Sex? Who Cares?

There has been some loose talk recently about how direct marketers are the quiet guys, working behind the scenes on boring stuff like fulfillment and statistics. And that when we are out in the front end, our stuff is somehow not “sexy.”

Hold on just a minute!

I beg to differ, on three fronts. In the first place, e-commerce, possibly the sexiest of them all, is nothing more than direct marketing. At the e-tailing level, it's cataloging. Dot-com newcomers are quickly finding out how critical is the need for skills in merchandising and customer relationship management. The e-commerce companies that are still standing are the ones that know how to apply direct marketing principles.

Many start-up mavens were following direct marketing principles unconsciously, which, of course, was fun for us self-acknowledged direct marketers to watch. Many of these folks went on to fall on their faces when they realized they need to actually make money on each newly acquired customer, on average. And no amount of eyeballs, or traffic, or database of registered customers was going to amount to anything if the return on investment was not positive.

But the most fun is observing success, like I am still not sure whether Amazon is acquiring customers profitably. It doesn't report its numbers to Wall Street in a way that makes CPOs and LTVs clear. In fact, it probably doesn't want Wall Street to be asking this question in this particular way, just in case it is still counting on some ridiculous LTV number that no one would find credible.

That said, I admire greatly how Amazon has understood that its business is built by one satisfied customer at a time. Amazon's maniacal focus on service, consistency and speed are to be applauded by direct marketers everywhere.

But back to sexiness. My second argument is that we direct marketers deliver the customer experience. This is where brands are built. It's not awareness, it's not a logo — a great brand is a series of great experiences with a product or service. So all the New Economy talk about branding is really just talk about awareness. We are the ones who deliver the true value of a brand.

And my last point: Direct marketers demonstrate results. We are the ones who can segment a marketplace based on value, acquire customers profitably and optimize return on marketing investments.

Is getting results, and making money, not sexy? Sure it is. And if it isn't, who cares?

• Ruth P. Stevens consults to companies on customer acquisition and retention strategy, and teaches direct marketing at New York University. Her e-mail address is [email protected]

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