The Ultimate Guide to Direct Marketing — Complete With Example Campaigns

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Like most modern marketers, when I first started my career, it was all about “digital marketing.” Tactics like direct mail and telemarketing were practically defunct, and the Don Drapers and David Oglivys of the world had long since been replaced by the likes of Joe Pulizzi, Neil Patel, social media and SEO.

But, as the old adage goes, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”

While the term “direct marketing” might conjure up images of 1-800 toll numbers and junk mail, the reality is that direct marketing is as alive as it ever was. While ignorant marketers may be quick to say that direct marketing is dead, savvier marketers such as yourself will understand that direct marketing has simply evolved.

There’s a reason why direct marketing has remained the top marketing strategy for the past 50 years. In fact, chances are you’ve been regularly engaging in direct marketing without even realizing it!

In this article, we’ll be going over everything you need to know about direct marketing (and more besides)! Curious to have a sneak peek ahead? Here’s some topics we’ll be breaking down:

Alright, without further ado, let’s get right into Insane Growth’s Ultimate Guide to Direct Marketing!

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What is Direct Marketing?

Direct marketing (sometimes known as direct response marketing) is a marketing strategy where brands aim to actively engage with their target audience and convince them to take action. With these actions can range anywhere from having someone making a purchase to signing up to your email list.

What Makes Direct Marketing so Powerful?

To say that direct marketing is the bedrock of all modern marketing strategies and tactics is a bit of an understatement.

Believe it or not, direct marketing has existed in some form or another since the 15th century. However, it wasn’t until Lester Wunderman, the ‘father of direct marketing,’ coined the term in the 1960s that businesses begin to seriously apply it as a strategy.

While techniques such as targeted sales pitches and the use of data analysis to optimize marketing campaigns might seem self-evident to us savvy modern marketers, back in the day, Wunderman’s revolutionary approach to marketing was practically hailed as sorcery.

For Wunderman, direct marketing was all about being as customer-centric as possible.

Today, this concept is just as, if not more, relevant as it was 50 years ago. According to a study by Accenture, 91% of consumers are more likely to do business with a company that can offer a personalized experience. And another study carried out by OneSpot, 88% of people said that receiving content relevant to their interests improved how they felt towards that brand.

Image via OneSpot

Sorcery or no, when it comes to driving real business results, it’s impossible to deny that direct marketing just works.

A study by Monetate found that 93% of businesses were able to increase their revenue by adopting a strategy around personalization. And what’s more – brands that employed a data-driven approach to marketing were able to deliver five to eight times the ROI on marketing spend.

While marketers of yesteryear might have had to content themselves with categorizing customers by basic demographic information, today’s marketers can create more nuanced customer segments based on a person’s lifestyle and interests with little effort. Tools like CRMs allow brands to easily track and qualify potential leads and sales prospects, and can even automate the entire personalization process.

In the past, direct marketing relied solely on mediums such as phone calls and snail mail in order to directly engage with their audience. Today, technology has evolved to the point where we have dozens, if not hundreds, of different ways to engage directly with our audience.

As you can see, while the tactics and technology may have changed, the underlying principles and foundations of good marketing are very much still the same.

The Fundamentals of a Great Direct Marketing Campaign

To truly enjoy the benefits of direct marketing, however, you’re going to have to do a bit more than simply getting in contact with your audience. Regardless of what type of business you are or what industry you’re in, the fundamental rules of a great direct marketing campaign remain the same.

Feeling a little intimidated? Don’t worry – we’ve got you covered. Below are the five essential qualities of a great direct marketing campaign:

It’s Measurable

The first golden rule to remember is that direct marketing does not work without good data. Without it, you’re not going to be able to accurately gauge whether or not you’re actually getting a fair return on investment from your efforts.

It’s precisely this data-driven approach to marketing that allows you to continuously optimize and refine your marketing strategy while still keeping costs low.

Back in the 1960s and 70s, Wunderman was running split-tests on his marketing campaigns way before split-testing was even a thing. He would routinely experiment with different sales pitches in his promotional fliers in order to continuously improve the response rate for his ads, gauging their effectiveness by giving each campaign a unique number or response card. This way he knew exactly where his leads were coming from and how to best optimize his next marketing campaign.

Luckily we don’t have to rely on setting up toll-free numbers or pre-paid postage cards in order to track and measure what actions our audience is taking. Nowadays, it’s easier than ever to gather data from digital channels like email or social media, where you can track everything from site visits to where the user came from.

