor offers a better service at a comparable price.

Second, maximise relevance with customisation. Of the 40,000 Minis sold in the UK each year, no more than four are absolutely identical. That's a big deal for a car that retails for £10,000 or so. People use avatars - customised logos - on Skype, Habbo and in countless chatrooms - a sign that they want to be treated as individuals.

Simple measures such as recognising previous interactions in copy, gaining and acting on more information and permissions, and adopting a bias to smaller, tailored cells are steps in the right direction.

Third, measure both the short- and long-term impact of your strategies.

We heard of a company whose primary measure of success for a sales promotion was shifts in its brand's image attributes. Clearly, no-one will be happy if the sales figures do not hit the mark but this approach has merit.

It places the focus firmly on how we can engage with consumers in a way that makes them think differently about the brand and then act. This is a credible alternative to merely thinking: "What can we bribe consumers with to get them to buy our product instead of their usual choice?"

Fourth, engage with customers on their terms. Lufthansa offers broadband internet connections on its long-haul flights. This is interesting for two reasons. It gives consumers the opportunity to book holidays, move bank accounts, set up regular donations to a charity, hunt for new cars and do all their Christmas shopping while they are 35,000 feet above the Atlantic - this offers huge amounts of customer value. Also, it means travellers can spend the time exploring the dodgier extremities of their music collection on their MP3 player without anyone reminding them that Wham! are no longer cool.

Fifth, direct marketers could make sure consumers want to engage with creative work. On the whole, advertising is becoming less effective but some brands are still able to prove that great work still cuts through.

Look at the increase in product placement and programme sponsorship and you will see that the boundary between entertainment and advertising has become so blurred it may no longer exist.

These are lessons for us. Great work will always succeed. We need to focus on ideas that people want to engage with and execute them with the finest craft skills we can muster. This means clear, compelling copy that dances on the page, presented by expert art directors and typographers who know exactly what the volume setting should be for every job.

The digital environment offers us the chance to be more entertaining.

Games are the most obvious example of this, but braver brands such as Nike are making visitors to their websites work quite hard to decode the information offered. Not every brand can do this but doesn't everyone deserve to be tickled by their postman? The hard yards in creative will increasingly pay dividends at the tills.

None of this is rocket science and yet none of it is easy. Let's start moving in this direction at the age of 25, so that we avoid waking up as grumpy old men and women, who cry "I don't believe it!" when none of our direct marketing really works any more.

- Trefor Thomas and Jonathan Harman are the chief creative officer and chief executive respectively of of RMG:Connect.

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