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The Demise of Direct Marketing?
It started seven-and-a-half years ago when a woman called Eliza Jones sent me an email enquiring whether I was comfortable with the size of my penis.
I remember reading her email in a state of absolute panic. I could not even recall meeting Ms Jones and, worse, it had never occurred to me before that there was anything wrong with the size of my penis. It was two days before one of my colleagues mentioned that he too had received a similar email and I finally relaxed.
By the end of that year, of course, I was more than used to receiving junk emails for penis-enlargement cream, hardcore web pages and money-making proposals from African dictators. Like the rest of the UK's growing online population, I became adept at ignoring any and all commercial emails.
Last week my thoughts returned to Eliza Jones after I received a spate of phone calls at home. Either our household has suddenly become very lucky, or telemarketing has recently increased. So far this week we have been called six times by a computer informing us that we have we have won some dubious prize and asking us to call back immediately to claim it. So frequent are these messages that we have started screening our calls using our answer machine.
The most probable reason for the rise in telemarketing is its forcible eviction from its traditional home: the US. In June of 2003 the Do Not Call Registry was launched in the US, and it has been a remarkable success. In its first week of operation, more than 10m households signed up to avoid telemarketing calls. The figure now stands at 63m+ US households, two-thirds of the country's population.
With the arrival of Google's Gmail service, the picture looks even worse for direct email. Gmail boasts the most advanced mail filters ever invented, enabling its users to block almost all commercial email. Indeed, at the annual Direct Marketing Association conference in the US, marketers were warned of the 'downside' of Gmail.
There is an inherent duality in the actions of direct marketers on both sides of the Atlantic. In public they trumpet the enormous sales returns as proof of the popularity of direct marketing. But in private there is a tacit acceptance that most consumers no longer welcome direct approaches and they must do all they can to scale their defences. Missed calls, blocked inboxes and kilos of unwanted mail are the direct result of an industry that has focused on attaining 2% response rates and ignored the residual effect on the remaining 98% of consumers.
If direct marketing is so welcomed by consumers, why, among the pie charts and graphs demonstrating the discipline's efficacy, have we never seen a poll showing its popularity? Instead of an underpublicised service to opt out of direct mail and telemarketing, why don't we offer customers the option of opting in?
The very rare examples of truly targeted direct marketing are now washed away amid the detritus of junk. The sad irony is that when direct marketing began as an industry, it looked on the cluttered, non-sponsored world of advertising as something to avoid. Direct approaches were going to be targeted, welcomed, relationship-building interactions with customers.
The demise of telemarketing in the US illustrates how that once-valid dream is becoming a nightmare of customer rejection.