Lee Odden

How Direct is Social Media Marketing?

Lee Odden     Online Marketing, Social Media

direct marketing social media I had nice back and forth with Brian Clark of copyblogger on Twitter last week about direct marketing and social media.  Ultimately it was more an issue of perspective and semantics but there were some great points about the intersection of direct marketing on the social web. I’ve been an advocate for several years as have others in the social media consulting space, that the social web is not a place for direct marketing. In the past I’ve even posted a fairly good comparison of the difference between direct marketing and social media marketing.

Brian’s position via our Twitter discussion was that social media is exactly that, marketing directly to consumers – a great point. My perspective is that social media is no place for direct marketing messages.

Companies that rush into a social network with sales offers is a classic example of an inappropriate use of direct marketing tactics on the social web. People don’t join social networks to be confronted with marketing messages, they join to be social with a likeminded community.

One successful method for brands to engage social communities from a marketing perspective is to make an effort to listen, participate and leverage email as a transition opportunity.  Email works very well in conjunction with social media for direct marketing purposes.

The marriage of social media relationship building and building up an email list is more congruent to direct marketing than most people think. I think what can make direct marketing work best on the social web is to exercise “give to get” in terms of providing value first. Generate attention and interest through interaction, participation and education. Blogs, social networks and other social apps that allow a community to interact with the brand are good examples.  As the brand provides value and trust, interested community members can move from casual social connections to joining an email list with added benefits. The key is transparency about what providing an email address means, in terms of receiving commercial messages and offers.

What do you think?

  • Can direct marketing be social?
  • Can direct marketing messages succeed on the social web?
  • What’s the difference between marketing directly and direct marketing?

John Jantsch of Duct Tape Marketing may be doing a podcast of Brian and I next week on this topic and I’ll be sure to Tweet a link to it if he does.

For those direct marketers reading this post, you might be interested in the DMA’s new Social Media Council – special interest group on LinkedIn to help educate direct marketers on social media best practices, share insights with others in the community.

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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. Avatar Claudio Gagliardini says

    “The marriage of social media relationship building and building up an email list is more congruent to direct marketing than most people think. I think what can make direct marketing work best on the social web is to exercise “give to get” in terms of providing value first.”

    I absolutely agree with your point, Lee. And I say more: social media is the easy way that companies should use to show their best and to be on the consumers side, not just another channel to “spam” their direct marketing messages. The companies should show their human face (more than one face, if possible), doing their best to be trustworthy and fair. Sorry for my English… 😉

    • Claudio, your English is great, thanks for the comment. What it comes down to, is companies need to invest in participation and creating something of value to earn customer trust. Then make it easy to “opt in” to a direct marketing/sales conversation.

      • I think the biggest thing to remember is that it’s a different environment. We expect and dare I say, want DM on television and Billboards. On-line we expect to be wooed through relationships and interactive “marketing”. Online we want to be a part of tribes and if that tribe leads us to purchasing something, so be it. It’s just a different environment and trying to act in one environment the way you act in another is plain old dumb.

  2. Avatar Mike Cichon says

    I agree that social media is typically not the best channel for direct marketing, and also that there is typically not much “social” in direct marketing. But under the right circumstances the timeliness and viral nature of tools like Twitter make it a good tactical tool for direct marketers. Dell proves this to be true — promoting the notion of exclusivity to their Twitter following. Also, I’ve noticed several local restaurants in my area (Silicon Valley) using Facebook for advertising and twitter for promotions and special reservation services. So, if the connection that companies make with their clientele via social media is specifically for the purpose of direct marketing (e.g., please sell to me and give me a deal), the two would seem to intersect.

    • Mike, regarding “So, if the connection that companies make with their clientele via social media is specifically for the purpose of direct marketing (e.g., please sell to me and give me a deal), the two would seem to intersect.”

      I agree, especially when the company is transparent about their intentions.

  3. Just because some people do social media marketing wrong by “rushing in with sales messages” does not mean it’s not direct marketing. It’s an evolved form of direct marketing (you and I both practice it), and it works.

    The traditional DM industry might not have a clue how to do it right, but that’s not our problem. 😉

    • It’s marketers period, that spew sales messages within social communities. SEOs and bloggers that monetize content especially. Those are digital/online marketing people more than DM.

      The DM industry as a whole doesn’t even know about social media yet.

      • When it comes to social media, I think there are stupid marketers and smart marketers, period.

        And the DM industry does know about social media, it’s just that most of them think it’s not worth it. Let them keep thinking that. 🙂

  4. Great points all together. I agree that social media should not be used directly as a place for direct marketing. However, the reality is larger corporations and agencies acting on behalf of clients will use it as such. I don’t think there is any way around that. We already see it with the spam out there on Twitter and some of the Fan pages on Facebook.

    • It’s unavoidable sure. There are plenty of opportunists that will push to see what pushes back without any need to build equity. If it works for them, salesy promoters will keep at it. If not, they’ll find something else.

