Lee Odden

Direct Marketing vs Social Media Marketing

Thanks to the response received (@gyutae @AlbertMaruggi @AnnBernard @briansolis @martinbowling) from a Twitter post (follow here) on the topic of social marketing vs direct marketing, this post invites your opinion.

In a recent strategy session, some colleagues and I were discussing a promotion where one position was to focus on a direct marketing approach and another position involved social media, networks and communities. Compared to direct marketing efforts (snail mail, DRTV, email, etc) where an offer is created based on what the company wants to sell, a social marketing effort focuses more on involving communities with creating the offer as well as promoting it.

What would a direct marketing offer in this situation look like?

  • Develop top level messaging
  • Research and build an email list
  • Acquire snail mail lists and segment
  • Create and implement a series of email offers to the list with landing pages
  • Create and implement a series of direct mail pieces
  • Setup and run PPC campaign(s) with landing pages
  • Craft story and press releases
  • Research publications for planned stories and journalists covering the topic
  • Distribute optimized press releases via wire services
  • Pitch story to industry and regional publications, editors/journalists
  • Leverage coverage from pitching as part of final email promotions
  • Solicit feedback from those signing up and use as testimonials for subsequent promotions

The list could go on and on really, depending on the budget, timeline and objectives. From the perspective of a traditional marketer, it seems pretty logical, right? It’s a straightforward marketing campaign based on developing an offer, defining a target audience and creating a series of messages intended to communicate the offer and convert. It also uses PR to augment direct marketing efforts as well as leveraging positive feedback for subsequent promotions.

While the above overview marketing plan is pretty standard, tried and tested, it runs contrary in many ways to the kind of online marketing agencies like ours are increasingly becoming committed to: Social Media Marketing.

So, what would a social media marketing focused promo plan look like as an alternative to the direct marketing promotion above? There is an assumption with a social media promotion that there is already involvement with the social communities involved – profile(s), network of friends, content submission, voting and participation.

  • Monitor discussion on social communities and networks for key conversations, keywords and topics
  • Identify top concerns relevant to what the company is promoting and develop messaging for solution
  • Identify influentials in the social communities, bloggers and authorities – ask them their opinion
  • Identify media types most often used with topics and communities – text, video, image, podcast as well platforms for communication: blog posts, comments, microblogging, status updates, social network notes, social news and bookmarking and as possible, direct messaging and IM
  • Create messaging specific to media type and platform as way of sharing information about the offer
  • Create content destinations that explain the offer and that also offer the opportunity to interact, share opinions and comments – blog posts, video, event pages on social networks (like a landing page, but focused on being informative and encouraging discussion, not salesey)
  • Reach out to influentials on a one to one basis, recognizing them for sharing their opinion, explaining the offer and your goals – ask them to join in in spreading the good word. Explain what’s in it for them and what’s in it for the community.
  • Monitor the communications that result in the most signups and provide feedback on progress
  • Offer influential bloggers a “free pass” to blog the event or a preview of what’s being offered
  • Recognize participation and contribution to reaching goals
  • Continue to engage interested participants and communities

Seems like a lot of work and possibly too complicated to a traditional direct marketer. But to those involved with social media and social communities, it’s familiar territory. Focusing on developing solutions based on what the audience wants, then involving the community in developing and promoting creates evangelists for the promotion. Recognizing participation energizes the community and can multiply the speed and breadth of message distribution, discussion and action.

Social marketing invests in social communities with useful content/solutions as well as participation and recognition. That investment delivers long term dividends far beyond a one time promotional program using direct marketing tactics.

If the budget, timeline and resources warrant it, a combination of both sets of tactics can be very appropriate. It makes no sense to ignore traditional media in favor of blogger relations for example. Conversely, there may not be time or budget to develop relationships with multiple communities.

It’s a pretty elegant promotion that involves appropriate aspects of direct response as well as social promotion as long as they are relevant and the messaging works together.

What’s your opinion? Do direct marketing and social marketing need to be at odds with each other? Are they mutually exclusive tactics? In what ways can they best work together? Examples would be very much appreciated.

