Can Direct Marketing Survive in Social Media?


Over at Top Rank, Lee Odden piggybacks off a recent conversation he had with Brian Clark and asks if direct marketing can succeed out there in social media or if there’s no place for direct marketing messages in the Social Web. In case you’re keeping score, Lee thinks the two should be separate, while Brian finds that social media is the perfect place to market directly to customers. Surprisingly, or at least to me, I find myself agreeing with Brian.

I’m generally a social media purist. I think a lot of people know that about me. I don’t like scripts to build Twitter accounts, I don’t like the whole fake avatar thing and I generally don’t think that automation has any place in social media. You can’t automate your offline relationships, so why are we automating our online ones with customers? It doesn’t make sense to me. However, I think direct marketing is different. As long as you’re providing value first, I don’t find anything wrong with direct marketing in social media. In fact, I think social media makes direct marketing even more successful.

I can very much understand Lee’s concerns and I think he makes some great points in his post. He’s looking at all the big companies who stomp into social media guns blazing, ignore everyone in the community and then start screaming their sales message at the top of their lungs. If that is your approach to direct marketing, yes, that will fail.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. They can work together.

I look at direct marketing as a way to use information to create a need for your product. Like the postcards we’re all used to receiving in the mail. You weren’t necessarily thinking Chinese for dinner, but then that menu comes and suddenly a need has been created and you’re salivating over the idea of some orange chicken and fried rice. Or maybe an egg roll. The stronger the relationship you have with that business, the more that you trust them, and the more familiar you are with them, the stronger your response to their direct marketing message will be.  The more likely you are to accept it. And all of those things are what companies are already trying to build through social media.

If you want to be successful at direct marketing in the Social Web, don’t go in selling. Use your constant, daily interaction with people to build that trust and to form a relationship. Lay the groundwork, then send out relevant sales messages that market at them. As long as the message you’re sending out has value to the customer, I don’t think you’re breaking any tenets of social media and you don’t have to worry too much about backlash. People are smart. If you’re a company with a Twitter account, you’re always selling. Even if you’re Dell and are being overly friendly to people tweeting at you, you’re selling something – you’re selling your brand. I mentioned a brand study on SmallBizTrends last week that said 84 percent of people like receiving updates from companies they’ve invested in. People like targeted messages. It’s not spam. That’s why they’re engaging with you on the Social Web in the first place. It’s not because of your sparkling personality. They’re waiting for you to become useful.

If you’ve already formed a relationship with someone and they’ve expressed interest in what you’re doing (as noted by them following you on Twitter, etc), then there’s nothing wrong with the occasional direct marketing message. As Brian states in his comment on Lee’s post, just because other people are doing it wrong doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing.

If you’re not comfortable direct marketing on social media, don’t do it. Lee mentioned the success people can find when they don’t market directly, but instead transition people over to an email list. That’s a great way to benefit from the relationships you’re creating in social media. I just don’t think they have to be separate.

It seems to me that much of direct marketing has always been about creating an awareness and then taking it one step further to create a need. You’re creating the groundwork now with the hope they’ll convert down the road. That seems to play perfectly into social media. Or maybe I’m wrong and have evolved in a social media spammer. You tell me.

Your Comments

  • Brian Clark

    You’re surprised you agree with me? That makes me sad. :-(

    OK, I’m over it. ;-)

  • Lisa Barone

    Brian: Haha, no, no! I was surprised I wasn’t yelling on the social media purist fence for all those spammers to get off my lawn. :) That’s usually way more like me.

  • Michael Brito

    Great post here. Working in the enterprise, this is a discussion that happens quite frequently. I generally like to follow this rule, and it works for me — build community first, then figure out how to monetize. And, direct marketing messages may indeed be a part of that.

  • Brian Clark

    Kidding with you Lisa… and I hate the clueless DM spammers too.

    Michael, you’ve nailed it. That’s exactly the model we follow, and once it becomes time to sell something relevant directly to the community, there’s very little resistance.

    It’s about respecting people and delivering value first.

  • Joseph Manna, Infusionsoft


    You make a very compelling and articulate case for how social media and marketing can sustainably co-exist without burning relationships. For every ten spammers out there, there is one talented, skilled and courageous marketer who connects the worlds of customer contact and prospective contact in social media.

    I find the biggest struggle companies have in grasping the needs of their various social media outposts, is the fact there are multiple audiences, expectations, and tolerances. As an example — Twitter may be one where more people are tracking your brand and want insight as to how your company is doing, special offers and relevant updates to the company. Facebook, might be a place people check out to bond with other users and to check out videos and related Wall-content that people submit. Blogs are a great place to share deep perspective, big changes and just about anything else that could be classified as “editorial.” To be successful, organizations ought to lay a plan — not a campaign — but a plan and a guideline in using these outposts to connect to their audience.

    This is a great post and will be happy to mention it on our blog, too. :)


  • Rob J

    Thanks for this.

