The Direct Approach: Train for a digital future

It is not just the older DM practitioners who should receive further training in the digital age. The younger entrants to the industry also need to be taught the classic direct marketing skills.

The biggest threat to the future of direct marketing is not the rise of digital, despite what some of the "old guard" in the direct marketing profession may think.

Quite the reverse, in fact. The biggest threat to the future of DM is that, right now, there are not enough marketers who have the relevant digital skills.

Digital is not a threat to direct marketing: digital is direct marketing. It offers the ability to do everything that traditional DM techniques do, but more quickly, cheaply and efficiently, and with improved targeting and measurability. With the added bonus that it allows marketers to have a real conversation with their customers.

What's more, once you accept that digital is direct, the spread of technology into every aspect of marketing communications means that all marketing is effectively becoming direct marketing. And that means that DM skills are going to become hugely valuable - as valuable, indeed, as digital skills. Someone who can combine digital knowledge with DM expertise should be able to name their price.

Unfortunately, right at this moment, there are not enough skilled people to go around. Indeed, industry leaders and even the Government have come to recognise that the skills shortage is so acute that it could seriously hamper future economic growth.

Some marketers assume this skills shortage is just a temporary blip. They seem to think that because today's teenagers and young adults have been brought up with technology, they will somehow absorb everything they need to know about direct marketing, without the need for any specialist training.

There are two major flaws in that argument. The first is the assumption that the ability to use technology to search for information, download music, upload video, chat with friends via instant messaging or e-mail or SMS text-messaging, and the ability to use the same technology to create and communicate compelling messages that deliver against business needs are the same thing. They're not. Just as being able to write a letter, address it, put a stamp on it and drop it in a postbox is not the same as being able to create a compelling piece of direct mail.

The second flaw is the assumption that only the young can possibly understand technology enough to be able to use it for DM purposes, and that anyone over the age of 35 may as well just give up now.

You only have to look at the changing demographics of internet use in the UK to see this just isn't true. In an article in the current issue of the Institute of Direct Marketing's Journal of Direct Data and Digital Marketing Practice, the marketing expert Dick Stroud points out how the over-50s, the "charmed generation", now spend more time and more money online than any other age group.

There are two ways to deal with the skills shortage. Either teach those people who already have direct skills about using the internet and other new media technologies to talk to customers; or teach those people who already understand technology about classic DM techniques that they can exploit to make their marketing better.

At the IDM, we are seeing increased demand for both types of training. Courses on how to use online, mobile and other forms of digital media now account for roughly half of what we do.

The syllabus for every programme we offer now includes in some form an aspect of technological advances - even if it is just the way that developments in printing have driven down costs and improved personalisation and the opportunities to build relevance.

But direct and digital skills are nothing without data skills. The great strength of the DM profession has always been its practitioners' ability to understand and predict consumer behaviour through the use of data.

The rise of digital will only reinforce that. Marketers will have unparalleled opportunities to collect data, analyse it, create compelling insights about consumer behaviour and act on them - then repeat the whole process in hours or days, rather than the months it would have taken with traditional direct communications channels.

Experts talk about how digital is putting the consumer in control of the communications they have with brands, services and suppliers. Certainly, consumers will have far more ability to hit the off button and stop marketing messages reaching them.

But the whole point of the marriage of direct, data and digital skills should be to create levels of consumer engagement that bring a brand alive and make it responsive to the needs of its audience, so that there should never be any risk of that off button being hit.

Marketing will no longer be stop-start communications: it becomes a continuous conversation, delivering a depth of brand experience which is more likely to convert to sales at a lower cost. That's because, with an always-on channel such as the web, marketers can target segments of their audience with tailored, relevant offerings more frequently, no matter how low the volumes for individual messages are.

Indeed, the Diamond winner in this year's IDM Business Performance Awards was a campaign created by the agency WDMP and the e-mail services provider CreatorMail for Thomson Holidays that used data on customers' previous holiday bookings to segment a database of 900,000 people and send each of them one of 150,000 e-mail variants and one of 200,000 possible mail packs.

The result of that personalisation was a staggering £1 million in extra sales in one month alone. That would not have been possible without direct, data and digital working together.

Digital is not the enemy of direct marketing. Rather, digital is a set of tools which are only truly effective when used by people who understand the basic tenets of direct marketing, which were summed up by the former IDM chairman, Graeme McCorkell, in his book, Direct and Database Marketing, as: targeting, interaction, control and continuity.

But if there are going to be enough marketers with the ability to marry direct, data and digital together, then marketing agencies, suppliers and clients need to start investing in developing their staff now. And that doesn't just mean their graduates; all of their staff need - and deserve - training.

If they do not get that training, then there will simply not be enough people with the right mix of direct, data and digital skills to move the marketing profession, and perhaps even the economy, forward.

- Neil Morris is the deputy managing director of the Institute of Direct Marketing.