What actually IS Direct Response Marketing

I got a good question about yesterday’s email:

How do you define Direct Response Marketing? I could Google it and get 10 different answers, but I’m interested in the sense that guided your email.

This may seem circular or reductionist but it’s marketing that invites, encourages, or demands a direct response and provides a mechanism for that response.

A direct response is a sale or action that generates data that is monetized otherwise or feeds into a campaign whose purpose is a sale. Mechanisms for a direct response include:

  • An actual sale
  • Filling out a form
  • Replying to an ad via email, phone, or other direct way
  • Clicking a button that triggers some kind of action (which is also recorded in a database)
  • Doing something that generates data exhaust (ex: lingering on a TikTok video for its full duration)
  • Attending an event like a webinar

Because of these features, direct response (DR) marketing can be measured and optimized over time in ways that non-DR marketing can’t. Because of the way DR generates and uses data, it can personalize or customize the content of a marketing message and/or the arrangement of a campaign of messages. This personalization/customization used to be limited to 1:1 communication media (direct mail, email, etc.) but some modern digital media enables personalization/customization of what used to be broadcast media (ex: dynamic ad insertion for podcasts/streaming music based on the listener’s likely geographic location).

Because of the potential for using data to measure and optimize DR marketing, DR marketing is obsessed with measurement and attribution. Issues like measuring email open rate, understanding why person X unsubscribed from an email list, identifying which of a campaign’s messages was consumed immediately before a sale, and honesty of DR ad platforms (Facebook, Twitter, Google, etc.) are issues of debate and sources of uncertainty that DR marketers hate.

There are forms of marketing that do not provide a mechanism for a direct response. Here’s one (h/t Jonathan Stark for the awareness of this watch brand):

Yes, there’s a phone number at the bottom, but there’s no efficient way for the advertiser to measure the response this particular ad generated unless they had a unique phone number for each ad variation and tracked the calls that each ad + unique phone number generated. I’m not sure how old this particular ad is, but some of you will remember when having multiple phone numbers — not to mention multiple toll free 800 numbers — used to be expensive. So I’d guess this ad variation did not connect to a unique phone number and therefore was not technically a direct response ad.

This non-DR approach is often called brand marketing. Seth Godin’s book This is Marketing (Chapter 15, Section: Brand marketing makes magic; direct marketing makes the phone ring, Location 2115 in the Kindle version I have) has an elegant description of DR and brand marketing. Quoting somewhat at length:

Direct marketing is action oriented. And it is measured.

Brand marketing is culturally oriented. And it can’t be measured.

If you run an ad on Facebook and count your clicks, and then measure how many of them convert, you’re doing direct marketing.

If you put a billboard by the side of the highway, hoping that people will remember your funeral parlor the next time someone dies, you’re doing brand marketing.

It’s entirely possible that your direct marketing will change the culture (that’s a nice side effect). It may very well be that the ads you run, the catalogs you send out, and the visits to your site add up to a shift in the story that people tell themselves.

And it’s entirely possible that your brand marketing will lead to some orders (that’s another nice side effect). It may very well be that your billboard leads to someone getting off at the next exit and handing you money, or that your sponsorship of a podcast leads to someone hiring your company.

Source: Godin, Seth. This Is Marketing (pp. 268-269). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

In one of my earlier cracks at this topic I attempted similarly elegant definitions:

  • Direct response marketing is a button or form with a funnel behind it.
  • Brand marketing is art with a logo on it. Not the kind of art you’d find in a gallery. Instead, brand marketing is the kind of art that is a gift or a challenge to a specific culture.

In this pop-up list, I’m seeking a more useful theory of what brand marketing is for indie consultants. I seem to be moving away from “brand marketing is a gift with a logo on it” to what I hope is both a more fundamental understanding of what an indie consulting brand is (an invitation to buy into a significant idea) and a more useful description of how indie consultants might use their marketing to build that brand.

It’s useful to look at brand and direct response marketing through the lens of efficiency. Hardcore direct response marketers will often sneer at the ways that brand marketing forgoes efficiency. “What! No call to action on that ad!! They’re throwing money away!” The lack of question marks in that stylized quote is intentional. There’s never any real curiosity behind the mock surprise in these statements; never any real curiosity about what you might be gaining when you forgo efficiency.

For better or worse, that’s what a culture does. It bundles up lots of answers to lots of questions both big and small and collapses them into, again as Seth Godin might elegantly say, “People like us do things this way“.

When we buy into the culture of direct response marketing, we see brand marketing’s inherent inefficiency and — at some level — we dismiss it. The culture of DR looks at marketing as an efficiency-seeking way to make money.

I’m not sure what the culture of brand marketing — if there is any such culture — thinks. The Internet has been the realization of the wildest dreams of DR marketers (combined with a few nightmare scenes contributed by dishonest adtech brokers), but the Internet has not been an equivalent boon to brand marketers.

Accenture is “doing brand marketing” when they wallpaper airport terminals with stuff like this:

That doesn’t really help us understand brand marketing in our context.

I hope that by Dec 31, 2021 (when this email list evaporates into the ethers) I have done something useful to clarify where brand marketing fits into the world of the indie consultant.

Thanks for the question, D.!


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