The same rules of engagement still apply

Mark Thomson, media director at Royal Mail, explains how Lester Wunderman’s theories on direct marketing still ring true despite years of technological advancement.

Mark Thomson
Mark Thomson

It is almost 50 years since the godfather of direct marketing, Lester Wunderman, coined the phrase ‘direct mail’ and effectively opened the door to a whole new industry.

In the intervening five decades, Wunderman’s original tenets of ‘interactive transactions’ and ‘consumer dialogue’ have developed to underpin myriad direct marketing strategies from the simple mailshot to targeted ads via mobile devices.

Many of the consumer gadgets we take for granted today were pipe dreams 25 years back, let alone half a century ago. But the great debate still rages on: are we as direct marketers keeping pace with the rapid pace of technological change, or stumbling along on its coat tails, grasping at opportunities to create profitable conversations with our target markets?

A full 35 years after he unveiled direct mail, Wunderman laid down 19 commandments in his seminal book ‘Being Direct, Making Advertising Pay’. Without listing them all here, the rules begin with an understanding that direct marketing is not a tactic but a strategy. In other words, it’s a commitment to acquiring and retaining valuable customers.

Even in these straitened times, this same overarching rule still applies.
In a survey the Royal Mail conducted with the Marketing Society this summer, some 34% of marketers said they would be focusing budgets until the new year on winning new customers, while 19% made retention a priority. So more than half of these top-level marketers clearly still adhere to Wunderman’s first rule.

The second rule pays homage to the modern transition from push to pull marketing. Consumers now tell brands what they want, and are not content just to be ‘sold’ to. This is a key ingredient in boosting response rates.

Marketers must use their data wisely to understand what individuals want and tailor their direct communications to make sure the right message reaches the right person at the right time. It’s a maxim that runs right through Royal Mail as a business but also extends across the whole direct marketing industry.

Just as important to Wunderman was the idea of marketing to an ‘audience of one’. Thanks to technology, there are more ways than ever before to reach an individual target consumer. Paradoxically, consumers have more power than ever to reject the message (think MPS, TPS, spam firewalls and other opt-out mechanisms). With each lack of response comes wasted budget, and the potentially permanent loss of a customer.

A trawl through the rest of Wunderman’s list reveals themes including:
giving the target a reason to respond; changing behaviour; investing in lifetime value; creating relationships, and spending more on driving value from the resulting repeat purchases; and using data to create a profitable picture of the marketplace.

Yet apart from a brief foray into ‘encouraging interactive dialogues’, Wunderman’s rules make little mention of emerging technology. And this is our real challenge as direct marketers: harnessing this brave new gadget-driven world to deliver our message.

Personally, I think it’s still too early to determine whether we are making the most of all the chances to communicate that Moore’s Law is throwing our way. But it is clear that using channels such as traditional direct mail and online media in tandem can boost response. For example, research shows digital campaigns see an average 62 per cent increase in payback when combined with direct mail.

Wunderman was a visionary who laid down the commandments which thousands of direct marketers have since followed. Like all of us, he couldn’t have foreseen the growth in consumer technology and the power it puts directly in their hands to respond or ignore.

So yesterday’s rules still apply in today’s world of consumer power and new gadgets. Good rules for direct communication, good rules for all marketing. Personalisation, relevance and timing remain key factors and, for our part, we are reshaping how we advise marketers to reappraise the power of direct mail to complement any campaign.

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