Should direct marketing get more personal?
Do you know that direct marketing may have been in existence since 1930s? However, it became a unique marketing category only in the 1960s when a gentleman called Wunderman defined it for the masses in an address at MIT. He defined it very distinctly from advertising and marketing, and termed it unique. And for that reason, he is known as the father of the direct marketing industry.
Wunderman has since then donned many hats but his passion remained on direct marketing and its evolving landscape. With the advent of social media and individualised marketing, he termed direct marketing as personal marketing in recent years. So how does one define direct marketing today? It is about communicating with customers one at a time. It is indeed more about the user or consumer while regular advertising is all about products and services, and addresses a customer segment rather than on individual.
Interactive marketing seems to be the buzzword today and the direct marketing industry is working overtime on the digital landscape to make things more relevant to today’s audience. It is all about the right audience and reaching out to them at the right time. In the traditional direct mailing, when a mailer is couriered to a customer, it is assumed that there is relevance always: why that customer is chosen, who lives in a particular area with a specific buying pattern and so on. However when it comes to interactive ads we do not have control as to when that particular customer is online and when he or she is ready for a purchase. And so direct marketers need to start from finding ways to get the information from customers.
The challenges posed by the digital media and Internet are many. First there is so much information available now but with no touch and feelings. Any other media can provide some emotional platform whether it is TV or telephone based advertising. Therefore the direct marketers need to find ways to do that online. Which means marketers need to start listening to consumers of all types who use this media. Which is why direct marketers today are constantly requesting consumers to indicate when it is a good time to approach them. This is reflected in the act of marketers asking for your email and mobile numbers.
Today direct mailers and ads are much more customised than ever. I think it is about an individualised experiential marketing. Customers are allowed to express their own personality in the products they buy. Compare this with many of the old ads where they say this is what we make, why wouldn't you want it? Remember the famous Ford ad when they launched the first ever motorcar? “Choose any colour as long as it is black!” What has happened today is that the consumer is saying this is what I want and why don't you have it for me.
Dell found a business model based purely on this shift to individual customisation. They allow customers to choose the specs and get the assembled product directly to them. Readymade garment brands are also experimenting with this kind of customisation across the world where the machines are able to make customisation easily today. Italian brands are the first to embrace this trend and it will be soon coming to our brands too to increase value. More and more companies are now focused on the customer, finally. If you want to launch a new brand of T-Shirts as an entrepreneur, you can be in business without much money and can order highly customised T-shirts from a company online.
Most automobile companies allow customers to choose colour and available mix of features to customise to some extent. There are luxury yacht makers who allow complete customisation via Internet and allow customers to visualise the look and feel of the selection. Total Environment, a real estate developer, offers Internet-based interior and plan modifications for buyers. By empowering customers through Internet based access to the company the markets are revolutionalised in more ways than we can imagine. You are allowing customers 24X7 access to do business with you. That is impressive. Companies are able to listen to and respond back to customers quickly this way.
All these developments do not necessarily kill the traditional direct marketing media such as telephone-based selling. Telemarketing is still succeeding in many industries and companies will continue to use it as long as it gives returns. And yet, telemarketing had undergone several changes now with do-not-disturb features, etc. Companies are more into permission-based marketing here too. Also the script of telemarketing has undergone tremendous changes now based on specific responses from customers. No company today can afford to antagonise a customer for the sake of one sale today. Yet you find many in India even today. Just yesterday I had a long fight with Air Asia for their misleading practices in refund. Everyone is thinking long-term in this age of mouthshut.coms.
As is the case with all things in direct marketing, one should know the specific targets and the acquisition costs to estimate the benefits. In the years to come we will see more and more personalisation in marketing. Marketers will have to go beyond mere relevance and look at more specific needs of customers. As marketers send more personal messages, they should ensure accuracy of these messages. You can be personal but how much personal? Will you talk to a woman about the size of her clothing, not just underwear? Just because you know certain facts, you cannot always talk about it. This is something marketers must be careful about.
The key issue for direct marketers is about bringing more emotion into the new age customised mailers. It is also critical when the channels are two-way. The fine line between what a company makes with all possible customisation and what the customer wants to suit his individual needs will have to be managed to cross the line between success and so-so.

The writer is CEO and managing director of CustomerLab Solutions
M Muneer