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Is it time to rename direct marketing?

Does the term “direct marketing” need a makeover? Our experts weighed in and our readers responded with gusto.


Tim Suther, chief marketing officer, Acxiom Corporation

It used to be that direct marketing was considered a channel: direct mail. Now, the channel and the data have value independent of one another. But the association between direct marketing and direct mail is proving hard to break. Furthermore, while it’s still direct, the data has become far more prominent—and consequently, useful beyond direct  communication with customers. So, I think in terms of data-driven marketing, a term that helps decouple the channel from its more powerful enterprise uses.

We’re at a seminal time in the marketing industry. Top companies like Apple, IBM, and Google have a focus on data as their core value proposition. As a result, they profit from their use of data. Companies that lack a data-driven approach to marketing are at risk of negatively impacting customer loyalty, which is already in a precarious state. Recent studies show that 25 percent of consumers have no brand loyalty at all.

Most brands have yet to view the ownership and control of data as essential, and to extend that urgency to their marketing efforts. In this time of ever-increasing consumer power, marketers must step up and use their data to deliver relevant, timely communications to customers—or watch their data-driven competitors gain a significant advantage.

One reason for some organizations’ hesitancy in taking a data-driven approach to marketing is that they’re still debating how to use all the data they have. Brands need to break down the barriers between channels and use their offline data to support online marketing and vice versa. Enlightened companies leverage all of their data to make digital ads work better. Similarly, when marketers use digital data in the traditional world it’s amazing what they can do.

Arguing the merits of the term direct is making a big to-do about not much. The focus today should be on data-driven marketing; doing so will help to ensure a focus on the customer. And when your strategy aligns around the customer, everyone wins.


Carol Wolicki, VP of marketing, Webb Mason

I recently read an old interview with Larry Kimmel [former DMA CEO]. Something he said struck a clear bell: “There are three components that are revered in contemporary marketing: data, customer-centricity, and accountability. That’s what direct marketing has always been.”

Marketing is perceived as strategies and activities designed to gain penetration in a “market.” Those are broad and general terms, just like when mass marketing was broad and general. As we’ve gotten more sophisticated, the ‘markets’ have gotten smaller and our activities have become more targeted. “Direct” was marketing’s first nod to data. The ability to deliver addressable marketing materials (or activities, such as in a call center interaction) have expanded with both upgrades to “hard” technologies (variable print and address code labeling, for example) and “soft” (the Internet paved the way for mass email and got regulated into more personalized email).

I think few people today would argue that direct marketing isn’t just direct mail and that its scope crosses many channels—so many that it’s hard to keep up sometimes for those of us in the field. What seems equally important is to recognize that it’s essential to integrate our marketing efforts for best result, and to ensure that we have the cross-channel analytics in place to evaluate what parts of our strategies are working and which aren’t. It’s a bigger challenge today to do direct marketing—however you (re)define it—than ever before.

In the 1980s, when [we] started talking about “right message, right time, right offer,” we all thought direct would go away. It would be addressable or one-to-one marketing. But direct is still here.

Direct isn’t a bad word. It was direct mail marketers who really understood the value of segmentation. And to this day, they are the ones who really get the power of “one,” whether it’s through email or some other direct means. So maybe we should respect direct’s legacy for having been a catalyst for where the power of the Internet, marketing automation, and mobile communications is taking us. I say we keep the old standard in homage, if nothing else.

Direct Marketing News Decision

What is direct marketing today? The same as it’s always been, when it’s at its best: targeted, relevant, and engaging—and supported by data. It’s a practice; not a channel. So, whether marketers are focused on email or search or digital, or their work is primarily on integrated programs, if they’re using data to inform their decisions, to segment their customers, and to make continuous improvements, they’re applying the principles of direct marketing. So we say embrace it, proudly. Whether you call yourself an email or digital marketer, an engagement marketer, or a data-based marketer, know that what you’re doing—that the strategies you’re using—ultimately, is direct marketing.

Have your say. Email your topic to [email protected] or leave a comment below.

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