    I’ve been engaged in social media in our marketing department for about a year and a half. And I’m still finding the balance between the ‘social’ and the ‘marketing’. I get the impression that the idea of trust, which is vital to the equation, should really work both ways. I need to make sure that people with whom I interact have reason to trust that I’m being authentic. And I need to trust that when it comes time to talk about selling products, what we’ve built up together as a community is strong enough to weather any insecurities I may have about coming off like a used car salesman.

    Thanks again for the post!

  • Michael Brito

    yes, excellent poitnt Brian. Did you ever read Permission Marketing, Seth’s very relevant to today’s social web. Btw, how the heck are you?

  • Brian Clark

    Hey Michael, doing well, you?

    Funny, Permission Marketing was the first marketing book I ever read. I then read everything that preceded it to get a historical perspective on direct marketing (which is what permission marketing is, only modified to the reality of email).

    Social Media Marketing is the same… and evolved version of direct marketing for those who deal directly with customers and clients. Look what Dell has done with Twitter for another example of a “direct to consumer” company that gets it.

  • Lisa Barone


    For every ten spammers out there, there is one talented, skilled and courageous marketer who connects the worlds of customer contact and prospective contact in social media.

    And it is my life mission to be that marketer. Hopefully one day I’ll get close. :)

    I think you’re right that you really need to match your message with the platform you’re on. Twitter, and I think even Facebook, are probably your best bets for direct marketing. If you try to market directly on a blog, people are going to revolt and throw things at you. Or worse, they’ll just leave.

    Rob: I think that balance of social and marketing is something most of us are still trying to figure out. Once you hit it though…that’s the sweet spot.

  • Brian Clark

    Lisa, the key to marketing directly on a blog is to mainly do it with landing pages. Don’t clutter your post stream with pitches, rather drive only those who are interested to a page that makes the offer.

    Some can get away with pitch posts, but usually you’re better off delivering solid value with your content in regular posts, and occasionally sending people “off road” for promotions.

  • Drew Shope

    Thanks for writing this. I am already pointing people to this as a great explanation for “why social media?” Some people get it, and others don’t. I think it’s great that you point out that all sales are about relationships, and this is a super nifty way to maintain those. Keep it up!

  • Jillian Anderson

    Love it. Great post! I’m loving all off the comments too. I agree with Brian in that “It’s about respecting people and delivering value first.” Once you get that whole respect and value thing down, you’re golden. If that’s what a company is about in the first place, they don’t run in to any issues and can transition into social media marketing seamlessly.

  • Lee Odden

    Hey Lisa did you read the whole post? :) Not to monkey wrench your Lee vs Brian angle, but I chalked up our perspectives to semantics. Email makes social media a great channel for direct marketing.

  • Lisa Barone

    Lee: Heh, yes, Lee, I read the whole post. Apologies if you thought I framed it wrong.

  • Jaan Kanellis

    “I don’t like scripts to build Twitter accounts”

    So if we have one message and want to send it to three channels we should do it manually?

  • Riz Sanchez

    After reading your post, I’m suddenly craving for some Chinese! Message clear, indeed. Good job, Lisa! :)

  • Lisa Barone

    Jaan: In terms of scripts I meant for building the accounts like picking up followers. But you should do it however you’re comfortable doing it. My sensitives are very very…sensitive. It’s a constant battle between myself and Rae. And I don’t always win. :)

  • Moksh Juneja

    this is also my challenge in social media – customization vs. personalization, individual vs. corporates… and then i think it is individual and personalization that will win. and the future will be that this would be part of the Marketing Managers job profiles!!

  • Therese

    First of all, I think I am now ordering Chinese for lunch, I will tell them you referred me. :-)

    I cannot stand the DM spam that I get often, I will follow people back based off of their profile a lot of times, as it is hard to find time to look at each persons’ stream of conversation, so needless to say they will have completely normal (whatever that means) profiles and then I will receive a spam DM. Honestly because of this I really do not pay attention to DM, they usually pop in my in-box and if I don’t know them and there is a link I am not clicking on it, that is why I think it is key to build relationships first, and I also love the thought of transitioning them over to an e-mail list.

    I too do not like ‘auto’ for my twitter account and for the most part do not think anything auto should be used, with that said if you are just joining twitter and you have a non-profit event coming up in 3 weeks and you need to reach all the people in your local area as fast as possible, I do not see anything wrong with a program like Twollo <- did I spell that right? I still would not use automatic DM’s etc, but as long as it is managed and you are cleaning up those you do not want to follow I think it can be a useful tool depending on the situation.

    When I first signed up for twitter and was completely clueless, I tried Twollo and found out really quick that is was not something I liked or preferred for my personal account, but for certain outreach I can see where it can be a benefit.

  • Tom Fletcher

    And how *not* to do it!

    Habitat sorry for Iran Tweeting

    “The top ten trending topics were pasted into hashtags without checking with us and apparently without verifying what all of the tags referred to.”

  • Kris Olson

    As a consumer, I must admit that I am tired of going to facebook and finding nothing but not-so-subtle advertisements from my “friends” about their work products. Where is the chatty news from real friends about kids, coffee, new jobs, etc.? I find myself avoiding facebook…