Is direct response marketing dead?
Kerwin Rae

One of my very first jobs was as a direct response copywriter, doing TV, radio and newspaper ads designed to close sales.

I used to spend hours pouring over the yellow pages. I’d sit down with a nice hot cuppa, and flick through the yellow pages, circling what worked, what didn’t, what caught my attention, what fell flat.

Direct response used to be the foundations of advertising – like bad perms, scrunchies, and double denim, everyone was doing it.

But marketers everywhere are realising direct response just doesn’t pull customers like it used to.

The marketplace is cluttered, customers have wised up, and they just don’t trust some brand they’ve never heard of telling them to “BUY NOW!!!”

So, what’s the go with direct response? Does it still have a place in today’s media environment? Or is time running out for our old friend?

A brief history of direct response marketing

Direct response marketing is a kind of marketing message that goes straight for the sale. Anything that tells you to buy now or take action immediately, is a direct response ad.

We’ve seen them on basically every media platform. Junk mail in the post, telemarketers on the phone, radio and TV ads, internet pop-ups, classifieds in the newspaper – they’ve been around for yonks.

These super attention-getting strategies have definitely worked in the past.

Bright lights and colours and catchy jingles? Yeah, you tend to notice them.

But we’ve become so used to them and over-exposed that it’s done a 180 and backfired.

Now, most people tend to get slightly annoyed when they see direct response ads.

There’s no relationship, no trust, and they’re not really providing anything of value.

But on the occasions it does work, it can still be a double-edged sword.

Think of all the furniture brands with ads saying how they’ve got huge savings, big discounts, quality furniture for super cheap.

People go there and buy from them, but there’s no loyalty. Maybe they buy one bed…then they don’t need another one for a good ten years.

And if they need a bedside table, then they’ve got no incentive to go back to the same store. There’s no relationship, they’ll go somewhere cheaper or more convenient.

And then came content marketing…

Content marketing aka utility marketing is a kind of branding, where you don’t sell to your customers.

You provide them with content that educates, inspires, entertains, informs, is funny or emotional – the kind of content people love to see instead of ads and marketing jargon.

Over time, that’s going to build a relationship with your customers, there’s going to be trust and a sense of loyalty toward you.

So while you’re not putting products and ads in front of their faces, you’re still building awareness and creating a really positive attitude.

Content marketing and direct response marketing sit at opposite ends of the spectrum in that sense.

On the one hand, you’ve got direct response marketing saying “buy from me now!” then content marketing going “what can I give you to help you?”

So, is there a place for direct response marketing?

Content marketing and direct response marketing actually complement each other pretty well.

Direct response isn’t going to have any long-term effects, and sometimes your branding content is going to need a call to action to tip the scales.

For example, you could have spent days drafting up the perfect educational, readable, free e-book all about a common issue your customers have.
But, you’re going to need to get it into their hands somehow.

So you might use direct response to help give them access to that resource. Something that does tell them to download now or to read it today.

Maybe you do nine super engaging, heartwarming, insightful posts about your industry, and the tenth is a direct response ad to your website.

There’s a time and a place for both direct response and utility/content marketing – and I’d venture to say that you can’t do one without the other.

So, long story short, direct response is alive and well. No, it is not dead. Yes, it does have a place in your modern-day marketing strategy.

Like all things in life, moderation is key.