Why I no longer call myself a direct marketer, and why you shouldn’t either.

Direct Marketing is going through a crisis of character. If you’re in the business, you probably already knew that. Or at least sense it. Every few weeks, someone pipes up on LinkedIn asking “Is Direct Marketing Dead?” As veteran direct marketers, if we take pride in what we’ve done and learned in our careers, we do more good if we stop answering that question and use our energy to get up to speed what’s changing in marketing , evolve our skillsets, and share the direct marketing best practices that are relevant today.

In a recent CampaignLive article, Martin Nieri sounded off on this same point as he expanded on customer engagement and the need for new investment by agencies today. While the focus of his writing was directed at agencies, I’m going to approach the matter on a little more personal level.

Old labels don’t apply. Others now use formerly specialized skills and tools.

As professionals, the best of what we’ve learned about interaction and lead generation in direct marketing has now become part of the bigger picture of customer engagement and purchase funnel. Why do I believe this? I’m talking with outsiders a lot these days. They are marketers and clients who do not use ‘direct’ in front of their job titles or classifications, because although they employ many of the disciplines that used to be the sole domain of Direct Marketing (testing, data, complex modeling, analysis) all these skills and tools are not just ours anymore. Many of these very smart people understand what we do. But today, they don’t relate to (respect) the direct marketing practitioner unless he or she can also “bring it” and play in a bigger sandbox.

As a working creative who plans to remain relevant, I’ve found the up and coming new influencers in business view direct marketing as a niche discipline that no longer holds the monopoly on use of data, CRM, lead-generation, or retention. Should this surprise us? No. It’s been coming for quite a while. Is it too late? No, but we can’t rest on our old awards, trophies, and aging statistics, and complain that people aren’t appreciating what we know as direct marketers.

What’s a direct marketer to become?

I hate buzzwords, but one word I’ve heard in conversations and articles may apply for what direct marketing is evolving towards: Engagement. Lead engagement, Customer engagement, etc. It’s too early to tell when and if the term engagement will get hijacked by those slick-suited marketing folks who overuse buzzwords like programmatic, ROI, Big Data and customer-centric, even though they may not understand what the words mean, because they want to sound smart in front of clients. But if the rest of us keep it honest, engagement may be right. It is part of what direct marketing has always sought to achieve. I’ll go with that placeholder for now: Engagement Marketing, and I’m an Engagement Marketer

One side of me doesn’t want to share this, or dare admit I’m thinking about it. The other side wants to say what many of us are thinking about, take the elephant out from under the carpet, and see us all end the frustration I know I’ve heard from other Direct Marketing professionals.

Yet a teensy-weensy sliver of my being longs for not having to change. Ugh! I hate change when it’s dumped on me. Oh well. I know better.

Change was good early in my career when visual designers like me transitioned from analog design tools to computers, and were good again when modems, the Internet and AOL (“You’ve Got Mail”) opened up the digital realm to marketing, and change is good now with all the very cool new things we can do using location, personas (eek-buzzword) as marketers. That’s if someone lets us play.   So what are the ways for veteran Direct Marketing Creatives and other direct marketers to stay relevant?

How to thrive in a time of complex changes.

Learn new technologies. Heck, you should get to KNOW and MASTER the technology that drives all the fantastic electronic media that clients are spending budgets on. It’s been happening for more than a decade now, as projects have shifted from print and traditional TV and direct mail to online and mobile. Respect and leverage old technology, but don’t count on it filling all your billable time. If you have 20 years in this field as a creative, the Moleskin to jot down concepts may be cool, but the coolest writing instrument in the world and artisan paper isn’t helping you understand about the opportunities for mobile user interaction. It’s time to start mixing it up with developers, programmers and others knee deep in this new media, and learning how you can apply the cool stuff you’ve learned about human nature and interactions from all the years testing in Direct Marketing.

