Whether they know it or not, online marketers are introducing direct marketing fundamentals to a much wider audience.  

Rodney Dangerfield built an entire comedy career around a simple idea:  “I don’t get no respect.”

marketing strategy conceptSometimes I wonder if the direct marketing industry shouldn’t be following the same mantra.

When I broke into the field in 1980, direct marketing was viewed with embarrassment and disdain by many in the advertising industry.

Mainstream advertising types from the big agencies dismissed direct response as unsophisticated, unimaginative and crass – and “not the kind of advertising we do.”

To be sure, general advertising owned the advertising world.  It had all the big clients.  It had all the money.  And it had all the creative awards that impressed both existing and new clients.

The only thing it didn’t have were the numbers to prove the advertising worked (or didn’t work).  The problem was general advertising couldn’t be measured.  And still can’t.  Lucky for them.

But their clients didn’t seem to care. They were content with advertising that felt good, looked good and impressed their bosses.  Plus, as long as sales continued to increase, there was never any reason to question the advertising.

Grudging respect for direct marketing

At some point in the early 80s though, clients started asking their agencies about direct marketing.

It’s unclear whether they were interested in the direct mail channel and its ability to target individual prospects with a personalized message.  Or whether it was because direct marketing produced response rates and provided some measure of accountability.

Regardless, the call for direct marketing increased – so much so that most of the large agencies added direct marketing staff and entire divisions.  And many direct marketing-only agencies began to flourish as important players in the advertising industry.

As clients and agencies became more comfortable with direct marketing, tracking and analysis took on a larger role within marketing departments – but only for direct marketing projects.  General advertising – where most of the money was still going – continued to do its thing without accountability.

And that remains the case to this day.  Vast amounts of money are still being spent on general advertising with no idea of what’s working and what’s not.

Enter online marketing

Now, however, as online marketing has taken a stronger position within marketing departments everywhere, measurement and accountability are starting to rule the day with online campaigns.  But it wasn’t always that way.

In the early days of the web, we saw a lot of flash.  Websites were built by designers who wanted to wow their visitors with all kinds of html wizardry.  And yes, the websites looked good once they finally loaded.

But soon the SEO experts were saying that Google doesn’t recognize flash and you’re losing your search engine rankings.

Eventually – and thankfully – marketing executives saw the light and website decisions were being made based on results and effectiveness, not creative intuition.  It wasn’t just websites either.

Accountability soon became the driving force for all things related to online marketing – email, organic search, paid search, online advertising and social media. Today, they are all using direct response to measure results in one way or another.

Sometimes, those results are measured in simplistic terms like response rates or click through rates.  But more and more, marketers are looking a bigger picture data such as new customer acquisition costs or lifetime value of a new customer.

New technology.  Old rules.

To me, the most reassuring piece of this evolution is that online marketers are now teaching the same direct response tactics that many of us learned from our early days in direct marketing.  The technology has made everything faster and cheaper, but the fundamentals are the same.

Fundamentals like:

  • The list is king.  In both online marketing and direct marketing, the goal is to build a strong House List of prospects and customers.  This is your most valuable asset.
  • The offer drives response.  This little-understood direct response concept has taken hold in the online world with both lead generation and order generation.
  • Testing is critical to success.  Outside of the direct marketing community, testing has fallen on deaf ears.  But now online marketers have discovered its importance and many are embracing it.
  • Credibility needs to be established. Whether it’s through documentation, endorsements, testimonials, case studies or something else, people aren’t going to open up their wallets until they believe you. Direct marketers have always know that.  Online marketers are learning it.
  • Headlines can make or break your promotion. Through testing, both direct marketers and online marketers have discovered that different headlines can produce very different response.
  • Direct response copywriting is a vital discipline.  Direct response copywriting has traditionally been associated with direct mail, but online marketers are seeking out these skills for their own projects.
  • Long copy has its place.  We know that multi-page letters and multi-page self-mailers are often used in one-step, order generation direct mail.  Now, just take a look at the landing pages for many online marketers.  Those pages run on and on over multiple screen views – because with the right application, they work.
  • Marketing metrics can be very cool.  For me, this is the best news.  Now mainstream marketing executives are not only asking for, but demanding, measurable results from their marketing projects.

So thank you, online marketers, for taking the direct marketing message and discipline to a wider audience.   Thank you for preaching our gospel.


Written by Bob McCarthy

Bob McCarthy is a direct marketing consultant and copywriter with more than 30 years in the industry.

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About Bob McCarthy

Bob McCarthy is a direct response consultant and copywriter with a focus on direct mail, email and digital marketing. Bob works with B2B, B2C and Non-Profit clients. You can download his free ebook, "Making Snail Mail Work: 13 Lessons in Direct Mail Strategy."