  5. Avatar Chuck Franks says

    I just taught a class this morning and there was one lady who was very much not getting it. All she wanted was how do I make this work so I can push myself out there in front of everyone. I kept focusing on creating valuable content to be a thought leader in your field. I totally see her sending me a link about how she can solve my problems very soon on twitter of which I will ignore as I do with other spam and mass marketers. Just because others are doing it wrong doesn’t mean we all have too. I agree with Lee and Brian. Social Media is about socializing. If topics of work come up as part of a natural conversation that is very different than strategically planning to market using these sites. People will always be drawn toward authentic communication and recoil from fake prepackaged marketing. I never hide who and what I do but I don’t cram it down my friends throats on facebook who are there to escape from marketing and just be social. It kind of brings up the topic of social intelligence for me and knowing what is appropriate for each environment that you are in.

    • On an individual basis, people aren’t looking to market or be marketed to within social communities.

      Companies can provide useful content and experiences which can result in goodwill, branding and both direct and in-direct sales. Companies can market products and services via social channels, they just need to emphasize providing value and education first. Show customers how they can benefit from a product/service, show them all the interesting ways to use it and encourage feedback and even crowdsourcing for innovation.

      There’s nothing wrong with promoting and marketing on social channels as long as the brand has listened and become a participant first, is transparent about their intentions, the community is actually interested in it and there’s an emphasis on providing value – not just selling.

  6. I love this topic and these questions and the debates…love it.

    It is definitely hard to know where to draw the social media/direct marketing line. I tend to agree with Brian’s comment above that we’re dealing with and evolved form of marketing and it needs to be approached with an entirely different mindset, message and strategy – but I think that the fundamental marketing principles are still the same.

    By the way, what IS the difference between marketing directing and direct marketing?

    • Marketing directly to me, is creating a relationship on a 1 to 1 basis with customers.

      Direct marketing has been more about broadcasting offers to an audience – albeit segmented and with customized promotions.

  7. Tyler, I think it’s really the small businesses who benefit from the direct reach that social media marketing brings. Sure, Dell is doing a great job of it, but they were mavericks for going direct to consumer in the first place when computers are generally sold retail.

    People need to remember also that exact point… Dell is a direct marketer, GEICO is a direct marketer, every ecommerce site is a direct marketer, every small business with a blog or website that hopes to attract customers or clients online via a web form or phone call is a direct marketer.

    I understand that Lee is talking about the big scary junk mail and infomercial industry, but I have no interest in those people. I am, however, interested in helping people market directly to prospects using social media in a way that is respectful, that adds value, and frankly, that works.

  8. Hi Lee,

    I think you’ve pinpointed a major reason why companies are unsuccessful with direct marketing through social media, and that is not understanding (or ignoring) why people are there in the first place, which is to be social. The companies that have been successful have done so by being social themselves- interacting with customers and providing incentives for them to reciprocate.

    A Claudio- Il tuo inglese è molto bene, certamente migliore del mio italiano 🙂

    Greg @ iGoMogul

  9. Avatar Claudio Gagliardini says

    @Greg: Thanks, you’re very kind and your Italian is good too. “…certamente migliore del mio italiano” is much better than a great number of Italians would do 😉

  10. Lisa Barone has a great post on this topic as well: http://outspokenmedia.com/7v5w

  11. Avatar Neil O'Keefe says

    Just like anything in this world Social Media comes in many forms. Some of it is more business driven than others. Look at some of the top Tweeters out their: Obama,CNN, Ashton Kutcher – each with a very different message. Then you have Amazon MP3 and Zappos. Two brands addressing the medium with very different approaches.

    Social Media is most definitely a place for direct marketing, but make sure you are relevant or watch your friends and followers dwindle away.


    • Great observation and examples Neil. Thanks for the link to DMA’s Social Media Segment too.

    • And I think the reason they would dwindle away is because social media’s focus is on building relationships. Providing valuable information and services to pull in customers. And that valuable information is not product / service info that drive sales, but rather valuable information that will position the brand, product or service so that once the customers are at the crucial decision-making point the choice will be a no-brainer because the brand has remained top-of-mind thanks to its interactions with them via social media.

      Direct marketing’s focus in on pushing information drive conversion and purchases with incentives like coupons, discounts… Customer relationships like those that develop at the social media level are not the focus here. There really is no feedback loop. I think that’s the key difference.

      But I also agree with Lee in that it’s a matter of definitions and semantics. If you redefine direct marketing to fit the context of social media it changes the debate entirely.

  12. Avatar Anthony Bloch says

    I would rather receive direct messaging in a social media format like Twitter then in my email box. I find email marketing is abused and my mail box spammed with unsolicited messages that pile-up in my junk mail folder.
    Many companies disregard CanSpam regulations that require double-opt in procedures to be follwoed.

