The Direct Approach: Rules of engagement

Digital technology is changing the rules of marketing communication. Shelford Chandler and Catherine Gale take a closer look.

Before the printing press, the few that could read worked for the church. They controlled the interpretation of the bible for the masses. But as literacy rates went up, the authority of the church went down.

Parallels can be drawn with today's changes in the marketing industry. According to Ofcom's The Communications Market 2006, the UK's online adspend reached £1.3 billion in 2005 - a 63 per cent increase on the previous year.

Meanwhile, broadcast and print media are failing to deliver acceptable returns. Importantly, digital is able to target tough-to-reach sectors such as the 16- to 24-year-old age group. Digital-based entertainment is not only replacing TV but is also a substitute for their print intake. Critically, these individuals will be the main target audience for many brands for the next 40 years or more.

Brands must absorb, and act on, the shift in consumer attitudes and behaviour. As legislation makes it increasingly difficult to reach audiences via traditional advertising and direct marketing routes, digital offers consumers greater control of the information and messages they receive and, if they choose, the chance to physically interact with brands. In particular, the popularity of blogging sites, online communities and the widespread availability and choice of syndicated media, together with a variety of digital broadcasting options, provides huge potential for massive, cost-efficient audience reach and the opportunity to exploit the power of peer-group influence and word-of-mouth.

For direct marketers, this means going from being totally response- oriented to becoming enablers for brand engagement. It also means that to communicate effectively brands have to work much harder to create real and relevant appeal.

Harnessing the marketing power of the digital revolution is still a problem. Establishing a meaningful link between brand, media and consumer is key. These days, mass e-mail and SMS campaigns simply fail to make that link. We have to adopt more inventive and convincing ways of engaging and interacting with consumers to encourage a response. With Ofcom reporting that 40 per cent of UK internet users, and 70 per cent of 16- to 24-year-olds, have used social-networking websites, many brands have already recognised the potential of targeting sites with user-generated content.

It's no surprise to find the usual collection of sponsored links and ads on the more popular blogging sites and other online community portals. However, in addition to the banners and click-throughs, brands are also investing in more creative ways of communicating. There are plenty of brands, for instance, using teams of fake contributors to make online entries and positive brand references in community-generated editorial. Slightly subversive, some might say, but arguably acceptable, if you get it right.

In digital, this requires understanding and creativity. Brand owners and their agencies need a real understanding of the brand, its values and what it means to consumers. They must also have a deep understanding of their consumers, their attributes, attitudes and behaviour.

We need practitioners who understand digital media, but also possess the ability to recognise and capitalise on emerging technologies, trends and phenomena - tricky when things are evolving as quickly as they are. What's more, we need people who understand how digital works and how it gels best with other communication routes. Most importantly, we must be able to translate our accumulated knowledge and understanding into meaningful, relevant and inspirational creative solutions. All very simple on paper, but demanding to deliver, requiring a range of disciplines and multiple skill-sets. However, when a brand gets it right the rewards can be high.

Success in traditional direct marketing is measured in terms of cost versus response. A key feature of digital marketing is the fact that production and distribution costs are often low and less restricted by volumes. When the old model is applied to the new, the outcome is often the high-volume and low-value marketing that we have come to know as spam.

The fact that consumers are increa-singly controlling the delivery of communications through new platforms such as social-networking sites, blogs, podcasts, voice-over-internet protocol and video-on-demand services, means any engagement that brands do succeed in creating with consumers is probably valued more and likely to enhance brand perception and sales.

So the traditional measurements of success for direct marketing from a cost, reach, response and value perspective need to reflect the changes that technology has brought.

These are required to enable clients and agencies to agree effective strategies that create the highest value of engagement with consumers. Enabling individuals to leverage the power of technology is the essence of successful consumer-facing sites such as Google or MySpace. Yet online marketing has learned little from this. Instead, it prefers to use online as a media or response platform, not as a means to build a relationship.

Google's strategy of getting visitors off its website as fast as possible, made it the largest website in the world. MySpace built a platform that allowed users to build an online presence around their own interests. When brands understand why this is more interesting than a traditional brand website could ever be, direct marketing will finally have become consumer-centric.

Recent direct digital marketing activities from brands including Adidas, Earthlink, Microsoft and Jeep, have shown that new ways of enabling and engaging with consumers are not only viable, but offer significantly more opportunities to direct marketers than traditional communications.

Putting consumers at the centre of the direct marketing equation used to be a nice notion, but the reality is this is set to be the only way to reach the new generation of consumers.

- Shelford Chandler is the European creative director and Catherine Gale is the European chief executive of The Marketing Store Worldwide.

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