Described by David Ogilvy over 40 years ago as the ‘secret weapon’ of advertising, the term direct response was coined to describe a range of marketing techniques that were designed to sell products and services, rather than those that just affected awareness or consideration. It was proven that long copy ads drove more sales than those with short copy; those with a compelling offer were more effective than those without. As the tricks of the trade became more advanced, marketers came to become more and more reliant on direct response to drive consumer behaviours that actually affected the bottom line.
Unfortunately, that was then and this is now. Then the world of sales and marketing was simpler. Competition was less intense. Decision-making in the context of products and services was far simpler. The Internet didn’t exist and therefore the ability for consumers to share information about product and services was constrained heavily by geography and technology.
Fast forward to today and there can be no doubt that consumer behaviour has changed fundamentally. The effectiveness of traditional direct response media ebbs and flows making it harder for organisations to rely on direct response.
So why is this? One major reason is that your audience is no longer captive nor easily persuaded; instead it is on the loose. With the proliferation of online media, brands are no longer in control of the conversation; customers are discussing and deciding by themselves. They’re talking about your brand with people they know and people they don’t. They’re talking about your competitors. They’re talking about switching from your brand to your competition – and vice versa. And all of this decision-making, be it ratings and reviews or social conversation, is not only visible but influential to the decision-making of other customers.
On the one hand this means that marketing landscape has never been as complex. On the other, never before has it represented such an opportunity for marketers to drive acquisition, retention and unlock customer value. Because for all of the complexity, pre-purchase triggers are now visible and smart brands can not only know where to look but listen, intercept and drive purchase using those triggers as the stimulus to respond.
Therefore, in order for direct response to not only survive but flourish in the ever-demanding 21st century, it needs reframing. And, as with any successful reframing exercise, we need to widen the lens we use to view direct response. Essentially, we need to expand the remit of direct response using four key principles.
1. Channel to philosophy
We need to expand the remit of direct response from a marketing communication channel to a shared organisational vision. Direct response should not be viewed as the sole responsibility of the marketing department, but should permeate the entire organisation. Everyone is now a potential response marketer. Whether they work in customer services, data or sales everyone who has the opportunity to identify customer triggers has the ability to drive response. Operationally, ways of working will need to be developed that will enable the organisation to take advantage of the many opportunities that the new world presents. For example, the speed of decision making and production required in today’s world relies on working models that are lean yet highly strategic and can execute creative response strategies with effectiveness at their core.
2. Reactive to active
Organisations often miss response stimulus because they’re not set up to spot and act on opportunities. Active response is required instead, which means being truly reactive and proactive. All organisations need to start thinking like a retailer. Retailers are very adept at thinking about how context informs people’s buying behaviours. They build agility into their business so that they can be reactive and move in real-time depending on the change in context. They plan for the unplanned as well as the planned and they use personal contextual data (using mechanics such as Sainsbury’s Nectar points) to get people to buy more of the products they want to sell.
Adopting similar principles is hugely beneficial for non-retailers. For example, by using a CRM database, social listening technologies and an imaginative data strategy, we can monitor keywords and product usage behaviours. These could infer for example, that a customer is thinking of switching brands, stimulus that we can then respond to in an intelligent way.
3. Broadcast to engagement
We need to expand direct response beyond compelling communications messages to include engaging experiences too, using content and social as the ingredients. Rather than being limited to targeting people with a message direct from a brand, instead we are able to give people content that will convince them to switch or drive re-consideration.
For example, what if instead of targeting people when they actively say they want to switch brands, we could identify potential customers as they ask questions of their current provider. We could engage them with content, meaning we move them into switching mode or more likely to consider us when the time is right. Suddenly, the size of our market is significantly greater.
4. Reach to targeted reach
The huge amounts of data people pour into social networks represent a great opportunity for response marketers. Using digital technology it’s possible to reach lots of people but in a much more targeted and relevant way (something Facebook calls ‘targeted reach’). By collecting and analysing social data we can understand more about our customers and potential customers. We can reach and engage them in the online mediums they use. We can be much more intelligent in our responses.
Adopting these principles will enable marketers to widen the lens we traditionally use to view direct response. In doing so a huge expanse of opportunity will open up, new techniques will present themselves and marketers will achieve success. Where perhaps once marketers doubted the power of direct response, their enthusiasm will be revived. And once again direct response will be crowned the most crucial part of the marketing mix.
Direct response is dead. Long live direct response!
Matt Holt is Associate Director, Digital Strategy at OgilvyOne in London