It’s Targeted and Specific

Any direct marketing campaign that does not have an excellent understanding of its target audience is doomed to failure. This might sound a might harsh, but only if you fail to consider that:

It’s easy to believe that customers just don’t want to be advertised to, but research has shown as clearly as day that people are more than happy to hear from brands – as long as it aligns with their interests and needs.

So do yourself a favor, and take the time to create an in-depth profile of your target customer. Don’t just gather their demographic information – make sure you get a thorough understanding of their psychographics too, so you can make sure that your marketing messages are as relevant as humanly possible.

It Has a Clear Call-to-Action

Every direct marketing campaign you run should always center around one thing: persuading your audience to take action. After all, the entire point of direct response marketing is, well… the “response” part, of course.

Whether you’re asking someone to give your business a call or sign up to your mailing list, there should always be clear, concise instructions on what they need to do, and how they can go about doing it.

Consider adding an extra incentive to your offer so that your call-to-action is extra enticing. While coupon and discount codes are traditional, don’t be afraid to think out of the box (like offering branded merchandise, for example).

Nestle’s direct mail campaign for their Kit-Kat Chunky bar is a perfect example of this in action. In order to promote said Kit-Kat Chunky bar, Nestle directly mailed their customers a card that they could use to claim a free chocolate bar. All they had to do was present the card at their local store, whose address they also helpfully provided, and they could receive their free chocolate. The campaign brilliantly highlighted the unique selling point of the Chunky bar, effectively used personalization to make customers feel valued, and gave simple and clear instructions on what to do next.

Image via G2

It’s Omni-channel

The biggest mistake that businesses often make with direct marketing is failing to integrate their various marketing channels (more on that later) together to create a seamless omni-channel experience for their audience. And when I say omni-channel, I’m not talking about promoting the same message across all your direct marketing channels and calling it a day.

Image via List Giant

A true omni-channel experience is all about ensuring that a customer’s experience is as seamless as possible – from the moment they find out about your brand, to the moment they become a loyal customer. Much like with a sales funnel, the trick to this is mapping out your customer’s journey, and identifying which channels and marketing messages will work best in encouraging your lead to take the next step in your customer journey.

Check out how the Smithsonian Museum maps out the journey of their visitors, and the way they engage with them through a plethora of online and offline channels – there’s direct mail, phone, and even their own branded mobile apps.

Image via CustomerBliss

It Has Great Timing

Much like in comedy, timing is everything when it comes to marketing. This is when direct response marketing really shines, because you can easily track when the best time is to engage with a customer, depending on the actions they’ve taken.

For example, in order to promote and generate sales for her online course, Amber Lilyestrom developed a direct marketing campaign using interactive quizzes, social media, and email. She first created an interactive quiz as a lead magnet, which she then promoted through paid ads on social media platforms that she knew her audience were routinely using; like Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest.

Image via TryInteract

After completing the quiz, the prospect would be asked to give their contact details, and then bing, bang boom – they would receive an automated email campaign designed to sell her course. The combination of these elements allowed Amber to generate over 4000 quality leads to her email list – and most of them went on to purchase her course.

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Different Direct Marketing Channels

As we mentioned a little earlier, a mistake that many modern marketers make is believing that direct marketing is limited solely to old-fashioned methods like direct mail and telemarketing. However, as I’m sure you’ve realized by now, just because something is digital does not mean that it can’t be used for direct marketing.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at the variety of channels we can use for direct marketing, both old and new:

Email Marketing

Email and direct marketing is a match made in heaven, and it’s all too easy to see why it’s the most prevalent form of direct marketing out there at the moment.

As long as a business has someone’s email address, they have the ability to communicate directly with them, regardless of where they are. This gives brands the unique opportunity to build up the level of “know, like and trust” with their audience by consistently delivering great content straight to their inboxes.

IOne of the biggest reasons why email marketing is a near-perfect direct marketing channel lies in its wonderful ability to gather customer data. Through email, marketers are able to track essential metrics and KPIs to measure the effectiveness of their tactics, and modern CRMS give them the ability to further segment their audience so they can create even more personalized marketing campaigns.

Direct Mail

Amusing as it is to proclaim that the days of direct mail marketing are long gone, the truth is that many businesses are sleeping on the huge opportunity that direct mail brings.

