I know what you’re thinking – another article on how digital is going to gobble up all other marketing channels, destroy your business model and hand over marketing control to bloggers. Now that may all be true, but that’s not what I wanted to talk about. I reckon there’s a more fundamental issue facing the direct marketing industry: is digital a channel or a discipline?

Now in my mind I’ve always simply thought of digital as a channel through which you conduct the disciplines of advertising and direct marketing: ‘online brand management’ and ‘online customer management’ if you like. Very simple, and clearly positioning digital as a growing part of the direct marketing industry.

But what if digital marketing is a discipline in its own right – that in fact direct marketing is a small part of the digital marketing industry? Yikes!
Is there any evidence of this? I was recently in the US on a business trip, and there’s clearly a fair amount of work being done over there where the online experience is the core focus, and all the other media are simply ‘signposts’ to the digital main game.

Probably the best example is the latest instalment of the ongoing ‘Got Milk’ campaign by Goodby Silverstein (www.gettheglass.com). Not only does the website have better production values than a Pixar movie, more interesting is the fact that the TV spots are simply pointers to get people to visit the site – effectively trailers for the main movie (which happens to be online). A far cry from the token eight-point web address on most TV spots.

It’s a great campaign, brilliantly executed, because it recognises the fact that online is increasingly the place where consumers make decisions about brands and products. And that’s the rub – even though consumers may still physically purchase products and services (like milk) offline, they’re increasingly making their decisions online.

Just think about it:

  • What’s the quickest and easiest way to get a competitive quote for car insurance?
  • How would you go about finding the best price for a domestic flight?
  • When was the last time you actually used your dog-eared copy of the Yellow Pages?
  • How would you find a good restaurant in Bathurst (assuming there is one)?
  • How could you compare the functions and benefits of two different credit cards?

Given this, you could argue that understanding the online world and how consumers interact with it and navigate through it becomes the discipline, with direct marketing simply being one tactic at the digital marketer’s disposal.

Now even if this is the case – and I don’t think anyone really knows how things will play out – it’s still good news for direct marketers. Why? Because as direct marketers we’re best equipped to prosper in this new world.

We understand the customer journey and how customers buy, we understand multi-stage selling, and we understand tailoring, personalisation and relevance. All critical planks of successful online thinking.

This is important because the only real certainty about the digital boom is that there simply won’t be enough skilled digital people around to service it. In fact, talking to our Proximity London office recently, they’re in the envious situation where “the only constraint on our business growth in digital is finding enough people to do the work”. Now, that’s not a bad problem to have!

So rather than being a threat to the direct marketing industry, the digital boom is a massive opportunity for direct marketers. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. I reckon every agency in the world right now is grappling with how to ‘digitise’ their business. I’m sure clients are too. How do you skill-up in this area when you’re already working silly hours on your day job? There’s no easy answer – you have to overcome inertia and scepticism, spend time and money on training for the future, and run the risk of skilling up your staff just so that they can be poached by your competitors in the chase for talent.

But one thing’s for sure. Doing this and disrupting your own business is far better than someone else disrupting it!

So, channel or discipline? Who cares, I prefer to see it as opportunity!