It had been five years since I last attended a DMA annual conference. I decided to return last week. If there were a score card of how direct marketing service providers are reinventing what they sell to end-user companies, one measure of that could be taken from the exhibit hall.
From 1987 to 2008, I had attended every DMA conference, always enjoying the experience of reconnecting with long-time associates, hearing presentations to continually learn, and meeting with vendors who might be good resources for clients.
Last week I found myself looking at the conference through a different lens as I walked the exhibit hall to learn from the exhibitors.
The first thing that astounded me was the shrinkage of the exhibit hall. The program listed 241 exhibitors. While I don’t have access to the number of exhibitors from, say, a decade ago, it feels like it was about one-third the size that it used to be.
The second thing that struck me was the type of exhibitors who were there. I’d generally divide into one of three camps:
- Traditional direct marketing vendors, mostly supporting direct mail. The convention program listed 112 exhibitors self-identified as in the Direct Mail and Print Services category. Add in some of the dozens of firms supporting Data Management (who weren’t already listed under Direct Mail and Print Services) and easily over half—perhaps two-thirds—of the exhibitors supported traditional direct mail marketing channels.
- Technology companies offering online services to direct marketers accounted for a significant representation as well. An exact count is difficult to infer because of vendors listing themselves under multiple categories including Affiliate Marketing, Content, E-commerce, Mobile, Online Advertising, Real-Time Automated Technologies, Search and Social, but the representation was strong. These are firms that, in my opinion, generally did a poor job of communicating how they support direct marketers. As I spoke to several of them, they glowed over their technology but didn’t connect their technology to how it would generate response. It feels like they want to attract business from direct marketers, but they don’t speak our language. Many technology companies seem to be in love with their buzz words on their booths, but failed to give the passer-by any clue of what their technology would do for me to build sales. At the expansive exhibit of one of the most recognized software companies in America, I quickly spotted three typographical errors on their big screens. Their exhibit booth staff was also the least friendly and willing to explain what they offer direct marketers.
- Vendors that effectively blended offline and online. Only a few exhibitors, it seemed, truly attempted to be a one-stop shop where offline could be linked with online media. Those exhibitors were the ones doing business at the conference. They were the ones who were the most positive about returning next year. In one case, a long-time DMA conference exhibitor who has reinvented his service offerings, said last week’s conference was the best ever for them. This traditional direct mail services provider had teamed up with a technology firm so their booth felt like two spaces, but they seamlessly referred clients to each other. More importantly, they linked online technology with the ability to use direct mail for specialized messaging.
It appears there is work to be done by many vendors to update their services to keep up with what direct marketers must do to survive. And technology companies have a lot of work to do to understand the nuances of direct marketing. For vendors who want to grow and prosper in this field, if they haven’t already, they need to reinvent just like the direct marketing customers who they want to serve.