The Role of Direct Marketing in a New Society

Many seasoned practitioners of direct marketing can be found wringing their hands these days. Assaulted in all directions by everyone from angry consumers to smug digerati, many such marketers seem increasingly unsure of themselves, their audiences and their futures. To some extent, the critics have been self-serving. Still, some of the criticism may well be warranted. Certain fundamental changes in society do require a rethinking of the ways in which direct marketing has been practiced.

In recent years, we've been seeing some fundamental changes in society, not only in the United States but also worldwide:

* An increasing diversity in age, gender, income levels and lifestyles;

* Disappearing national boundaries and increasing intercultural communities;

* Digital technology is permeating our lives, developing new ways of being connected.

These changes, in turn, are causing fundamental shifts in business relationships. Real power is shifting from manufacturers to customers. Models and processes aren't working the way they used to, and marketing costs are skyrocketing, while results are spiraling downward.

In response, some firms have re-evaluated the whole notion of marketing and have developed new practices to become more in sync with these new realities. The companies that are succeeding in this new marketing emphasize four traits not generally associated with direct marketing: authenticity, meaning, design and passion. And equally important, they focus on developing one-to-one relationships with customers.

What does this idea of one-to-one relationships mean? Simply that marketers strive to stay in touch with individual customers as never before, consistently offering them products and services that are highly responsive to their changing individual needs.

Traditional direct marketing, by contrast, still often focuses on an imaginary mass market or, at best, market segments arbitrarily defined and more ephemeral than ever before. Worse, it speaks to customers but doesn't listen. It attempts to persuade and cajole, rather than to respond.

If we try to imagine a world in which new marketing were the dominant business strategy, three fundamental practices would operate at the core of marketing practice:

First, businesses would understand each customer as an individual, with unique purchasing, lifestyle and behavioral histories that need to be understood deeply. Such an understanding can be managed through the extensive use of digital technologies.

Second, businesses would constantly be conducting research to anticipate where their customers' needs may be developing next. This research would focus on an immersion in the lives and communities of customers, rather than simply on the abstract realms of statistically oriented aggregations of customer data. Some segmentation may occur in this effort, but only as a way station back to the individual.

Third, all communications from businesses to customers would be based on this understanding of customer needs and would strive to express the firm's point of view, distinguish that perspective from others and offer true value.

It is this third principle that offers direct marketers their way to the future. Direct marketing can become the nexus of communications and understanding between customers and businesses. To do so, it need only embrace the new digital technologies as its own. It must see personalization as a logical extension of its traditional focus on reaching consumers.

In order for this extension to have meaning, though, direct marketers will need to change some of their practices. They will need to listen as much as they speak. And when they speak, they will need to do so in a way that relies on understanding, not hard sells. Finally, they will need to speak only when customers express an interest in hearing them.

This last point may be the toughest for direct marketers to accept. As society has changed in recent years, it has become clear that customers simply won't listen otherwise. By knowing when customers want to hear from you and what they want to hear, the success rates of direct marketing can be dramatically improved.

In short, direct marketing can have an even more important place in business practice in this newly emerging, connected world, provided that direct marketers reinvent their practices to become far more responsive to ever-changing customers.

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