For one thing, direct mail has a powerful advantage over digital marketing channels through the sheer fact that it’s tangible. The simple act of being able to physically hold something in your hand communicates a very different experience to simply reading something off a screen.

On a psychological level, our brains are just hard-wired to respond better to physical goods. According to one study, consumers are more likely to remember a brand if they received direct mail from them, and are more motivated to take action.

Still not convinced? Another study by Marketing Sherpa discovered that 76% of people trust direct mail when it comes to making a purchasing decision.

Image via MarketingSherpa

Event Marketing

Whether you’re hosting your own event or sponsoring one, there’s no better way to go “direct to the customer” than actually engaging with them in-person.

By adding an experiential element to your direct marketing campaigns, you’ll be greatly increasing your chances of having someone develop a positive relationship with your brand.

For example, you can set up a booth at an industry conference or event as a way to introduce new leads to your brand – either by asking them to sign up to your mailing list or making a sale right then and there. Alternatively, you could increase customer loyalty by hosting your own branded events for your community, much like how athleisure brand Lululemon routinely runs yoga classes and meditation workshops in selected retail stores.

By taking advantage of event marketing, you can gain real-time feedback on what your target audience is like, and more importantly, how they’re responding to your latest marketing strategy.

PPC or Online Ad Campaigns

In my humble opinion, the introduction of online targeted ads is one of the best things that’s ever happened to direct marketers, and it seems that I’m not the only one that thinks this. According to the 2019 State of Ad Tech report, the average business will allocate 16% of their marketing budget to paid display ads, with 41% of that ad spend being used exclusively for retargeting.

Image via Marketing Charts

The most common way to use PPC for direct marketing is to create an ad campaign that targets people who have proven to have visited or interacted with your site in the past. Depending on your audience, you can craft your ad campaigns to target specific platforms such as Facebook, Instagram or even Google.

Telemarketing

Depending on who you talk to, telemarketing is either viewed as a complete waste of resources or a key component of any effective marketing strategy. While I’m not here to persuade you one way or the other, what I do know is that almost 60% of marketing managers claim telemarketing to be “very effective” in generating leads.

While telemarketing is generally more effective for B2B businesses than their B2C counterparts, that doesn’t mean that your business should completely ignore the benefits of calling someone on the phone.

As with direct mail and event marketing, the real advantage of telemarketing lies in the opportunities created for your brand to engage with its audience on a real human level. Furthermore, a good telemarketing strategy can be incredibly powerful in helping businesses gather key data about their customers.

While getting an irrelevant, unsolicited sales call can sometimes be downright aggravating, phone calls, when done right, can be a very powerful medium for nurturing warm leads and developing the loyalty of existing customers.

Text Messages and SMS

Like most millennials, I admittedly have a weird relationship with my phone. While it spends most of its life superglued to me, the second a call from an unknown number flashes up on its screen I’ll glower menacingly at my phone, and wish a thousand plagues upon anyone who dares to call me instead of text.

And it seems I’m not the only one with an irrational loathing towards phone calls. The majority of people appear to agree with me, with the average response rate for SMS marketing campaigns coming in at 45%. What’s more, 70% of consumers actually don’t mind receiving promotional text messages from a brand – that is, as long as they’ve opted in for them.

Image via Voice Sage

The key thing to keep in mind when using SMS marketing is that you only have a limited amount of real estate to use. Unlike with letters or emails, you don’t have the luxury of writing out lengthy blocks of text to cajole and persuade your customers. Which is why most marketing professionals will recommend keeping your messages no longer than 160 characters.

Therefore, it’s why it’s crucial that your call-to-actions have a clear incentive, and that any links included lead directly to a page that’s been specifically optimized for mobile viewing.

Chatbots

As technology continues to evolve, more and more tools are becoming indispensable to any savvy direct response marketer’s toolbox. While originally used as a tool for handling customer support, recently marketers have begun exploring the potential of using chatbots as a way to generate leads, nurture prospects – even close sales.

At its most basic level, chatbots are an easy way to ensure that every website visitor is being greeted and engaged with.

However, the most successful brands have begun experimenting with their chatbots to do more than simply give a welcome message. For example, lingerie and apparel retailer Aerie uses their chatbot to recommend products to their customers, but in order to ensure the right recommendation, the chatbot first presents users with a simple “this or that” quiz.

The quiz itself asks users questions like what their body type is, and what type of apparel they like the most. After a few rounds of “this or that” questions with their audience, Aerie now has all the information they need to make truly personalized product recommendations.

