Why direct doesn’t work (reason number 429)


Spurred on by a number of posts (Shaun McIlrath as a Scamp guest presenter, Russell Davies on ‘Uncanny Valleys’) and the enormous amount of crap that pours through my door and email inbox daily, I wanted to jot down my views on the myth of direct marketing. It feels funny saying this about an industry that employs so many people, that has such a body of writing behind it, and which impacts our life every single day; but the whole idea seems fundamentally flawed.

I’m not coming at this from the point of view of an industry watcher and analyst. I don’t have any smoothed and exaggerated case studies to make the point. I’m not even proposing to wheel out any of the usual quasi-psychological backing which (a bit like the ‘scientific bit’ in cosmetic adverts) typically makes an appearance is arguments over something works or doesn’t.

I’m coming at this from the point of view of being a human being.

The promise of direct is extremely seductive. In its most basic form it is this: if you can really understand each of your audience individually and say things that resonate with that person, they will respond more positively.

This is – of course – true. But is it relevant to any marketer with more than  about 5 customers? No matter how much data and computers you have on hand to analyse and segment your customers, you’re still going to be faking it. The reason you can’t communicate 1:1 is very simple. There is 1 of your and loads of them. Sure, you’d like to talk to your customers as if they were your friends but you can’t because friendships are complex and subtle. For direct marketers, the problem really is that you can’t even FAKE it very well.

Some fashion-related brands will have staff whose job it is to keep their celebrity customers happy – sending them free stuff, finding out what they like, asking them what else they need etc.

If you can afford to do this for all your customers, I guarantee they will love you forever. But direct marketing isn’t this, direct marketing is a huge attempt to fake it. And in the words of one of the comments on the Scamp piece, shit sandwich or shit soufflé, it doesn’t matter, we smell it a mile off.

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