Where Do You Start? Teaching Direct Marketing to College Students

What’s the best approach to engage college kids in understanding direct marketing? Principles first; metrics second? Or Metrics first; principles second?

What’s the best approach to engage college kids in understanding direct marketing? Principles first; metrics second? Or Metrics first; principles second?

I remember sitting in the parlor of a Catholic parish rectory in North Jersey while my wife was participating in a wedding rehearsal. The Mets game was on TV. The brother of a parish priest who was visiting from Ireland asked me to explain baseball. Explain baseball?!?! Where do you start?

Despite all of the professional speaking and training I’ve done in direct response marketing, the first time I taught a college course devoted entirely to it was last spring. I started with the fundamental concepts of media, offer, and creative. I had them write about each of these concepts from their own experience. We went over the various targeting opportunities marketers have online and offline. And at the end, we covered measurement and metrics.

At the end of the course, I asked the students to tell me what worked, what didn’t, and what should be changed. The most insightful comment was from a student who said:

“I wish you had covered all that measurement content at the beginning of the course. It made me realize why all that other stuff was important, and how it fit into the big picture.”

HELP!

Now, as I embark on teaching a course dedicated to Direct Response Marketing at Rutgers School of Business Camden, I’m looking for advice about how to sequence things.

Last year, when I bemoaned the lack of an appropriate up-to-date textbook for this discipline in this column, Dave Marold and Harvey  Markowitz stepped up and recommended the Fourth Edition of “Direct, Digital, and Data-Driven Marketing,” by Lisa Spiller. (Thanks for that Dave and Harvey; I’m using that book in the Fall).

What Do You Think?

Now I see the benefit of stressing measurement early. Even though I told the students every class that the coolest thing about direct marketing is that you can measure it, apparently the mechanical reality of measuring something like search engine keywords was not real for them. So:

  • Do I incorporate some form of measurement into every lesson?
  • Do I introduce a comprehensive measurement unit early in the course? (Spiller’s book does that early on, in Chapter 4).
  • Or, do I go full-on “math course” at the beginning, and thin a 40-student class down to 20 students after two weeks? (Just kidding).

Opinions welcome. (Actually, encouraged.)

Sears Had Everything: How Retail Success Became Failure

From 1969 to 1972, the retail success story Sears used the catchy jingle, “Sears Has Everything!” Not anymore. It’s ironic that Sears, the mail order giant of the 19th century that dominated retailing throughout the 20th century could not survive the e-commerce age of the 21st century. After all, Sears created mail order marketing — which evolved into direct response marketing, right?

From 1969 to 1972, the retail success story Sears used the catchy jingle, “Sears Has Everything!” Not anymore.

It’s ironic that Sears, the mail order giant of the 19th century that dominated retailing throughout the 20th century could not survive the e-commerce age of the 21st century. After all, Sears created mail order marketing — which evolved into direct response marketing, right?

Trout and Ries had a term for this phenomenon in their landmark book, Positioning: The Battle for your Mind: “F.W.M.T.S.” — Forgot What Made Them Successful. In fact, Sears abandoned its catalog business in 1993.

As Shiv Gupta noted in his Target Marketing blog post on Tuesday:

“Sears was so busy picking up loose change off the floor, it forgot to look up at the bus barreling toward it.”

Sears really did have everything. At one point, you could buy a Sears house. “Sears Catalog Homes were catalog and kit houses sold primarily through mail order by Sears, Roebuck and Company, an American retailer. Sears reported that more than 70,000 of these homes were sold in North America between 1908 and 1940.” Wikipedia

But they also had the ability to capture the imagination of the American consumer. I have fond memories of going to the Sears store with my father and marveling at the range of merchandise: every tool imaginable, appliances, sporting goods, toys, clothing, jewelry — you name it; Sears had it.

Then there was the magical day that the Christmas Wish Book arrived in the mail and my siblings and I would spend hours with it, fine-tuning our wish list for Santa. Iconic Sears brands jumped off the pages of the catalog and into my imagination to become aspirational purchases: a Ted Williams baseball glove, a Silvertone guitar amp …

What happened?

