Talent dilemmas in watered-down DM

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Branding, positioning, direct marketing and even merchandising are so integrated in today's business strategy that they have watered down the full potential of the direct marketing discipline. Contrary to popular belief, this dilution may be hurting the careers of seasoned direct marketing strategists as well as the future of all direct marketers.

Knowledgeable direct marketers understand the critical importance of the brand and product positioning in generating short and long-term profits. But now, more than ever, direct marketers are routinely relegated to tactical rather than strategic roles.

Direct marketing professionals struggle with their companies to persuade them to embrace the testing strategy or invest in relational databases that allow them to improve their return on investment.

Otherwise competent executives unwisely continue to roll out campaigns without testing them first.

They unwittingly squander future growth for short-term sales. They neglect the opportunities to invest in the learning available from the relational database their marketers so desperately need to maximize the effectiveness of their strategies. In some high-intensity direct marketing environments, the organization continues to expand budgets without the presence of a true relational database.

It is clear that an increasing number of companies have a hard time separating direct marketing strategists from direct marketing tacticians.

My friend, who is a recruiter, said that this is true because companies now want one person to do the job two or three people used to do. So the first things to go are people management skills and adequate resources for strategic development.

Additionally, there is increasing murkiness about what direct marketing really does. The direct response strategy pervades the marketing environment to such an extent that it has become the accepted key strategy minus disciplined execution that includes testing and reliable back end analytics.

For example, there is a tendency today to view direct marketing executive roles as media channel specific rather than strategy specific.

The common misdirection in staffing high-level direct marketers is to classify them as media experts in, say, direct mail, DRTV, print, e-mail or the Internet. Just because a given company's core medium today is direct mail, for example, does not mean that other media may not displace it from core to support medium with ongoing testing. Seek out direct marketers who are media agnostic and move comfortably from one media channel to another. The experienced direct marketing leader focuses on lifetime value and share of customer.

Another major strategic issue is the strong direct marketer who seeks to create customer buying experiences that maximize lifetime value. The skilled direct marketer assures that the largest number of customers as possible become centers of influence and missionaries for the company's products.

So the concept of CRM runs deep through the veins of all competent direct marketers. This capability transcends software knowledge and manifests itself in the form of a strategic mind that asks what, when, why and how customers respond to maximize the company's ROI. In fact, the well-founded direct marketer understands the interrelationship between acquisition and retention.

The professional direct marketer's skill-set includes database marketing development to facilitate one-to-one communications and tracking. He or she knows what and how to test media, media synergies, offers, pricing, creative executions and other essential elements. This type of testing improves the cost per lead, the cost per sale and ultimately, the cost per customer.

Great direct marketers demonstrate a proclivity for gathering data, analyzing it and distilling testable hypotheses.

They know the most about the customers' behavior patterns and how they will most likely respond to the company's offerings. Furthermore, their understanding of the customer database makes them uniquely qualified as one of the company's leading customer advocates.

The bottom line is that the discipline of direct marketing insists on a strategic perspective. So when you look at your people and the way your company seeks out direct marketing talent, make sure you get broad-view strategists at the top rather than tactical specialists.

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