January 6, 2017

Why Direct Marketing is Still Relevant for B2B

Thanks to the HubSpots and the Seth Godins of the world, direct marketing (also known as outbound) has lost a lot of ground to its younger, prettier, more socially responsible sibling: Inbound.  

Some have gone so far as to call it “dead.”

“As you likely know from reading this blog, we’re huge proponents of inbound marketing over here, and we honestly believe that outbound marketing is dead.”

— Pamela Vaughan, principal marketing manager, HubSpot, 2011

Are we to believe that the channels and strategies some of the world’s biggest brands have trusted for decades, since before Steve Jobs grew his first chest hair, are now irrelevant? Of course not.

Direct marketing strategies, while they may convert at a lower rate than organic inbound, have proven their ability to drive qualified leads at scale. Demand Gen Report’s 2016 Benchmark Report suggests that outbound still accounts for five of the top nine lead generation channels. According to the same firm, 84 percent of B2B marketers at small and mid-size companies believe inbound and outbound are both necessary to drive business.  

What Does Direct Marketing Look Like?

Direct/outbound marketing describes any marketing technique that brings your message directly to the prospect, instead of waiting for them to do research, find your content, and fill out a form when they’re good and ready. Because direct marketing is more “interruptive,” critics find it easy to portray in a negative light. But interruptions don’t have to be negative.

Channels B2B companies typically use for direct marketing and prospecting:

  • Email
  • Telemarketing
  • Direct Mail
  • Paid social
  • Display Ads

We didn’t want this article to be a one-sided argument, so we sat down with Sylvia Nash from Hunt Marketing Group (HMG), a full-service direct marketing agency based in Seattle. Nash is the senior media and analytics strategist at HMG. She’s worked in sales and marketing since 2007 and served clients like T-Mobile, Disney, VMware, and Pyramid Analytics.

Nash believes not only that direct marketing is still relevant for B2B companies, but that it always will be.

Direct marketing is the most efficient way to reach a defined audience,” she said in our interview. “Companies that are marketing B2B products typically have done a fair amount of research on who their customers are. Once you have that profile defined, you can go to market with a variety of innovative tactics to target only that audience.

Direct marketing is the most efficient way to reach a defined audience.

“If you have data on who your customer is, you can use virtually any marketing channel to reach them. Gone are the days where it’s an offline vs. online discussion or broadcast vs. digital. Effective campaigns produce creatives to hit their audience at multiple touch points along the buyer’s journey with content appropriate to each channel. With the modern data and reporting capabilities that are now available, all marketing can be direct. It’s all accountable, and it’s all measured.”

Nash brings up an important point here. If we have the tools and the data to know exactly what our future customers look like and where they do their reading and research, why not go after them directly? Organic inbound strategies are great, but the leads you acquire won’t always match your expectations, and they won’t always be ready to buy.  

The Science and the Art of Direct Marketing

Analytical tools are important for succeeding with direct marketing, but it’s not all about the metrics. Part of the magic is knowing how to engage your buyers in a meaningful, memorable way. At HMG, they talk a lot about bringing together the “science and the art” of direct marketing.

ALSO READ: The Art of Demand Generation Meets the Science of Lead Generation

“With any marketing campaign, you have known and unknown elements to account for,” Nash says. “The science represents known quantities that are measurable. For example, we know that a high-touch direct mail campaign will be better received if the mailing list is qualified and engaged. We know that the response rate will be higher if the recipient is already familiar with the company the direct mail is coming from.

“The art is the creative of the piece. It’s also the unknown variable: we don’t know how or if the recipient will respond to the creative. Maybe there is a gift offer, but that person is unable to accept gift. Maybe the creative is something that turns off the individual based on an experience the advertiser cannot account for. While B2B purchases are seemingly less emotional — you aren’t spending your own money, after all — we still find that there is a personal element for the purchaser.”

Direct Mail? Really?

Yes, really. You may think direct mail looks strange on a list of preferred channels alongside paid social and email marketing, but that’s precisely why it works: novelty.

Your buyers are already getting dozens of unsolicited emails a day and cold calls from companies in which they have no interest. It’s risky to dress your marketing message in a channel that wears the same clothes. A direct mail piece stands out because most of the industry has already moved to digital; your target accounts probably don’t get a lot of handwritten letters or gift packages in the mail.  

According to the Direct Marketing Association’s 2015 Response Rate Report, average direct mail response rates (3.7 percent) dramatically outperform response rates for direct digital channels (0.62 percent). B2B companies have proven this with their own campaigns. Salesfusion, for example, saw 15 to 20 percent conversion rates from its “three-dimensional” direct mail campaigns.

Direct

Direct mail campaign by Texas Capital Bank.

“If we listened to what everyone else was saying all the time, I think we’d miss out on a lot of opportunities,” Nash told us. “The reality is that direct mail is not dead . . . especially for B2B advertisers. There are a number of industries where direct mail is their best way to reach their current customers. When you consider a B2B target, the office is one of the places where people are still getting and checking their mail.

“Is direct mail the right option for all targets? Definitely not. But if you have a highly targeted customer list, a direct mail piece can be a great way to break through the clutter and get in front of that customer . . . and provide them with something of value that leaves a good impression about your company.”

* * *

Whether you’re sending fancy gift mailers to target accounts or running content syndication campaign through a lead gen service, the key to succeeding with direct is to treat prospects as humans, use relevant content and creatives, and track as much of the process as you can. With the right strategy and the right partners at your side, you can use direct to keep your pipeline moving and drive bottom-line growth.

Inbound is no slouch, but it will never replace direct. If you aren’t already running direct campaigns, maybe 2017 is the year to get started.   

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