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Lee Odden About Lee Odden

@LeeOdden is the CEO of TopRank Marketing and editor of Online Marketing Blog. Cited for his expertise by The Economist, Forbes and the Wall Street Journal, he's the author of the book Optimize and presents internationally on B2B marketing topics including content, search, social media and influencer marketing. When not at conferences, consulting, or working with his talented team, he's likely running, traveling or cooking up something new.


  1. Lee

    I think it depends on who you are targeting and what you are marketing but clearly SM is playing an ever growing part in the mix. I am still amazed at how many ‘experienced’ marketers still go with the ‘safe’ option of doing what they’ve always done.

    I have been invited by a client to attend a ‘How can we sell more to our retail customers?’ rather than ‘How can we help our customers become better buyers?’

    Enjoying your blog.


  2. Interesting article! Many companies are very apprehensive to rely on social media marketing as it’s not quite as measurable as direct marketing but it IS the future of marketing so they must embrace it and soon we’ll have endless studies on the effects and benefits of it as a whole.

  3. Lee,

    Great description in this post, kudos. I think the reason social marketing is so powerful is that it really taps into the community and understands the behavior, whereas DM is so reliant on information that doesn’t have the same power.

    They aren’t mutually exclusive tactics. In this case the DM should be formatted after the social research and altered to complement the ongoing online presence, IMHO.

    Great stuff.

  4. It’s been my experience that the two can work very nicely together. It’s like anything else, when you approach your marketing from a holistic standpoint, synergies should develop. Search, SMM and other online efforts should be a part of the overall mix. It’s not a zero sum game.

    Where budget is a consideration and choices must be made then it should be based on which tactics are going to give you the best ROI. You can waste time, money, and effort in both Social Marketing and Direct Marketing.

  5. Avatar James Hipkin says

    Everybody isn’t responsive to direct mail, nor are all the potential consumers participating in Social Media (SM). That said, SM can supports the beginning and the end of an integrated approach:

    – On the front end, it’s a great place to vet the sales proposition

    – On the back end, it’s a great place to build community among best customers

  6. Thanks Peter, your comments are appreciated. There is no doubt a major paradigm shift for traditional direct marketers moving into the web 2.0 space. A book I’d highly recommend for those in this position is Mike Moran’s “Do it Wrong Quickly“.

  7. Robert and Jenn, I agree Direct Marketing and Social Marketing can indeed work well together. It takes an understanding of each to make that happen though. A DM perspective towards engaging social networks can be disastrous.

    I’m also very much on board with the holistic approach. That’s why we’ve been TopRank “Online Marketing” and “Online Marketing” Blog for the past 8 and 4 years respectively, not “SEO” or “social media” or anything else that’s specific.

    A holistic online marketing approach considers the breadth of possible options and matches them with client objectives, resources and promotion channels.

  8. It definitely depends on your budget, manpower, time, your audience – and your company culture. It’s great to do both, and each approach has different pros and cons.

    Direct marketing – easier to control message, test marketing tactics and measure ROI. Marketing initiatives are directly tied to conversions.

    Social marketing – ROI is more difficult to measure, messaging aimed at building community, community reluctant to being sold to, thus its difficult to tie conversions social marketing efforts. Content is viral and user generated, but marketers lose control of their marketing message in the favor of shared dialog.

    A traditional brick and mortar company with an older target audience may be more hard-pressed to invest in marketing initiatives that have no clear-cut ROI. A new tech startup targeting teens and young adults may want to invest in viral web apps and establish a strong presence in the online communities where their audience hangs out.

    In the end, you still have to choose where it makes sense to invest more of your marketing dollars.


    Lorna Li
    Green Marketing 2.0

  9. Hi Lee,

    Direct marketing is a way to reach a select group of people to convey a certain message (of course many view it as spam, which is a problem). I think the key differentiator between direct and social, is that social media marketing is (or should be) based on relationships that you are building with your consumers. It’s about getting to know and really understand your users. That being said I don’t think the two need to be at odds with each other.

    What if you built a social media constituency and then used your relationships to direct market to them? Of course it’s not that simple, you would have to direct market in a way that doesn’t seem spammy.

    What if you used direct marketing to inform or build your social media marketing constituency? Send out direct marketing information letting your users know about the new social media group that they might be interested in.