Image via Single Grain

Interactive Content

When the entire point of direct marketing is having your audience interact with your brand, it should come as no surprise that the next big thing in the marketing world is the use of interactive content. Already, the average piece of interactive content generates up to 5 times more page views, and twice as many conversions compared to static content. It’s a no-brainer!

While interactive content can encompass anything and everything from dynamic infographics and online quizzes to full-on branded mobile apps and AR experiences, direct marketers have been quick to include interactive content into their marketing strategy.

Already we can see businesses experimenting with ROI calculators and online assessment tools as a way to generate and qualify new leads, and major brands have even started using virtual reality showrooms as a way to showcase their products.

Examples of Killer Direct Marketing Campaigns

So now that we know why and how direct marketing works, let’s check out some of the best direct marketing campaigns out there. Make sure to take note of how each case study doesn’t rely on a marketing channel to engage their audience, and how the marketing techniques they use to encourage their audience to take action.

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RollWorks

In 2017, RollWorks discovered that they were able to double their conversion rate for outbound leads if they could connect and engage with their prospects through multiple channels. This discovery would eventually lead them to launch a fantastic marketing campaign that utilized a seamless combination of direct mail, PPC advertising, and email marketing, while also taking personalization to a whole other level.

At first, their outreach process began like any other, with sales reps reaching out to potential prospects via email. What they did differently, however, was include a link in the outreach email that would take the prospect to a customized landing page that included a picture and a few details of the sales rep that reached out to them.

And it gets better. From there, the prospect would be retargeted by display ads across multiple networks that also included the sales rep’s picture, ensuring that the sales rep would always stay at the top of the prospect’s mind. If they ended up clicking on any of the display ads, the prospect would be taken to yet another personalized landing page where they could immediately book a meeting.

To further encourage a response from their prospect, RollWorks would also mail them a branded package that included a personal note from the sales rep, and a book of customer case studies.

You might be surprised by just how well this worked: RollWorks found that prospects who received both the package and the targeted display ads were three times more likely to take the next step and book an appointment.

This is already a fantastic case of direct marketing in action and they could have ended things there, but the hits just kept on coming.

To keep the momentum going after their initial meeting with the sales rep, prospects would receive another branded package in the mail, which would include a personal thank-you note from the sales rep, and a branded poster that showcased how RollWorks could help.

But wait – there’s more. From there, the prospect would then be targeted with another round of ads, this time highly personalized by including the name of the prospect’s company in the ads themselves.

Not content with just stopping there – because of course not – RollWorks even created an automated campaign for prospects that ended up stalling during the sales process for whatever reason.

If the prospect still hadn’t progressed after 35 days, they would automatically be sent another direct mail package, this time including a branded notebook with instructions on how to run an effective ad campaign, as well as more positive customer testimonials.

RollWorks would also continue to leverage PPC ads, personalizing it even further by targeting bottom-funnel prospects with ads that contained the prospect’s company’s name and a call-to-action that addressed their objections and questions.

In the end, this masterful marketing campaign generated RollWorks a huge conversion rate of 41%, lowered their overall CPA by 42%, and even generated a ton of brand exposure through people posting about the campaign on social media.

Blue Apron

Studying the marketing strategies behind Blue Apron is enough to give a crash course on everything you need to know about marketing. Growing an almost unheard of 500% within a single year, the plucky meal-kit startup has famously made direct response marketing an essential part of their growth strategy.

To kick it off, Blue Apron was one of the very first brands to really take advantage of sponsoring popular podcasts and YouTube channels. I’m sure you’ll remember that period a few years ago where it seemed like you couldn’t listen to a single podcast without hearing an advertisement for Blue Apron.

Of course, Blue Apron understood that it wasn’t enough to simply have their brand mentioned in the podcast or video, they needed to drive results. To do that, every promotional spot and sponsorship offered a clear call-to-action to visit a specific URL or coupon code that people could use to receive free credit for their first order.

Not only did this allow them to track the effectiveness of their campaigns on a macro level, but they could also measure the ROI from individual sponsors and gain a better understanding of what kind of content and influencers their audience responded to the most.

Simple stuff, but incredibly powerful.

The next big direct marketing strategy that Blue Apron employed was around direct mail. But instead of just doing dropping promotional fliers into as many mailboxes as possible, the company further refined its direct mail approach by participating in something known as co-op advertising.