    Many times, I will be Spammed by some company that has me on alist just because I’m on a merchant email list for something unrelated to receiving marketing messages form that merchant.

    Social media sites like Twitter are fair game for direct messaging because the people who view your messages have to chose to follow you. If they choose to follow you, they know your intent, so they want to receive your marketing messages.

    If they don’t want your messaging they will choose not to follow you.

    For me it’s that simple.

  13. I agree with Brian Clark, “Just because some people do social media marketing wrong by “rushing in with sales messages” does not mean it’s not direct marketing. It’s an evolved form of direct marketing (you and I both practice it), and it works.”

    But I do think social media should not be used to spam with offers, isntead used to open dialogue with like minded folks, share knowledge (even about products), etc. Some companies create a group on Flickr, and that particular company isn’t spamming the members with brand new product offers. Instead the name of the company is up and that in itself is enough to a certain degree as this company has now engaged a community to revolve around it’s own name.

  14. Avatar Babette Burdick says


    Kudos again for hitting the nail on the head, especially when you say:
    “Companies that rush into a social network with sales offers is a classic example of an inappropriate use of direct marketing tactics on the social web.”

    I was reviewing my Twitter followers and drilling down on some of their chatter. One company looked like they apparently had asked any employee with a Twitter account to Twitter about a new engineering conversion chart that they were featuring hoping to reach any body, anywhere, anyhow.

    Just as there are rules of engagement for the Internet and website development best practices, so also are there rules for engagement in social marketing and networking.

    The above company (which shall remain nameless) jumped on the bandwagon without understanding who and what and why they were Twittering. And they are not alone. There are so many people hawking their wears via Twitter – even seasoned professionals and thought leaders – that it cheapens their message. And their Personal Brand.

    Is it possible to over-Twitter? It’s important to seek a balance between announcing sales offers and services and sounding like a street vendor.

    Time to take a step back and reconsider objectives, deliverables and just plain style.

  15. Babette is on the money. Some of my clients twitter, some well and some, like me terribly poorly. One lady I have is a marketer and she absolutely says nothing about her business, yet her “content” now brings her more daily visitors to her site than her brand name searches on Google. So there is definately something to it, but getting the right balance is about as difficult as working out if the twitter visitors convert directly or indirectly into sales or work…or is word of mouth on the internet a new passive time bomb. The longer you are around and in someones head, the more likely they are to drop your name to someone who will use you?

  16. Stick with the major search engines. When people are looking for goods or services, more often than not, they will use a search engine to find it, not facebook, myspace or youtube.

  17. People seem to forget that blogs are social media too. Maybe it makes more sense in that context.

  18. Avatar Chuck Bothe says

    Social media (like Facebook) will provide innovative people with an entirely new platform with which to launch multi-million dollar businesses. How these innovative people will accomplish it will be new and today’s best practices will have little if anything to do with how they did it. I have some ideas on how this is going to happen (very soon, I might add). The better question to ask is what is possible now that Facebook, for example, exists? This is the question people who will make millions of dollars are asking and acting on now.

    I think all of you guys and gals are barking up the wrong tree. That is, you are looking where you always look and it ain’t there!

  19. I agree marketting to get on google is what really matter however social media will help you to be higher in the google results it depends on your market really

  20. Avatar Alan Kang says

    Great informative point. Yeah, social marketing and direct marketing looks a bit same, but i think, web 2 social marketing is more convenient, building relationship for long term and client will be more free to express themselves compared to direct marketing (which mostly become more like forceful sales).

  21. Avatar Ben Stier says

    IMO To say that companies using Direct Marketing tactics are unaware of Social Media is untrue. These companies are well aware of social media tactics, I see it every day in my face book, free twitter apps, and blog’s featuring network advertiser bar’s, ads piled upon ad’s, most from these folks. They just use it the way it works for them, just like I (and most of us) use it in a way it works for us.

    Sure, they might not be aware of all the tertiary benefits of the soc media highway, they are however aware of the benefit to DM.

  22. Avatar Stephanie Valentine says

    Hmmm … the jury is still out on that. Feels like we are way in the bleeding edge early adopter stage and that a lot of bumbling is going on. Sure, I think direct marketing can be social, but like people, there aren’t that many that can do it with the required finesse. Most people will lose patience with the indirect nature of social media before long and jump the gun with a scammy approach. I’d love to see it done well, but haven’t except with a few exceptional people who manage to maintain personal relationships with about 5,000 people. Highly unusual, don’t you think?

  23. Blogs are social tools, they should not be used for marketing in my opinion. 🙁

    • I disagree… I think people can use blogs for marketing if they want to. To be a true medium of free speech, people should be able to say what they want on blogs, and advertising products is one of the things people can want to say. And it’s effective. Spreading marketing through social channels is the best way to do it, if it can be pulled off, and with the entry cost for this being so small, why shouldn’t small businesses try it? AdWido, for example, enables people to cheaply build up exposure for their videos, products, and websites.