    ROI for social media is a bit trickier to measure, but as I mentioned during the dinner we had: think of all of the friends in your life, how much would you pay to keep them in your life? That is how we should be thinking about social media. Not about how much we can get but about how much we can give.

    Direct marketing and social media marketing are only 2 aspects of marketing, what about SEO, what about PPC, what about PR? For a marketing strategy to be truly effective.
    I would be curious to see an overall marketing strategy or case study, of a company that shows how it integrates all of these things into a complete overall marketing strategy.

    great post Lee,


  10. Lee, I totally agree that you need to understand both to make them work together – great point and great post! I really enjoyed it.

  11. Lee great post, I enjoyed the read.

    I just finished a proposal for complete integration, DM (no snail mail), SM, SEO Affiliate Marketing and PPC. The proposal also includes widgets, widget syndication, blog onsite, blog syndication, video optimization, and more. The proposal contains a big line item around strategy. If you don’t think things through with the client, your campaign will fail. In my professional opinion, if any marketing activity hits the internet, there is an SEO benefit. I did a test where I created a video account using my primary campaign keyword; and that video comes up for the keyword. If you search on my name in Google, I’m taking over the search results using these social media spaces (my name isn’t very competitive). But overall, social media is a powerful tool and it’s dangerous as well. While it can compliment a DM email campaign (add to FaceBook, digg it, etc.), SM has more legs and continues to grow. I’m putting my marketing dollars in widgets; widgetbox.com integrates with SM and blogs and if the widget is cool enough, it can sell products and create some good organic traffic.

  12. Thanks Jacob, great insights. There are indeed challenges to measuring the effect of social media engagement but as that channel matures and clients become better educated, it will be easier to identify.

    Anne, that sounds like quite a proposal! Hopefully it closes and can become a great case study for DM/SM integration.

  13. Avatar Kim Danno says

    Great article Lee!

    We just worked with a new direct response company called Viralytics Media (http://www.ViralyticsMedia.com) who has a great tool for measuring direct marketing initiatives inside social networking. Anyone interested in this sort of thing should get in touch with them


  14. Direct Marketing is easy if you know who your targets are. But it usually cost a lo compared to social media marketing. Also direct marketing is only good for a small area unlike in social media marketing wherein the coverage area is greater and wider.

  15. I have absolutely no experience with either method, but it seems as though social marketing would be the clear winner. It relates more to the individual, and in most cases the user/surfer will discover your profile/page/whathaveyou. Compare this to direct marketing where you’re hunting down and attacking your potential user. Which one would you prefer?

  16. I am working on building traffic to my online store for tie-dye clothing. I am working on marketing through social networks, but as a small business owner, this is very time consuming. Traditional marketing is more costly, but I plan to incorporate some of these tactics for a shorter term response. I think, in the long run, social networking might work out better due to the target audience already having an interest in the blogs, etc. that they are reading, whereas, many people have trained themselves to ignore flyers, advertisements etc. I don’t think social networking has to be at odds with traditional marketing because they both are very different and come about marketing in different ways which will most likely have a positive affect on a greater number of people.

  17. while my experience is limited as I am newer, I learn a lot by reading your blog. With my short experience I belive it takes both to reach out to all areas. Takes it all to make a whole.

  18. Direct Marketing is easy if you know who your targets are. But it usually cost a lo compared to social media marketing.

  19. Having spent a lot of time in the direct marketing field, I really don’t think that this is a VS. situation – rather an opportunity to educate marketers how to connect campaigns between both worlds. I think this is actually more true in the European marketplace, but they seem to be more accepting of the social media learning curve.

  20. Great article. I would be interested in your take on how social marketing traffic converts. While I have doubled my traffic with social marketing and upped my Google rankings I do not see a high conversion rate.

    Also since you blog I think you would me interested in how Google really ranks blogs, way different than static websites.


    Cheers! = Chris Lang

  21. Chris, social media traffic isn’t meant for conversion. Exposure on social media channels gives exposure to publishers and blogs, should they re-post or write about what they experienced, will indeed send traffic that converts.

    The blog ranking post is as much speculation as toolbar data and Google Analytics data. There’s no way to prove it. There’s also no reason not to attract plenty of RSS subscribers. It creates non-Google dependent traffic, which is a very good thing.

