Striving for the best with direct marketing

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Carol Krol
Carol Krol

As DMNews embarks on its rebranding, it is a good time to reflect on our industry.

I've witnessed enormous change in direct marketing in my 14 years covering this industry as a journalist, from my cub reporter days at Advertising Age through my current role as steward of the DMNews brand.

Back in the mid-90s, the promise of CRM had just begun to percolate among direct marketers and within the direct agencies, which recognized the potential of an automated way to manage customer relationships as part of the marketing strategy. The Web was born at that time too, when the Mosaic browser popularized what was then commonly called the World Wide Web.

I remember most press releases came over the transom through fax machines during that time, a major advance over snail-mailed news releases. Quaint, eh?

Speaking of which, direct mail dominated coverage of direct marketing then, with the “you may already be a winner” saga of Publishers Clearing House and American Family Publishers, well-documented by those of us covering the industry. At issue was customer deception, and in the end, customers won multimillions from these companies in suits brought by a number of state attorneys general. AFP ultimately declared bankruptcy. It cast a shadow over the industry, and it's no wonder that the term “junk mail” has never completely died.

In 2003, the Web and e-mail and search marketing were in full swing. But also at that time, the backlash from consumers over intrusive telemarketers interrupting the dinner hour had reached a breaking point. The Federal Trade Commission responded by implementing the so-called national Do Not Call Registry, which has more than 191 million US registrants.

Fast forward to today's current debate over behavioral targeting and legislation looms again as talk of do-not-track and online privacy legislation wends its way through Congress. Direct marketers are again in the crosshairs. They continue to suffer from an image problem, even as – or perhaps because – much of the business has migrated online.

The holy grail for all marketers, including direct marketers, has been true one-to-one, personalized marketing to consumers. The technology, automated processes and capabilities are finally there, but marketers are once again on the precipice of losing significant ground because too much focus has been placed on tracking customer behavior in the short term to boost profits and not enough on big picture thinking about industry practices and perceptions.

We renamed our publication Direct Marketing News, in order to clearly spell out our laser focus on this industry. We strongly believe those identifying words are a source of power for this industry.

Direct marketers are better equipped than the generalists to hone in on only the most relevant customers, because that targeting has always been at the core of the business. It is up to you to find that sweet spot of balancing behavior tracking with individual preferences in order to gain consumer trust and avoid being legislated out of business.

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