The DM Essays: Peter Batchelor, the head of direct marketing at Triangle Communications

Agencies must aim to balance relationship and responsibility when using digital media such as SMS to address consumers, Peter Batchelor at Triangle says.

Last year, the great British public sent more than 20 billion text messages. This year, the figure will grow to 23 billion.

E-mail data is more difficult to get an accurate picture of but, depending on the source, estimates suggest it's between 60 billion and 100 billion e-mails a year in the UK. To put that in context, the Royal Mail distributes about 30 billion items of mail a year.

We've embraced the convenience of e-mail and SMS in our personal lives but how far are we all prepared to go in allowing brands access to these most personal of media spaces? Perhaps in reality we're not that far from a scenario where promotional messages are beamed from retailers' storefronts, addressing us by first name as we pass down the high street? Lunn Poly has already started trialling whispering windows that speak seductively to passers-by.

To get a reality check on this we first need to understand what opportunities text and e-mail communications bring to the armoury of the direct marketer.

Undoubtedly, there are the obvious benefits of speed, cost efficiencies and measurability. This becomes more apparent by comparison with more traditional media. But perhaps the over-riding factor for consideration is the sheer breadth of media available and, with it, the issues of relevance and appropriateness to both the consumer and the communications task in hand.

The key to the effectiveness of these new media lies in understanding the customer perspective. What do I get? Why should I give you my details and let you use an intrusive medium, such as my e-mail address or mobile phone, to contact me directly (which I may have to pay for)? Much of this reluctance evaporates once you start to offer consumers relevant rewards.

These can be monetary, such as vouchers or incentives; relational, such as progress updates on your web order; or entertainment-based, with the adoption of 3G and broadband access allowing video transfer at acceptable speeds and cost. In today's era of data protection and European directives, it's even more important to make sure that customers are clear on what they may get and actually why they'd be interested in getting it at all.

What can start as permission-based marketing can very soon descend into spam if brands hit people with too many messages too often. Across Europe estimates suggest that businesses spend more than two billion euros a year tackling spam. Vodafone has even set up a trial allowing its customers to forward spam text messages to them free, so they can deal with them.

Annoying their consumers like this has serious implications for business, as people may wholeheartedly reject text and e-mail communications.

When brands get the relationship and responsibility balance right, it's a joy for the recipient. I really appreciate getting progress updates in e-mails from Amazon or Postoptics. It starts to make the transaction process tangible and bridges the gap between the internet and the real world. These updates keep me informed and reassure me that this company does value my business. It's the next best thing to watching the shop assistant wrapping the purchase in front of me. As soon as companies start using text and e-mail with consumers, the business has to be able to manage the response. These two-way communication media operate much faster and with that comes a greater degree of consumer expectation than traditional paper direct mail. Get it wrong and take days to respond to an e-mail query, like the magazine publisher did with me last week, and you too would probably react negatively. In my case, I cancelled the subscription.

Intelligent marketers are recognising that these digital tools are best deployed in conjunction with traditional media. So when you get an e-mail asking you to opt into receiving the direct-mail offer, it guarantees greater effectiveness for a medium that now looks expensive compared with the per-unit hit rate possible with e-mail and texts. It's possible to combine "new" and "old" media in many ways, but increased cost efficiencies are driving this combined approach over pursuing a simple strategy of one or the other - put the two together and the overall results can be better than either of these could have achieved on their own.

This year, three new mobile phone-based reward/loyalty schemes are set to launch in the UK. With these, text messages will start to be used as vouchers to reward loyalty or incentivise spend. Retailers' participation will be key to the success of these schemes, but, more importantly, the proposition to the customer has to be right. On the face of it, using the existing commercial relationship of the phone contract as the customer reward mechanism makes great sense, but retailers may feel that this becomes too removed from their control, especially considering the access it'll demand to their valuable data.

While getting the profile and customer understanding right is key, as it is with all forms of direct marketing, more of an issue for direct marketing agencies is understanding another unique dimension that will determine success. This has little to do with geo-demographics and segmentation and a lot to do with where each customer is on the adoption curve for e-mail or text. It's almost perverse in terms of consumer behaviour that people are more likely to welcome commercial e-mails in their early adoption stages. Misjudge the audience you're talking to and brands risk a complete waste of marketing spend. Get it right and it'll be a powerful, cost-effective method of enhancing customer relationships and driving business. To do this, the legitimate permission-based marketing campaign will also need to stand out from the mass of inbox spam.

Perhaps the most exciting opportunity is the possibility of using location-based proximity messaging. This means text messages triggered by customer proximity to a store or sales environment. The potential exists for brands to start using this technology to achieve the holy grail in advertising and direct marketing, where customer profiles are synched to m-commerce systems and user profiling, filtered through location targeting to deliver a mixture of text, voice and video communications. The danger is that too much profiling soon starts to smack of "Big Brother" - the Minority Report view of the future where the systems know what you are going to do before you do it. But if they're offering me a free chocolate bar or pint of Guinness, then I might just suffer the intrusion.


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