  22. Exactly Barry and Donna, they can work together.

    Kim, I am not familiar with that company but will check them out.

  23. Fascinating post Lee. As with a few other comments, social media has increased traffic for me, but we will only see over a longer period of time how effective SM really is. DM can quote chapetr and verse when it comes to stats, but then again they have the history. It will be interesting to see where SM is at in a few years time.

  24. See what this former auto boss has to say about how his industry sector is failing to make good use of social media techniques.


  25. Avatar Walt Goshert says

    Interesting post Lee

    Seems like the key is the transition point from building relationships via social marketing to exposing these people(prospects) to your direct marketing funnel.

    A smooth and transparent transition is crucial or you’ve pretty much blown the social relationship you’ve built.

    If the transition is too early, too hyped, too awkward, your killer direct marketing no doubt suffers.

    Secondly, sure you can test and track the metrics on the direct marketing side. Now, as marketers, we need tools like the previously mentioned ViralyticMedia to make sure ROI metrics are in place on the social marketing side.

    Hey, if the numbers work, why not blend the two?


  26. Avatar Michael Gama says

    Good points, though I believe we need to be careful, as well, in our embrace of “new media.” The reason here is that the seduction is to confuse the (new) media with the actual “thing.” Years ago I sat in countless meetings in which the new phenomenon of the Internet was being pitched. The fervor approached white heat proportions. I often found myself asking uncomfortable questions such as, “But where do the profits come from…how do we get paid?” The answer too often came back: “It’s the INTERNET!” (I discovered this to be related to the old saw, “If the music’s too loud, then you’re too old!”)

    Fortunately, though bruised we’re wiser now.

    So, as we move to embrace and employ strategies such as social media (and the as yet unforseen tools to follow) we always need to remember what brought us to the party in the first place — the customer and the making and maintenance of a long-term, reciprocal relationships. That’s static, all the other stuff can change. Once again, Nicholas Negroponte is proven correct: we need to imagine and anticipate how our products and services (and communications channels) may change once they’re digitized. But, of course, Theodore Levitt before him, remains correct and fundamental, as well: customer-centricity vs. product-centricity is the key to success.

    Finally, I see social media as simply an extension or evolution of traditional direct marketing, and one which simply moves direct and one-to-one (reciprocal) marketing a major and exciting step forward. Again, the same stuff, just digitized. (See Being Digital, Negroponte and Levitt, The Marketing Imagination).

    (Really) finally — I really like your description of both the DM and social marketing steps — very helpful. But remember, there’s also a demographic element here in that for some cohorts an exercise in social marketing would be an expensive waste — and similarly, traditional DM marketing to their children (or grandchildren) could be a parallel waste!

    Thanks for a very informative article.


  27. Thanks Michael.

    Demographic is tougher nut to crack online than with offline marketing because the quality is often unreliable.

    Behavioral marketing is where online and social media advertising innovations are making up for poor demographic targeting performance.

  28. Hi,
    I’m a research fellow at the readership cross media content, university of applied sciences Utrecht, the Netherlands. Can you please give me a plausible definition of the word ‘breath’ in relation to social media?

    Kees Winkel

  29. Avatar Amy Bamberger says

    Market to people the way they want to be marketed to…oh, you don’t know.

    SoMed and DM work together to create a 360 program. Start with direct mail (still the only tool that is almost 100% touched and scanned by recipients) – with the call to action sending to a purl or micro site or BRC maybe. Email follows once it’s in-home. How did the recipient respond – link on email? go to purl? phone? no response?

    If they went to the purl or link we have started the 2-way conversation with them (and every move is trackable). They get to give us feedback and tell us how they prefer to be marketed to. As we build the community information maybe an on-line community gets built maybe not. The information or lack of sends a triggered response based on logic and the circle starts again. We learn more and more as we go along and are getting and giving better information.

    In talking with agencies, I’ve found that the DM group and the New Media groups are in different silos and don’t talk – a mistake. I suspect they don’t know how to talk to each other. It’s our job to be that bridge.

    Kind of simplistic description but it’s too easy to get caught up in the ugly stuff. That’s what developers are for. Keep the carbs (aka sugar) and red bull stocked – that’s what I say.


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