Mouse-to-mouse to smartphone: Michael Goldthorpe on the evolution of DM

Thirty years ago, I was seven. DM meant one thing to me. Danger Mouse – a smart little crime-fighting mouse and his nerdy but brilliant assistant, Penfold. It was appointment viewing – a five-minute slot after school (back when telly was on when the telly was on and the smartest computer in the world could just about play chess).

Fast-forward thirty years and we have a bunch of new technology that once felt like science fiction and a pace of life that even Danger Mouse would find freaky. These days DM is everywhere. But what is it? How does it work? How has it changed? And most important of all, is it pretty much the same old story it always was with a whole bunch of new buzzwords and some snappy tech?

DM is Direct Marketing.

Boil down the jargon and DM is about marketing stuff to people, directly. It’s about getting the right message to the right person at the right time. Back when I was a rookie writer at the best DM shop in town, DM was synonymous with direct mail (important not to confuse that with junk mail – I once had a formal warning for forgetting that distinction and bringing the “sophisticated craft of our industry” into disrepute). But semantics aside, the tools of our trade were letters, envelopes, sending stuff…and the ‘science’ of marketing strategy.

Grab them. Grow them. Keep them.

Just as paper was the primary channel back in 2003, the fundamentals of strategy were similarly straightforward. We were tasked with acquisition (lead generation and customer conversion) and retention (customer engagement and churn mitigation). These days we say “grab them, grow them and keep them” through a ‘customer journey’ of “learning, earning and churning” – but it’s the same stuff with millennial language. The most important consistency in any of the above is “them”. “They” are the customer; our paycheck. They’re the only thing that matters in any of the metrics – and digging in to work out exactly who “they” are is the fun part of data.

Talk, listen, learn and remember.

If we talk, listen and learn through marketing activity, databases do our remembering. They’ve been at it for well over thirty years, but like app developers and smoothie makers, data is hot right now. It’s a bit odd, because a database is just a big filing cabinet full of fascinating facts and useless junk. But as storage gets cheaper and computer processing gets faster, we can collect, store, sort and share more information than ever before.

Moreover, as everything from your smartphone to your sneakers can actively collect more bits and bytes than it’s possible to comprehend, the potential of “big data” is incredible. We live in exciting times. The nerds have been elevated from the server room to the boardroom and ‘marketing nirvana’ is creeping over the horizon.

2003 – 2013: the technology takeover.

On fulfilling the customer promise of ‘DM evolution’ let’s touch on the last dozen years. It’s been incredible. Back in 2003, the ‘new channel’ was email. Since it was electronic we nattily added an E to the notion of direct mail and everyone got excited about EDMs. Time ticked, computers got properly personal, phones got smart and now many businesses do much of their marketing through email. Most of that goes straight to people’s pockets – or filtered out into aptly named ‘junk mail’ folders (don’t tell my old boss I said that). And now, more than ever, the industry counts, crafts and optimises both message and channel to drive response… just like we always have.

CX, UX, InstaChat and Uber.

The other thing that’s happened is ‘disruption’. It’s everywhere. It’s changed the world. With the power and potential of new technologies, whole new industries have popped up overnight with a brand new suite of buzzwords.

CX is customer experience. It’s about thinking long and hard about where, why and how people buy stuff. It’s everything from the language in your ads, to the people in your call centre, to the triangle someone folds in the hotel bathroom toilet paper. In the old days we leaned on people to deliver the niceties of customer service; these days we programme technology and do everything we can to make it feel personal.

UX is User Experience. It’s an Internet thing that’s all about making life easy for customers. In 2003 we perforated a form on the bottom of a letter and gave them a pre-paid envelope to send it back. These days we add a one-touch button to a pre-billed app. Same thing. Different day.

Social Marketing (in whatever the latest app might be) is the new language for customer engagement. It’s having a chat, making people smile and trying not to sell too hard because that would just be rude. In 2003 we wrote newsletters. We still do. We also create ‘content’ for omni-channel, multi-touch point engagement platforms. Same thing. Different day.

DM is still DM. It’s just everywhere.

Back in the day, DM was the dirty stuff that few people understood and fewer were brave enough to own up to. Today it’s the marketing darling and the pop up on your phone that tells you about a whole bunch of zombies who are coming to nail your plants.

Don’t get me wrong. The sub-tone of cynicism here is only crafted in for ‘customer engagement’ and storytelling craft. Our industry is more exciting now than it’s ever been. The opportunities are endless and the experts are genuinely expert at every little nuance of everything. The challenge is that sometimes, it all feels a bit complicated.

So here’s the good news. The basics haven’t changed. Not one bit. And when the ‘big data’ complications of system integration and customer insight modeling get confusing, or the busy-ness of ‘always-on’, omni-channel engagement feels overwhelming, I find peace in those building blocks from 2003.

First we look for clarity on the problem we’re trying to solve. Are we grabbing them (acquisition), growing them (engagement), or keeping them (mitigating churn to uplift retention). And once you know that, you go back to the basics.

Have we found the right person to talk to? (the data bit). Have we crafted a message they’ll care about? (the creative bit). And are we doing it at a time and in a place that feels right for the customer? Right person, right message, right time. Just like always. Because that (at the end of the day) is the best way to sell stuff. And selling stuff (at the end of the day) is the whole point of what we do.

And if all else fails and I have a bad day, I’ll sneak into a corner, log in to YouTube on my iThing and watch re-runs of Danger Mouse. He’s still the best DM on the planet. And now that my son is seven, we can laugh at it together. Perfect.

That’s what I reckon, what do you think?

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Michael Goldthorpe is Managing Partner at Hunch.

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