What Is BTB Direct Marketing, Anyway?

Business marketing suffers from much confusion about the nature of marketing, in general, and marketing communications, in particular. Truth be told, “marketing” in business-to-business is generally synonymous with marketing communications.

Marketers have little strategic influence, and no P&L responsibility. More likely, they operate in a service role, as a cost center, in support of the sales function.

But wait, it gets worse. Within business marketing (which is really marketing communications), there’s another source of confusion: What is direct marketing, what is its role, who should be doing it and how should it be measured and funded?

These are not trivial questions. How a BTB company defines direct marketing can have a powerful, if unintended, effect on its marketing investments, its results and its ROI, not to mention the careers and professional growth of its staff.

Consider what happens when direct marketing is viewed by a company as meaning simply direct mail; in other words, defining the direct marketing function by the communications medium.

You may laugh, but I’ve been in this situation. I had a manager once, an ad guy. He used to say, “Sure, we’re doing integrated marketing. We’re doing some ads, some banners, some direct …” And what he meant by this last thing was, “We’re doing some direct mail as part of our awareness campaign.”

He viewed the role of direct marketing in the marketing organization as putting ads in the mail. He expected us to take his awareness ads, repurpose them to fit in an envelope, put on a stamp and mail them. To whom? Well, he didn’t really care.

To my mind, he was wasting money. Why would you want to do awareness advertising in an expensive medium like mail?

But more significantly, he was losing opportunity. What about targeting? How about speaking to the right customers, with a powerful message and a compelling offer that would move them along the buying process and, eventually, result in a sale? Please?

So, in this same organization, guess what happened when the terrific new medium of banner advertising arrived. It’s advertising, right? So it was viewed as an extension of the brand awareness campaigns. No offer. No “click here” call to action.

But the funny thing was, banner ads were measured at this company by click-through rates, versus being part of the tracking studies that measured print and broadcast advertising. So the direct marketers quietly suggested some changes to the banner treatments (put in an offer, add a call to action, invest in head-to-head testing), and the chasm was crossed. Whew.

Why should we care how a company defines direct marketing? Well, waste is one thing. But there’s perhaps a bigger one out there: competitive advantage. Companies that deploy effective direct marketing in their go-to-market strategies are ahead of the game.

It’s important that we get clear about what comprises direct marketing. In this way, when it presents an opportunity in the marketing mix, we will do it right.

Let me propose a set of four defining characteristics. If the marketing activity contains all of these, it’s direct marketing. And direct marketers should be involved in it.

It’s targeted. Direct marketing communications focus, above all, on identifying the right audience for the message. If you’re not talking to the right person, everything else is meaningless. So direct marketing tends to use addressable media.

This element of the definition does raise problems. For one thing, awareness advertising is also out there doing its level best to be targeted, whether by selecting certain day parts on television or certain print vehicles intended for specific market segments. Direct marketing does not claim exclusivity on the targeting front. For another, direct marketers frequently use mass media for prospecting. So the targeting part cannot stand on its own as a defining characteristic of direct marketing.

Its objective is to motivate an action. Direct marketing asks for a response. While awareness advertising tries to persuade a target to think or feel a certain way, direct marketers try to get them to do something. To call, to raise their hand, to click, to express interest, to visit a store, to stop by a Web site, to see a sales rep. The technique that direct marketers use to motivate that action is an offer, plus wording intended to overcome inertia – namely, the call to action.

It is measurable. Direct marketers seek to track the results of every outbound communication through some unique identifier, usually known as a key code. This can be a number, a name, a URL – whatever will tie the response back to a specific marketing activity. Furthermore, the entire process is captured in a database, for tracking and analysis.

It is ROI-driven. Every direct response communication is expected to pay its own way. Campaigns are planned with detailed pro formas. No marketing investment is made without the expectation of a profit. This is activity that, because it’s tracked, can be held accountable for results.

So when you see targeted, action-oriented, measurable, ROI-driven activities around the business marketing world, no matter what communications medium, no matter where they appear in the sales and marketing process – that’s where you need the direct marketers to be. That’s where the experience, the expertise and the accountability of direct marketing can work to make even the ad guys look good.

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