Direct marketing ethics again in the headlines

The lead story in the October 15, 2007 issue of DM News discusses accusations from New York State attorney general Andrew Cuomo of “misleading marketing practices” through various media, including direct mail, teleservices, television, radio, and online. (If you click on that link, you can download the issue.)

One example is about companies who are accused of “mailing commercial offers designed to look like official letters from the US Department of Education.”

I can’t comment on the specifics of these accusations or whether they’re accurate. But I’ve been a staunch advocate of ethical marketing for many years. I even wrote a long article in Direct Marketing Magazine back in 1998 about the problems caused by the so-called “sweepstakes scams” at that time and how it could impact our industry.

I’ll repeat now what I said then: “I believe that we need to make a greater effort to make ethics part of the equation.” How? How about by not lying to people? I think that would work for starters. Specifically, we should ask ourselves a few questions about everything we do:

Every time there’s a major scandal in our industry, it leads to legislation. If we don’t watch it, we could allow ourselves to be legislated out of business.

I’ve said it a hundred times. If you have a product or service that requires trickery to sell, GET ANOTHER PRODUCT OR SERVICE!

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The 3 essential elements of direct marketing

I’ve seen all sorts of formulas and theories about what drives direct marketing. But I’ve come to the conclusion that when you boil down all the ideas and techniques, you are left with just three things:

  1. You must make an offer.
  2. You must provide sufficient information for a decision to be made about the offer.
  3. You must provide an easy means of responding to the offer.

That’s it. That’s what direct marketing is in a nutshell. You generally don’t find these element in mass market advertising or branding. This is what distinguishes direct marketing from all other forms of communication. If you lack any one of these elements, you aren’t doing direct marketing.

Do you agree? If you think I’m missing something, tell me.

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A quick definition of direct marketing, direct response, and direct mail

One thing I should clarify for those who are not in the direct marketing business (and even for those who are), is the definition of “direct marketing” and a few other terms.

Many people use terms like “direct marketing,” “direct mail,” and “direct response” interchangeably, but they all have different meanings.

“Direct marketing” is the collection of all the things a business does to sell products and services directly to buyers. It’s different from retail marketing, where products are sold to stores and then sold to buyers. Direct marketing has no middleman.

“Direct response” is the form of advertising used by direct marketers. In mass market advertising, the goal is to create awareness and preference for products which can lead to higher sales in a retail store at some later date. However, direct response advertising seeks to get an immediate response from the person reading or seeing the ad. There may be a residual “branding” effect, but it is always secondary to getting the response.

“Direct mail” is simply a form of direct response advertising. It is one of many media used to deliver direct response advertising from direct marketing companies. Other media include e-mail, TV ads, radio spots, and telemarketing.

That’s not exactly a set of textbook definitions, but they should be clear enough.

Oh, and at no time is it permitted to call direct mail “junk mail.” That will lead to a verbal kick in the butt from yours truly along with a vociferous lecture on the importance of mail to the economy, including my own personal income. So watch it.

By the way, I’ve created a Direct Marketing Glossary over at my main Web site. It’s a work in progress, so if you run across a word or idea you think should be there, let me know.

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