The Year Ahead For ... Direct Marketing

Mel Cruickshank suggests that CRM now means staying alert to themes or conversations that can make or break a brand. Building a relationship is vital.

Mel Cruickshank
Mel Cruickshank

Direct marketing has been on a long old journey. It has taken us from simply trying to acquire and cross-sell to seeking to engage customers more deeply.

From a one-size-fits-all approach to more tailored comms and richly informed targeting.

From an annual contact plan dictated by a sales calendar to a sophisticated journey driven by the life cycles of different customer types.

From set-piece campaigns to agile triggers.

From the single channel of direct mail to the multi-channel world in which we have numerous ways to contact customers.

Direct now offers a cracking opportunity to build deeper customer relationships and intervene at moments when the customer is actually interested or they have a need.

Part of this change has, of course, been engendered by the opportunities given to us through the digital revolution. Acres of print (ironically, many of them on paper) have been devoted to how the unleashed forces of technology will continue to drive ceaseless transformation in the direct world. They no doubt will - many of them in ways we can't yet appreciate.

And yet 2012 could be as much about "back to the future" as "forward into the unknown". Do we need to reclaim some core principles around our discipline in order to progress as we want to? Many of the substantial issues we face suggest we do need to get some fundamentals right, as much as we need to embrace the new.

For all the advances in sophistication and creativity, we are trying to reach out to consumers who are more cynical and protective of their personal data (and personal space) than ever before. Brands that fail to engage and interest fall victim to the delete button and the recycling box faster than ever. The whole idea of having a relationship with a brand is reserved for the very few brands about which we truly care: those that have won a place in our hearts as well as our heads.

Indeed, that "relationship" word is a bold ambition - should there be an "R" in CRM? In reality, CRM is seldom raised to a "relationship" level by those on the other end of most direct brand communication. So what are the core challenges and opportunities for those that do aspire to be on the shortlist of genuine "relationship brands"? How can we reach relationship status? How can we put the "R" back into a well-worn acronym?

The increased use of trigger-based communications has started to show how much more effective CRM can be if it takes account of specific customer needs and circumstances in a timely way. I believe that this is just the start of a far more dynamic relationship between brand and customer. We are moving to a world where mobile devices mean the internet is with you all the time and where your location is known when you're using it. The coincidence of these two things creates some fantastic opportunities for brands. Communicating at just the right time, with just the right content, CRM can be both more helpful and more engaging. This part of the story is only the beginning.

The use of social channels is also still in its infancy for CRM. The power of personal recommendation as well as the wider views of peers and those we admire has always, of course, existed in human society and been valued by marketers. But social media has revolutionised both the access to and the reach of these valued opinions. In this new world, years of hard work in brand-building can be undone in seconds and shared with millions.

Of course, the upside is that great brand stories can also be shared quickly and with a whole new level of authenticity. So CRM will become more social as marketers find new ways to encourage their brand champions to share their views with their networks. This means working with consumers in a more collaborative way - still setting the tone and the pace of brand communication, but being more relaxed about how customers choose to pick up on content and issues. It means more alert and active listening for themes and conversations that could build or damage brands.

The other implication of the development of social CRM and this more active listening is a new way to consider customer value. It will no longer be enough to look at financial worth alone in determining value. We have new tools that allow us to understand a customer's influence, their reach and importance to their peers. If we marry this with an understanding of how positive or negative they are to our brand, new communications strategies can be developed, particularly when it comes to an extension into non-core areas or new territories.

All of these trends suggest a requirement for more honesty and openness in the CRM value exchange. Consumers have more suspicions around what they see as marketing machines, existing solely to take their data and flog products or services for which they may not have a need. In 2012, there can be no room for marketing that seeks to simply polish or fluff up an undeserving initiative.

Customers will scrutinise and see through any thin veneer; instead, we should tell the brand story in a genuine and engaging way, allowing recipients room to form their own opinions and use other channels to add depth or independent opinion to come to a decision as to whether or not they wish to take things further.

Direct marketing has a flourishing future in both building brand relationships and driving sales success. However, we need to leave behind the world in which it was seen as a narrowcast companion to the broadcast world of above-the-line. True CRM is not about "sending out messages" to unsuspecting customers, it is about building an open and collaborative dialogue with them and encouraging them to continue this discussion with other decision-influencers and peers. It requires both the better use of data and the wider search for insight.

For those who build genuine relationship brands, those who put the "R" into CRM, the prize will be a great one.

Mel Cruickshank is the chief executive of Lida.