Direct Marketing (Re)Defined

Andrea Fryrear on Advertising

If you believe the internet, direct marketing could be many things.

direct marketing defined

Direct marketing’s definition may seem very fluid, but in reality, it’s a fixed, highly valuable marketing approach. It has a particular history that lends it to particular applications in the Information Age.

It’s time to bring direct marketing out of its confusing quagmire, and return it to its rightful place at the right hand of marketers everywhere.

The Origins of Direct Marketing

Lester Wunderman coined the term “direct marketing” in 1961 during a speech to the Hundred Million Club of New York. Members of this group were serious players in mail-order advertising, and Wunderman’s speech expressed discontent with that model’s limitations.

He characterized direct market this way: “a new and more efficient method of selling, based on scientific advertising principles and serviced by increasingly more automated warehousing, shipping and collection techniques.”

While this was his first use of the term, it didn’t take off as a concept until he revisited it in 1967 during a speech at MIT.

Drawing on Kantian ideas about the sanctity of mankind and intimate dialogue concepts from Buber’s I and Thou, Wunderman gave birth to modern marketing during that speech.

His talk, titled “Direct Marketing — The New Revolution in Selling,” drew sharp distinctions between the mass produced, mass advertising mindset that came out of the industrial revolution and the emerging, individualized desires of the revolutionary new culture he saw around him.

Mass produced goods, he argued, are:

“goods produced without orders for customers unknown. Disposing of that inventory required mass distributors and retailers who would buy the finished products in bulk and then try to sell them. General advertising tried to persuade these consumers to buy these mass products, and mass persuasion soon replaced traditional, individualized service.”

Wunderman’s solution: putting the producer of goods back into direct contact with the consumer. Therefore, direct marketing.

Modern Direct Marketing: Conversations with Real People


Not This

 direct marketing is indirect marketing rev

Modern direct marketing is, as Wunderman himself has said, the fulfillment of his original vision of reestablishing the dialogue between the producer and the consumer. It is based on data-driven, scientific principles and fueled by increasingly automated systems.

Simply put, direct marketing is any form of marketing communication that creates, nurtures, or relies on a direct relationship with a customer.

Even more simply, if you know precisely who will be consuming your message, you’re using direct marketing.

Direct Marketing Examples

Email: Email goes to a specific person.

SMS Marketing: Messages go to a particular person’s phone.

Telemarketing: You have to call a specific phone number.

Social Media: Only when you are speaking directly to an individual’s account, i.e. direct messaging, commenting, etc.

Influencer Marketing: To a certain degree, because you are marketing your brand to a particular influencer. They will most likely not use direct marketing themselves.

Direct Mail: As long as you’re sending something to a real human, and not just any warm body at an address.

Event Marketing: Having a booth that lets you talk to individuals would be direct marketing.

Video Marketing: Relevant videos sent via email to a customer is direct marketing.

Not Direct Marketing Examples

TV Ads: Anybody could see the ad

Online Ads: You can target ads, but not to a specific person.

Search Engine Optimization: You try to bring in all sorts visitors, not an individual

Content Marketing: You can write to personas, but not to unique people

Social Media: General activity like tweeting, posting updates, etc. doesn’t reach individual people

Affiliate Marketing: No way to know precisely who is seeing your ads

Event Marketing: A general sponsorship would not be direct

Video Marketing: Posting videos on a third party site like YouTube is not direct marketing

Print Advertising: Anybody could see a print ad

Is there a marketing channel we left off that you think is/is not direct marketing? Throw it in the comments and we’ll get it added.

Confusion About Direct Marketing 

From the start people were unclear about how direct marketing differed from mail order advertising, and the proliferation of internet commentary has compounded these initial misunderstandings. Wunderman, although still involved in the advertising and marketing worlds, actively clarifying inaccurate definitions or publishing ebooks to guide us. Nonetheless, it’s his ideas at the root of this powerful concept. That’s why our definition is grounded in those principles, and why we took the time to outline the term’s beginnings.

Another big reason why people get confused about direct marketing is that many strategies could be direct, depending on the level of personalization that’s included. You can see in the list above that event marketing, for example, could be direct marketing if you have personalized messaging in place. So if you just have a booth with swag and some salespeople, you’re not using direct marketing. But if your booth has a badge reader that scans my badge, knows my industry, and provides a particular packet of information, it’s much closer to direct marketing.

How Lester Wunderman’s 50 Year Old Concept Should Guide Your Marketing Today

direct marketing quote wunderman

In his speech at MIT that launched direct marketing into the general consciousness, Wunderman outlined a vision of direct marketing as “a system of interactive transactions that would restore a measure of dialogue and human scale to the way we made, sold, and bought things. ”Your customers crave this interactivity. They want the traditional, individualized service that was once the only way to buy and sell anything (we’re talking pre-industrial revolution here). Direct marketing helps us establish and maintain these connections to our customers.

We may have access to reams of data that Wunderman and his colleagues could only dream of 40 years ago, but consumers have been empowered as well:

“The Internet is providing consumers with the means to take many of the initiatives that used to be the exclusive domain of marketers. As a result, we have to learn to listen as hard and creatively as possible”