A New Vision

People with something to sell have always strived to engage customers. The only difference now is the wealth of tools available to enable dialogue

"There is," the preacher said, "no new thing under the sun." To a generation raised on the ubiquity of the computer, the invention of the worldwide web, the advent of the mobile phone and the rise of social networking, this may seem a foolishness. But wait. These artefacts, which have now become the shiny new toys of every sub-teenage tearaway, are inert things. They are tools (or toys), merely. We can accomplish nothing of value with them, until we have first articulated a purpose, and defined a methodology by which we mean to pursue that purpose; then, and only then, can we use those tools in the context of our methodology and in pursuit of our purpose.

In the present context, our purpose is the age-old activity of marketing. The "new" methodology that we are being urged to use is customer engagement. That is, the marketing industry (or those members of it who write books and give lectures) has decided that the focus of marketing effort should no longer be the product, or the promotion campaign, but the customer, who must be engaged.

This is hardly a new idea: marketing was always about a buyer and a seller, a prospect and an offer, a need and a solution. In simpler times, a shop-keeper would know every customer by sight and could keep a record of her purchases, on paper or in his head. RFM (recency, frequency and monetary value) is not a new concept. From its earliest days until quite recently, marketing was always a one-to-one proposition, and engaging a customer was its first requirement.

And now

It was, of course, the arrival of the computer that first gave marketers the opportunity to collect and store, on a large scale, data about customers; to analyse and sift it and turn it into actionable information; to do for a mass audience some of what each shop-keeper had always done for the few. Over the decades since, direct marketers (alone, as it sometimes seemed) have kept the faith.

Now a vision is emerging of a new direction for marketing, based on old principles: one capable of engaging millions of prospects and customers - one-to-one - in personal, real-time dialogue which is fully accountable and measurable. This vision is made possible by the fusion of the disciplines of direct and digital marketing.

Today, customer engagement means dialogue - as it did for the Victorian shopkeeper, for the medieval merchant crying his wares in the market and, no doubt, for the Stone Age flint miner. The ultimate form of dialogue, not available to all, is company/customer (or customer/company) co- development of product or service. But there are plenty of other stopping points along this road.

The first commercial users of the worldwide web built websites that were little more than extensions of outdoor advertising. The best websites today are those that encourage dialogue: the customer has a voice, and if she can't express her views - and get a response - through your website, she may just set up another (probably hostile) one of her own, which will be seen by hundreds, perhaps thousands, of her peers. Talk to her; encourage her to talk back; respond to what she says.

Companies have learned, some of them the hard way, the necessity of monitoring the entire web to see what is being written, by increasingly vociferous consumers, about them. And whether that is agreeable, or disagreeable, there is a need to respond. And quickly.

E-mail is cheap to send (if not necessarily to write). There is nothing to be gained by flooding your customers' inboxes with too much, or too predictable, material, but well-designed infrequent e-mails, which really contain what the customer wants to hear - not just what you want to say - can be fun. And with a little bit of ingenuity, they can go viral, to your great benefit.

Mobile marketing is, as yet, in its infancy. Even more than with other media, the need is to communicate only that which your audience wishes to hear: people's mobiles are a private space, and permission marketing in this medium is a must. The most interesting use of the medium so far is location-based marketing.

The jury is still out on the marketing uses of social networking. Of course social networks, like the rest of the web, should be monitored and comments dealt with, but whether there is value for a company in creating its own Facebook or Twitter entry, and how, remains an open question.

And, so

So, brand marketing conveys what manufacturers want people to know about products and services. Direct marketers use behavioural and transactional data about their customers and prospects, their interests and preferences and willingness to engage in a continuing relationship. Advances in data processing, analytics, list compiling, data mining and digital asset management have turbocharged direct and digital marketing with powerful tools for executing marketing campaigns to achieve the highest returns.

Today, marketing spend is clearly shifting into direct and digital, and within direct marketing, the migration from traditional addressable channels, such as mail, to digital channels, such as mobile, is accelerating. An integrated, one-to-one approach to marketing in online and offline channels uses many of the same fundamental principles as direct marketing: testing response variables, analysing marketing data and adjusting to improve effectiveness, especially in ongoing relationships.

Each step in the evolution of direct marketing - from mailbox to telephone, to personal computers to mobile devices - has broadened the scope and economic impact of direct marketing. Proven tools - addressability, personalisation and direct response - add value in every channel, from e-mail and postcards to catalogues and websites, from text messages to online video, social networks, mobile, addressable digital services, and beyond. From online to offline, digital direct marketing is all about one-to-one.

Just as the most effective marketing has always been.

To access the full article, go to www.theidm.com/essay.


- Marketing has always been about customer information. But something got lost - dialogue

- The ultimate dialogue is the co-production of a product or service

- The future lies in customer/company dialogue through a variety of integrated media that allows customers to express themselves in the medium of their choice. This is the aim and meaning of customer engagement.

Professor Derek Holder FIDM is the managing director of the Institute of Direct Marketing

(From Campaign's "What Next in Engagement" supplement, October 2010)

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