Direct Approach: Let's get real

In a world of increasing choice and uncertainty, it is imperative the direct marketing industry keeps a finger on the pulse of the consumer mindset.

The world is changing fast - it's a fact. Yet traditional direct marketing processes and agencies have been slow to react, weighed down by ancient approaches and fat, bloated agency structures.

On the face of it, you could argue that DM as a discipline has not changed much: attract customers through acquisition campaigns and retain your existing ones via loyalty marketing. Simple enough. This approach, coupled with Drayton Bird's book Commonsense Direct Marketing, should see us through another 30 years!

We all know it's not that easy. There have been massive changes in the media landscape that have opened up opportunities to DM. Some have been slowly and reluctantly embraced, while others are ignored as being beyond the remit or discipline. As an industry, we should take pride in embracing change, even if the vast majority of practitioners haven't actively sought it out.

Our agency is founded on a single, focused truth, deeply rooted in what's happening in today's culture - using real-world insight to understand and manage relentless change. Society, consumers, the role of brands in people's lives, the role for agencies in marketing communications: it's all changing, and consumers can no longer be thought of as laboratory subjects on which to test ill-conceived approaches.

The rise of the sociologist Anthony Giddens' "post-tradition and custom society" means we're living in a world of increasing choice, but also radical change, insecurity and uncertainty. It's much more difficult to understand "how to act" and "who to be". Life plans, identities and habits are made and re-made by individuals who live life without a script - a state of "fuzzy living". So it is imperative that, as an industry, we stay continually on the pulse of these frequent changes.

The way in which consumers live their lives has a massive implication on how they pick up influence, form opinion and make purchase decisions. It also impacts hugely on how we engage and talk to consumers. In a changing landscape, we've got to be smarter in our approaches to acquiring customers and retaining existing ones.

Prehistoric views of conversion have seen a bombardment of packs and e-mails hit consumers at the "right time". But do the purchase funnels that we have constructed truly reflect the ever-changing lives of consumers? It's not that easy. It's not a linear life we're living. Repurchase intention dates, lifecycles and other data-captured moments must not act as the sole times to talk to consumers.

It is about understanding that there are some acquisition and retention tools that don't fit into neat boxes. But we can measure their effectiveness nonetheless.

An example of this lack of insight and understanding is rife within the automotive sector: it still amazes me that it's assumed that purchasing a car happens so systemically. Consideration, shortlist, test-drive and buy. It's not a straight line - anyone who has bought a car recently would realise that it's more like snakes and ladders, as consumers are influenced by experience and their peers, and are courted by competitors.

Consumers are increasingly looking to others to gain approval, seek advice and reassure them through purchase. In this changing world, you need reassurance that you are making the right decision. Advocacy is a massive part of the decision-making process, and yet few direct marketers take up the challenge of seeking how to harness the power of people to best effect. For them, embracing advocacy feels slightly alien, slightly less manageable than traditional DM, in which talking to consumers with targeted communications is hoped to move them into consideration and ultimately into purchase. But it shouldn't feel that way.

Advocates can be targeted like any other consumers through data. We can engage with them like any other consumer through media. We can measure effectiveness by the amount of interactions they have with others, by tagging and tracking responses. It is opening a new channel to us. It's not a traditional media channel, but one that is intrinsically linked to DM.

Another area that doesn't fit neatly into a DM box but plays a role in purchase is "experience". We know from our proprietary research, "iris, You Are What You Do", that experience plays an increasingly important part in people's lives, answering a whole range of emotional needs (such as stimulation, reassurance, validation, fulfilment and reward) and rational needs (access, learning and decision making). This ties in with the need for real-world insight into culture, understanding the role of influence, drive-changers, and what will shape consumers' decisions and habits tomorrow.

Engaging with consumers, making their relationships with brands (and each other) inherently "experiential", allows us to more effectively deploy brand equity to drive that behaviour change (ie. consideration, purchase, recommendation and re-purchase).

Digital, too, offers a powerful portal to deliver experience to consumers. It demands interaction and exploration, and allows consumers to genuinely experience brands and products.

As a result of the consumer landscape change, DM needs to work harder at building relationships and conversations with consumers. It's a truly exciting time to be in the industry, because there is still more potential to be reaped from our communications to consumers. But are we geared up for it?

Most traditional direct agencies are very set in their ways. The same solutions are trotted out time and again, such as long-established customer and prospect strategies, wave upon wave of prospecting mail, and retention and date-triggered communications. It's not about abandoning delivery structure and robust frameworks. But let's not be wholly reliant on these structures. They produce results, but are we maximising them? Isn't it up to agencies to add that little bit extra that fine tunes and over-delivers?

As an agency that was built on embracing change, we know our challenge is to spot potential and react quickly enough to make it benefit clients. The pace of change has quickened, and a traditional sector needs to respond to grasp the opportunity.