Essentially, Blue Apron will participate in a database with other companies using direct mail and share basic customer information and details. From there, much like with Facebook’s lookalike audiences, you can use an algorithm to identify which customers fit within your target audience and are likely to respond positively to your mailer.

Based on this information, Blue Apron would then send their promotional fliers out as a way to generate new leads.

However, much like Wunderman in the 60s, Blue Apron would also split-test their direct mail campaigns. Testing a variety of formats and pitches to figure out and including a custom URL for each separate campaign to track and measure the ROI from each.

Image via Pinterest

Most recently, Blue Apron has begun experimenting with event marketing by opening their own pop-up shop in major American cities and even hosting movie nights. The pop-up shop themselves act as ways for the brand to further engage with their audience in an authentic and meaningful way.

But beyond just being a space to sell more of their meal kits, the pop-up shops also serve as event spaces which include public cooking classes, workshops and discussions with famous chefs, and themed nights.

By incorporating these types of events into their marketing strategy, Blue Apron is able to showcase their brand’s overall mission and values and while also setting themselves apart from the rest of the competition.

Image via Blue Apron

Stitch Fix

If direct marketing is all about data-driven marketing, you’ll be hard pressed to find a better example of this than Stitch Fix. Currently valued at over $2 billion, the online styling service have made data science an integral part of their business, applying data to everything from how they manage their employees to detecting and predicting consumer trends.

But, of course, this is an article about direct marketing; so let’s take a look at how Stitch Fix applies data to their direct marketing campaigns.

Understanding that direct mail gets a far higher response rate than other marketing channels, one of Stitch Fix’s most effective marketing techniques is to re-engage their lost customers through direct mail.

While the brand certainly uses email and targeted display ads as part of their re-engagement strategy, Stitch Fix is also mindful of the fact that relying solely on digital channels means competing with hundreds, if not thousands, of other brands vying for your attention. To cut through all that noise, the fashion brand uses direct mail as a way to ensure that their message is getting across and being received.

Image via Iterable

In order to operate as a personal styling service, Stitch Fix needs to collect intimate data about their customers. To gather this data, every new user is asked to take part in a survey that contains a variety of questions designed to gather basic information like their shoe sizes and measurements, but also to gauge their personal style and fashion preferences. This already gives Stitch Fix an impressive understanding of their customers, but as the customer continues using the service, the more comprehensive the data the company is able to collect.

All of this culminates in an extensive and powerful consumer database that gives Stitch Fix amazing insight to not only their customer base as a whole, but who their customers are on an individual level.

The most evident way in which they apply that information in their marketing is the sheer variety of online ads that they run. Instead of cycling through the same handful of ads over and over again, Stitch Fix has over 1600 different ad variants targeting a diverse range of customer segments.

Image via Medium

Another fantastic example of direct marketing from Stitch Fix is their referral marketing program. While taking advantage of referral marketing is nothing new, what is worth noting is that Stitch Fix has managed to achieve a 27% increase in active customers year-on-year mostly through organic word-of-mouth, so they must be doing something right.

What’s interesting to note is that Stitch Fix’s referral program acts both as a lead generation and a referral marketing strategy. This works because Stitch Fix charges an initial $20 “styling fee” to use their service, but users (even non-paying ones) can receive $25 in credit if someone uses their referral link, plus the referred friend has their initial styling fee waived too.

Already, this is genius because it incentivizes new users to try out Stitch Fix for free by referring someone else. Also, notice how their referral program also asks the referee to share some basic information about the person they’re referring so Stitch Fix can already begin personalizing their offer for their new lead.

Image via Hubspot

Conclusion

At the very end of the day, direct marketing is just good marketing.

While we may have moved on from the days of spammy phone calls and product catalogues, the underlying principles of direct marketing are just as relevant today as they were 50 years ago. The major difference between now and then is that now we have so many more avenues to connect with our customers and it’s easier than ever to create a highly-focused and targeted marketing campaign.

What direct marketing techniques do you use? Why do you think direct marketing is more powerful than ever? Let us know in the comments below!

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Dennis Kelly
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Great post – we’re certainly seeing a strong uptick in interest on the part of marketers to develop direct marketing fundamentals that are deployed regularly through the direct mail channel. New direct mail automation tools that automate the production, measurement and integration of direct mail campaigns make it much more attainable for digital centric marketers.