Meet up (as in meetup) with new businesspeople who aren’t DMrs. I’ve been to many a DMA International conference and enjoyed something at every one of them. But hanging around ourselves is not enough. Today, there are many new industry groups out there doing interesting things that have direct bearing on what we are tasked to do. You are cheating yourself and your clients if you only go to DM-focused events. In fact, where I live in a major metro area, I have to travel 100 miles to find an active DM chapter.

Writers: Start studying outside your specialty If you are a writer and don’t know beyond the basics of locks, limits and hacks of WordPress or other modern Content Management systems, you will be of limited use in a development and production environment. People will have to explain things to you as you go along. Its frustrating all around.

You’ll be able to write static content, but don’t expect to be asked to run with the Big Dogs when site strategies are being developed and user experience is being formed. Why? Because you don’t know where the technology traps and trade offs are in websites, mobile and location marketing. Unless you are deeply in the know about these things. Welcome to the world designers have been dealing with for many years of computer design tool upgrades. You have to learn stuff that isn’t part of your core competency. If you don’t know how the car stops, starts and steers, you’re just the guy in the back seat carrying the groceries.

Designers: Start studying what’s changing  If you are a designer, and aren’t already up on how to work well with development teams in new environments, or don’t think in terms of fluid, responsive design and the mobile experience, you’re in trouble. You’d better get a bigger coffee and roll up your sleeves, cause you’re going to have to get dirty with knowing at least how development limits and what opportunities are out there. All the conceptual chops in the world aren’t going to help you if you don’t understand the relationship between target audience and their technology. You’re going to be doing lesser projects.

Account Pros: Learn nuts and bolts — Faking it isn’t making it  If you are an account executive and don’t have a hands-on understanding of how content management systems work, mobile user experience, and emerging technology I’ve mentioned above, you’ll be hitting a glass ceiling soon, if you haven’t already. You can only bluff for so long, until someone on the client side challenges you with a question they know the answer to, and you don’t. New decision-makers are armed with hands-on knowledge about electronic media and mobile that was gleaned while still in college, and comes naturally for them.

When the tide goes out, you can tell who was skinny dipping.Warren Buffet

Account people today need to understand the underpinnings and functions of how websites, mobile and apps work. Yes, you didn’t sign on to be a developer. But as an advocate for your agency and your clients, you need to know enough to keep the development team on the up and up, and spot BS. Udeme, and Lynda.com (affiliate link) offer a range of seminars at varying prices that will let you get up to speed on Web development, CMS, Apps, User Experience (UX) and more.

Clients: Tap wisdom to avoid taking the hit. If you are someone who depends on writers, designers and account executives, make sure they really know what is going on, not just with fundamentals, but with the details of how to use new trends and technologies; REALLY know — not just flinging around some buzz words in a presentation deck. Because ultimately, if you have someone that isn’t on top of what really is going to take advantage of the most effective new opportunities and has a good foundation in engagement principles, it is your marketing and brand that will suffer.

How do you know the people you’re thinking of working with know their stuff? You have a few options. You can:

  1. Get some knowledge, through webinars and primers on Web development and user experience, online such as Udeme, and com, or from your local DMA, emarketing association or specialty Meetups.
  2. Get some brain power on your side while you get up to speed. Tap someone knowledgeable in your organization or business network to sit in on a couple of meetings and ask questions, then provide their assessment to you. Choose someone without anything to gain or lose in the matter, and who’s been through a similar past effort, even if only from the technical side of matters. They will be able to ask questions that test how deep the knowledge is of the team you are hiring. Buy them lunch, dinner, a beer, or some sports tickets. The favor you owe will be well worth problems you may avoid by choosing the wrong team.

I don’t know where it’s all heading, but I’m going to be watching it closely, and testing the waters with the new circles of people who are now in command of the budgets and disciplines that were once the domain of the direct marketer (engagement marketer?).

What do you think?

What new investment have you done in your career recently that has made a positive impact on your work?  I’m giving away a Genuine Wham-O Frisbee to the person I think provided the best comment.

I'm a creative problem-solver helping clients who use Direct Marketing but need more effective lead generation and deeper customer relationships. You can learn more about me on LinkedIn.