2014 Predictions: The year ahead for...Customer engagement

Now is the time for the rapidly evolving direct marketing discipline to redefine its identity and explain its value as a brand and business builder, Matthew Heath believes.

Matthew Heath
Matthew Heath

There is an interesting dichotomy facing the direct marketing discipline in 2014. On the face of it, all is more than well; we have seen unparalleled success as a vital part of the marketing capability, torture-tested in the harshest recession for nearly a century. Yet direct is facing something of an identity crisis.

Indeed, you could be forgiven for believing direct marketing may be dead, lost under a tidal wave of rebadging and rebranding – after all, this is the first "Year Ahead For… Customer Engagement" in this esteemed journal. Beyond customer engagement, other language abounds around customer experience, loyalty marketing, customer relationship management, one-to-one communications, data-driven marcoms, and so it goes on.

Clarity of purpose

But I wonder if this is symptomatic of a desire to continue feeding the impenetrable dialect of marketing-speak; to hide behind new and exciting terminology rather than face up to the more substantial task of redefining what we do in plain English.

My contention is that 2014 should be a big year for direct marketing in this respect. We owe it to ourselves, and to our clients, to be clearer about what we can uniquely achieve as a discipline. This year, we should be asking whether just calling our profession something new means much, or whether we want to take this opportunity to cement our place as an essential and dynamic force behind building both brands and businesses. This could and should be the year that those of us who lead our industry clarify its role, decide what it is actually for and reinforce the successes we have achieved in delivering the strategic objectives of marketers.

The heart of this challenge of definition is that so much has changed in the world of customer communication and, like most change, it has sneaked up on us. Change tends to happen more slowly than we think, but eventually becomes far more profound than ever imagined.

When mobile phones came on the scene in the early 80s, there were lots of predictions that around 10 per cent of the population – the rich – would own one in a couple of years. In 1981, Marty Cooper, then the director of research at Motorola, said the mobile phone wouldn’t replace the landline any time close to soon. "Even if you project it beyond our lifetimes, it won’t be cheap enough," he said. In fact, it was 12 years after the first consumer mobile phone was launched before just 10 per cent of us owned one, yet no-one on the planet then predicted that we in the UK would have an average of more than one each in 2013. (There are 62 million of us and 76 million mobile phones, if you’re interested.) Change is always slower, but more impactful, than the prophets predict.

Ten-year revolution

It’s similar for direct. I looked back at the predictions for 2004 from some of the industry’s great and good. These were largely about optimising the postal channel and, maybe at a stretch, the call centre.

Rosemary Smith from Rosemary Smith Associates complained about a "lack of client loyalty to lettershop and print services". Clare Salmon, then at the Advertising Association, warned that "Royal Mail disputes might lead marketers to consider other channels", and James Kelly of the Direct Marketing Association called for a "greater use of environmentally friendly materials in direct mail" while bemoaning the "curse of silent calls in telemarketing".

Only ten years ago, and barely a mention of e-mail, let alone a hint of what has become the unstoppable deluge of digital and social channels, the revolution in our ability to process and use massive amounts of data, the step change in campaign automation, the adoption of geo-targeting and real-time campaigns, or the marketer’s use of SMS and in-app push.

We should be asking whether we want to take this opportunity to cement our place as an essential and dynamic force behind building both brands and businesses

The change in the world of direct has been so astonishing that we have not taken a moment to pause for breath and redefine its purpose. We haven’t paused for thought. New titles for what we do have provided us with a lazy way out, rebadging rather than reasserting.

Growing confidence

The point for us in 2014 should not be about the name change from direct to something else – that is a peripheral issue. It should be about a new confidence in what we can achieve, the amazing skills we can provide as direct marketers – or even customer engagers.

We have, after all, found a new level of respect in the world of brand communications. It is recognised now that direct is a way of approaching a marketing challenge – not just a way of executing campaigns – and that, in many ways, relevance is the new reach. We no longer need a chip on our shoulder about advertising agencies being the sole leaders of client relationships – that is simply not the case in a world where ROI, a deep understanding of data and customer retention and the ability to create a real multichannel approach have proved their worth in the teeth of a global recession. Nor are we less creative. The days of taking an advertising campaign, weaving in a call to action and sticking it in an envelope are lost in the past as we explore the wealth of amazing ways to fuse data, broader customer insight and new channels to excite and inspire the recipients of our communications.

So we are in a powerful position to decide what direct is really here for. I believe it remains a powerhouse of commercial performance. It can build brands at an intimate, personal level. It is at the heart of customer understanding and insight. We know so much about customers and, for all the legitimate debate about privacy and data protection, we increasingly see a world in which consumers are comfortable, even delighted, if brands they trust use personal information to tailor their experience across all touchpoints. After all, this personalised world used to be accessible only to those who could buy luxury brands whose whole purpose was to tailor their customer engagement, and often their products, around the needs of individuals. The data revolution has allowed those of us who want to share information (that’s most of us) with product and service providers to receive a wealth of improvements (products that work for us, discounts that mean something to us, communications that inspire us) in return.

Direct marketing is at the heart of that revolution and that is an exciting place to be, particularly as technology will continue to make greater customisation and personalisation even more compelling.

There are some key questions to ask yourselves about the work you are doing. Does it take a brand promise and make it truly personal and compelling? Does it interest, educate or entertain me in a relevant way or, ideally, do all of those things? Is it underpinned by a genuine understanding of customers, informed by hard data and softer insight? Can I prove the return it will generate? Does it fuse together a collection of customer touchpoints and create something bigger than the sum of the parts?

At the cutting edge

Direct marketing is an amazing trade. Far from reaching its zenith in the age of direct mail (although we are seeing a revival here, as the under-25s start to appreciate something as rare as a personally addressed letter), it is now at the forefront of where marketing is going.

Surely an analogy is required, so let’s bypass the forlorn hopes of our footballers at the big sporting circus of 2014 in Brazil and look forward to the noble sight of the Rugby World Cup coming to our shores in 2015. Advertising provides the forward power, the tough, slug-it-out-on-the-frontline battle, imbued with a new fleetness of foot and a subtle touch on the ball. This builds the platform for those of us in direct – the backs – to exploit with our darting runs, our ability to find and use the gaps, our opportunity to dive over the try line in glory.

Direct is not dead, and 2014 is the year to decide what it is really here to deliver. Whatever we call it, it has scarcely been born.

Matthew Heath is the chairman and chief strategy officer of Lida