Sears simply stopped innovating somewhere along the way. Here are some milestones:

  • “Founded shortly after the Civil War, the original Sears, Roebuck & Company built a catalog business that sold Americans the latest dresses, toys, build-it-yourself houses and even tombstones. The company was, in many ways, an early version of Amazon.” (NYTimes, 10/16/18)
  • In 1896, Sears benefited from a United States Postal Service program called Rural Free Delivery, which extended mail routes into rural areas. (NYTimes 10/15/18)
  • As more Americans began living in cities, Sears opened retail stores, the first in 1925 in Chicago.
  • “Later, its vast spread of brick-and-mortar stores positioned it in prime retail locations across the country. For years, it was the largest retailer in the United States, operating out of the tallest building in the world. At various points, it sold products like fishing tackle, tombstones, barber chairs, wigs and even a ‘Stradivarius model violin’ for $6.10.” (NYT 10/15/18)
  • Sears benefited from being a pioneer chain in a landscape of largely independent department stores. Along with JCPenney, it became a standard shopping mall anchor. Together, the two chains, along with Montgomery Ward, captured 43 percent of all department store sales by 1975 … (Then) Skyrocketing inflation meant low-price retailers, such as Target, Kmart and Walmart … lured new customers. The market became bifurcated, as prosperous upper-middle class shoppers turned to more luxurious traditional department stores, while bargain-seekers found lower prices at the discounters than at Sears. (Smithsonian 7/25/17)
  • Sears was major player in financial services in the 1980s, with Allstate Insurance and Dean Witter in the brand portfolio that included Kenmore and Craftsman. But by 1989, Sears was a shade of its former self. “It slashed prices on most of its inventory and in time shut its catalog operation, closed hundreds of stores and laid off tens of thousands of employees. Stores began carrying more outside brands and accepting nonstore credit cards to entice customers.” NYTimes 10/15/18

After abandoning the catalog business in 1993, Sears made a brief return to its roots by buying successful cataloger Lands’ End in 2002, only to spin it off in 2013.

In the end, Sears forgot what made it successful. It had everything. But Sears blew it.

Rather Test or Guess?

“Make me a deal on a split run.” Of all the negotiating ploys we as marketers might consider, this simple sentence has more success-seeds than any of the fustian and fury we could force out of our bargaining-parleying fingertips. And a “Yes” answer from an understanding medium, which costs zilch, has to result in information far more profitable than even our top-of-the-line brainpower can match.

TM0810_searchglobe copy“Make me a deal on a split run.”

Of all the negotiating ploys we as marketers might consider, this simple sentence has more success-seeds than any of the fustian and fury we could force out of our bargaining-parleying fingertips. And a “Yes” answer from an understanding medium, which costs zilch, has to result in information far more profitable than even our top-of-the-line brainpower can match.

One assumption we certainly have enough professional knowledge to lean on: the circulation of the medium has at least a tenuous match with a logical buyer. Our prospects won’t think we’re approaching from the planet Mars.

For print media, a split run is easier to mount today than it ever has been since, some hundreds of years ago, we as marketers invaded the nooks and crannies of publishing. For direct mail, it’s a bonanza whose luster dimmed when direct radio and then direct television mussed up the turf. For online, it’s too natural and obvious to be regarded as an innovation.

The overriding interpretation of what we’re discussing is a single word: test.

If the notion of testing a direct appeal is foreign to you, call me or any of about fifty thousand other self-proclaimed marketing experts, and we’ll be glad to take advantage of your naiveté.

Or, if you’d rather, make one decision that has to be profitable: what to test.

The most common test element is price. What price represents the best addition to the bottom line? $19.99 may bring more orders, but $24.99 is more profitable. And in today’s wild marketplace, where 99 cents has almost universally replaced the venerable 95 cents, $24.99 just might bring in more responses than $19.99. What if we glamorize the offer? $29.99 versus $19.99? We can test to give us an answer.

(Sample example: a recent three-way test for a collectible priced the item at $15.49, $15.99, and $17.99. Which brought the highest total number of responses, not just dollars? Right. $17.99. I suspect because the product has a tie to tradition, $17.95 would have left $17.99 in the shade, but the testing impulse didn’t extend that far. Maybe next time.)

And easy? What test could be easier? Just be sure that each addressee gets just one distinct offer and the response code differs for each price.

“Seat of the pants” guesswork is old-fashioned and amateurish, and depending on the deal you can make with media or a lettershop, not an optimal investment in marketing.

Hmmm. Here’s a unisex jacket. Here’s a tablet computer. Here’s a DVD whose content dwarfs any approach to the business problem its content solves. Here’s an extraordinary assortment of dessert-goodies.

A true split is just one split-test: When an offer appears on our monitor, we can’t tell if it’s unique or part of a split run … that is, if the code doesn’t betray the technique.

What does that mean? Well, suppose you get an online offer from “Firearms.” Does that, emotionally and in your mind factually, differ from “Guns” or for that matter the singular, “Firearm”? What if the sender had split the subject line, sending to one group “Look out. This gun fires in both directions” and to a parallel group “Gigantic 75% discount, today only.” Even from this example, any of us can predict that response will be skewed by the difference in appeals. What we have is a message test, even though only the subject lines may differ.