Gordon McNenney
Nov 11, 2013

Learning from direct: Old-school lessons for digital marketers

Digital marketers would do well to heed the advice of past masters of direct marketing.

Gordon McNenney
Gordon McNenney

If you’re measuring and optimising customer engagement, response and conversion, digital marketing is essentially direct marketing with pixels, not print. Learning from direct marketing techniques is a smart way to make your digital work harder. After all, ‘direct natives’ like Montgomery Ward and Sears Roebuck Co. turned over more than $140 million in mail order sales in 1913—that’s more than $3 billion in today’s money. These guys were the Jeff Bezoses of the Edwardian age, profiting from the potential of railroads to ‘disintermediate’ retailing just as the internet is doing today.

To help digital experts catch up with a century’s worth of direct insight, here’s some old-school marketing wisdom that will never stop being relevant.

Spend as much time researching as you do planning, writing and designing.

David Ogilvy said direct response was his “first love and secret weapon.” He wrote in Ogilvy on Advertising, “You don’t stand a tinker’s chance of producing successful advertising unless you start by doing your homework.” Ogilvy would no doubt be a digital user experience fanatic if he were around today, but in addition to talking to customers he’d also be learning as much as he could from his clients’ product managers, sales people, customer service teams and engineers.

Apply ‘RFM’ analysis to maximise ecommerce sales.

When Woolworth’s purchased NZ-based catalogue merchant EziBuy this past August for $NZ350 million (US$290 million), Woolworth’s chief Grant O’Brien cited EziBuy’s “direct-selling expertise” as a key reason for the acquisition. Since long before the internet, cataloguers have used RFM analysis to help maximise customer value. They rank customers by the recency (R), frequency (F) and monetary (M) value of their purchases. Customers with the highest RFM scores get special attention. Their preferences drive everything from offers to merchandising. For digital marketers swimming in data, RFM is a simple, useful and proven data-analysis methodology for optimising sales.

Ensure your communications feel like they’re from a person, not a committee.

Digital marketers talk a lot about personalisation, but even highly targeted messages can feel more like ‘ads in your in-box’ than something one-to-one. Classic direct mail sales letters can be a fun place to find inspiration. Robert Collier published his “Million Dollar Sales Letters” more than 75 years ago. Their conversational, charismatic salesmanship is old fashioned, but their personal approach is hard to resist.

Use competitions to boost response, but recognise they may not do much for loyalty.

Direct marketers like Reader’s Digest magazine have used competitions to build global businesses. But competitions work best for marketers looking to drive product trial. Digital marketers need to be careful not to mistake Facebook ‘Likes’ for brand engagement if your brand’s friends liked your Facebook page in hopes of winning something.

Test what matters most.

Copywriter Robert Bly’s “12 most common direct mail mistakes” is full of useful info for digital marketers. Bly makes it clear that getting the offer and audience right are marketers’ most important tasks. Today, even if you’re doing sophisticated demand-side digital display advertising or highly segmented email, nothing has changed. The right offer to the right audience will drive the most response.

Use headlines to cut through customer indifference.

While many digital marketers put their focus into UX and visual design, direct marketers know how important copy is to customer engagement. Elmer Wheeler, the depression-era marketing ace who came up with the maxim, "Don’t sell the steak, sell the sizzle," tested thousands of ways to get people to respond to sales pitches. His book, Tested Sentences That Sell is free to read on Slideshare and it’s full of ‘user-centric’ insights. For example, Wheeler reveals that asking petrol station customers, "Is your oil at the safe-driving level?" is far more effective than simply asking, "Can I check your oil?" This is ‘neuromarketing’ before there was a word for that.

Simple sells.

Today, a lot of digital marketing requires users to manage passwords, overcome CAPTCHAs and share personal details. But what audiences want, deep down, hasn’t changed. They’re thinking, “What’s in it for me?” Like all direct marketers before them, digital marketers need to constantly ask, “Is it absolutely clear what I'm promising my audience and what I'm asking them to do?" If there’s one rule that direct/digital marketers need to understand, it’s that customer-centricity starts with making things easy and putting customers’ needs first.

Gordon McNenney is content and communications director at DT

Related Articles

Just Published

3 hours ago

Interpublic Group rebrands CMG division as IPG DXTRA

The 28-agency, 7,000-person offering including Weber Shandwick, Golin, Octagon, Jack Morton and FutureBrand will operate as a global collective led by CEO Andy Polansky.

4 hours ago

M&C Saatchi to reduce office space by 25% to ...

Singapore and Australia among office locations to see changes, as agency reports better than expected revenue decline of 13% in first half of 2020.

4 hours ago

Time for a radical rethink of how we use social ...

Ecommerce websites haven't really evolved from being catalogues on the internet. Brands need their selling platforms to move at the speed of culture.

4 hours ago

Facebook India's public policy director exits

Ankhi Das, an early leader at Facebook India, had been at the center of a controversy in August, accused of shielding a member of India's ruling BJP party from Facebook's hate-speech rules.