Rewriting DM Rules for the Web

Ed Mayer, the grandfather of direct marketing, lived and breathed by a formula he referred to as the “40/40/20 Rule.” Mayer’s teachings have inspired direct marketers since the 1960s, and his rule stands today as the model upon which most campaigns are built.

By his assessment, successful direct marketing campaigns could be broken down into these percentages:

o 40 percent audience.

o 40 percent offer.

o 20 percent creative.

This means that 40 percent of the weight of your campaign is decided by your ability to target the right audience, 40 percent by developing a compelling offer for that audience and only 20 percent by pulling together the creative aspects of the campaign.

Most direct marketers still follow Mayer’s advice. And that’s fine, as long as they stick to postal mailings. But Mayer never imagined the effect the Internet would have on direct marketing. His rule was created with traditional direct mail in mind. It does not account for interactive direct response campaigns, which are received and absorbed by their audiences in a different way.

What concerns me is that lately I have heard several interactive marketers say that they still thrive by the 40/40/20 Rule. I have heard it referenced in senior-level meetings, and I’ve caught it bantered about at industry get-togethers. The more I hear it, the more I realize that it doesn’t seem to work for interactive campaigns. It seems to me that the rule places too little emphasis on creative in online marketing campaigns.

The rule may lead to success with traditional direct mail, but things are different online. Some traditional direct marketing theories still apply, but many others are outdated. The experience of surfing the Web or checking one’s e-mail cannot be compared to that of flipping through the mail from your physical mailbox; therefore, it doesn’t make sense to apply the same marketing principles to these two mediums.

New rules. We propose a different formula, one more fitting for interactive marketing campaigns. We’ll call it the 33 1/3 rule, and it breaks down like this:

o 33 1/3 percent audience.

o 33 1/3 percent offer.

o 33 1/3 percent creative.

We don’t mean to imply that targeting the right audience with the right offer is less important in interactive marketing than in traditional direct mail. These two facets remain every bit as important. However, creative is far more consequential in interactive campaigns. Anyone who doesn’t give it the attention it deserves will be left wondering what went wrong.

Interactive marketers have less time to involve the consumer. Online users are constantly under siege from too much information: their in-boxes are always too full, their time is always too short, and the Web pages they visit are usually crowded.

We must draw them in quickly, in fact instantly, before their attention is diverted elsewhere. We don’t have the luxury of sending a physical piece of mail for them to hold in their hands, to maybe flip over a time or two and soak it all in as they walk from the end of their driveways into their houses. If we did, getting their attention would be less difficult.

Creative now becomes more accountable than ever. It is the first thing people see, so it carries the burden of engaging them enough to want to give you more of their time. No matter how good your offer is or how relevant it might seem to the person viewing it, it will never even get read if your creative is not compelling, unique or relevant. Online consumers are under such heavy bombardment that advertisements with little or no creativity will never reach their full effectiveness.

Think of front-end online creative – whether in the form of a banner, an e-mail, a pop-up or what have you – as the envelope. In traditional direct mail, the intent of the envelope is to persuade the user to open it; it’s what gets their attention. On the Internet, we use banners or other forms of ads for the same purpose: to entice them to look into our ad.

Traditional direct marketers operate under the assumption that if the envelope is professional in appearance and hints at the offer found inside, it will get opened by a good percentage of its recipients. But interactive marketers operate under the opposite assumption: that even the most effective “envelopes” rarely get opened. With ineffective creative, the open rate will be minuscule. It is the role of the creative to improve those open rates.

Further creative differences. The role of creative also becomes more significant in online campaigns because of the sheer versatility of the medium. With all the rich media tools available to them, interactive marketers have much more freedom of form than traditional direct marketers ever had. They aren’t limited to font choices, background colors and print formats as the main variables in their creative.

An ad’s creative could incorporate audio, video or even an entire video game. With so many options, marketers have no choice but to place greater emphasis on creative.

Another point worth making is that there was a time when feedback from direct response campaigns took months to materialize. Now, direct marketers using the Internet can measure their campaigns in real time and make changes on the fly. If one set of creative is underperforming, marketers update their campaigns to optimize its performance. That’s another way in which creative is now more accountable: If it isn’t performing at a high level, it can be easily replaced by other creative.

Road to successful campaigns. In interactive marketing campaigns, the role of creative is as important as the roles of audience and offer. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. By dividing the weight of your campaign equally among these three areas, your campaigns will achieve the results you seek.

Why would we want to toss out a formula that has stood the test of time? We don’t. We believe that traditional direct marketers should commit themselves to the 40/40/20 Rule and build every campaign around it. Our aim is simply to update the formula so that it applies to today’s new media formats and practices.

Direct response marketing has been around for decades, and today it is one of the most powerful marketing vehicles on the Internet. It is the surest way to get consumers to buy your product, visit your Web site or subscribe to your service. But it cannot be performed the way it used to be; the old rules no longer apply.

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