Can Direct Marketing Survive in Social Media?

June 23, 2009
By Lisa Barone in Online Marketing

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.

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