By Steph Jones

Direct response marketing (and social media)

March 28th, 2023
10 min read

If you’re interested in marketing, you will likely have come across the phrase ‘direct response marketing’. It’s a phrase that has become increasingly associated with digital marketing and, especially, social media marketing. However, there seems to be a degree of confusion about direct response marketing; what it is, where it came from, and how to do it today.

Here’s your simple guide to direct response marketing.

So here’s something you might be wondering:

Direct response marketing is a new thing because of the internet, right?

Not really. It’s just evolved a little. 

Direct response marketing is defined as any form of marketing designed to create an immediate action from the consumer.

But that could account for virtually all types of marketing, so we need a bit more clarity.

The ‘immediate action’ should be to make a purchase or, at least, make the initial step towards making a purchase. Furthermore, that action should be measurable and directly attributed to the specific piece of marketing.

So it’s clear why social media can represent a form of direct response marketing. A company can post content to millions of people, some of whom will click a trackable link and make a purchase; all within the space of a few minutes. But that’s just today’s version.

A TV ad offering a one-time or limited period deal is an example of this style of marketing that is decades-old. Consumers are encouraged to immediately call a specific phone number to make a purchase – a direct, trackable response. This is exactly the same for the corresponding radio and print ads (even older!). Since the internet arrived, marketers have used special URLs as well as phone numbers to track sales from these more traditional methods.

Those automated PPI calls? Direct response marketing.

Door-to-door selling? Direct response marketing.

This is not a modern phenomenon, at least, not ‘social media’ modern!

If you’d like to brush up on the origins of direct response marketing, as per usual, Wikipedia is a good place to go to learn more.

So it’s obvious why direct response marketing (DRM) is so popular from a marketer’s perspective. We can accurately track the ROI of the campaign and get almost real-time feedback on its success.

This helps marketers be super dynamic in their strategy and it’s easy to show the client or their senior the impact they’ve made. What’s more to love? And more to the point:

Why the hell would anyone do anything but direct response marketing?

Well, not all purchases are made on the spur of the moment. Furthermore, consumers don’t just respond to every ad they see by buying something.

Even in 2017, relationships must be nurtured, brands must be built, and trust must be earned.

It’s pretty much the same reason you hang up on those PPI calls and tell the door-to-door salesperson you’re eating dinner. At 3:15pm.

You don’t want to be sold to. You don’t want to make a decision on the spot. You don’t want to buy from (or even speak with) someone you don’t know.

We’ll come back to this later. For now:

Is social media marketing direct response marketing?

The tl;dr version is ‘yes and no’. Which I know is a total cop-out.

Much of social media marketing, or how we perceive it, is DRM. You post something, someone clicks a link, they then decide whether to buy from you or not. However, that sequence of events doesn’t sum up social media very well. The element of social media marketing that is DRM tends to be the paid advertisements and other ‘self-promotional’ content.

As we’ve discussed many times before, folks aren’t too fond of being sold to on social media. This means that DRM where we’re defining ‘response’ as ‘buying something’ comprises only a small proportion of the content shared on social media.

The majority of social media activity actually contributes to a more traditional, longer-term form of brand building and brand awareness. Incredibly, this is what people used to see social media as – something that was purely for brand awareness, that couldn’t possibly generate any tangible ROI.

It seems we’ve come almost full circle.

An improved understanding of the role social media can play, in addition to social media marketers and the platforms, themselves, trying desperately to demonstrate the tangible nature of results, has created an impression that social media is almost the definition of DRM.

Clearly, it is not.

However, something that exacerbates the perception that social media is all about the direct action is what content Facebook chooses to show users. Facebook strangles the organic reach of business accounts on the platform. This means that in order for brands to get their content in front of their target audience, they need to promote it with some advertising spend.

However, if cold hard cash is going into the Zuck‘s back pocket, most marketers want to see something come back out. This means that brands have a tendency to boost the posts that are more direct and self-promotional in nature, in the hope of making sales and a postive return on investment.

This has far-reaching implications since the vast majority of the commercial content Facebook users see, will be towards the direct end of the spectrum. This skews everyone’s perception.

So what about the alternatives?

Indirect marketing

There is a great deal of middle ground with social media. There’s action that is direct but won’t result in a purchase right here, right now. There’s also action that won’t have any immediate impact and will be almost impossible to track, but will have a very direct impact on some users’ buying decisions.

Examples include social media competitions where users must take an immediate action to enter, like engaging with a post or entering their email address to win. These are super useful for increasing reach and brand awareness, but we also collect valuable customer data which could generate sales leads in the future.

Aside from general brand awareness and direct response marketing, social media has a huge role to play in the influence of people’s decisions. Essentially, securing great reviews or having influential followers might be the difference between someone making a purchase with you or a competitor.

We know that it’s never been easier for consumers to research a purchase and that the majority of them use social media or review sites like TripAdvisor or Trust Pilot to make an informed decision. In these cases, a series of actions in the past are now having a very direct, real-time impact on purchasing decisions. This is due to consumers using social media and the internet to thoroughly explore their options.

For brands with bigger budgets, both at the content production level and the promotion level, promoting a wider variety of their content enables them to entertain the audience, without needing to sell, sell, sell in every post. Sharing a good blend of value-adding and self-promotional content works best if every single post is boosted.

Building trust to maximise direct responses

Direct response marketing is most effective when done by a trusted brand or in a trusted environment. Once upon a time, having a TV ad slot created all the trust you needed – you’ve got enough customers to pay for the production and air time of a TV ad. Global brands with a track record of success and millions of customers? No problem – there’s trust there.

That’s why businesses heavily invest in advertisements that are not examples of DRM. Look at marketing examples where the campaign is brand building, with more medium to long-term benefits. A really obvious example is a “coming soon” advert for a movie that isn’t released for several weeks. No direct action to make a purchase can be taken by the viewer and they’re not expected to. The idea is that when that movie is out, they’ll consider seeing it.

Traditional print or TV ads may not be designed to inspire action, they may be more about branding. Open a glossy magazine and you’re likely to see double-page spreads of fancy watches or jewellery – some of these could be once in a lifetime purchases – the ads’ purpose is to build the brand, not inspire immediate action.

So as a smaller or lesser-known brand, you need to go further than the big brands to build trust. To make things a little harder, you might not have the multi-million-dollar marketing budget of the big players.

And this is really when digital marketing works its magic, and we can leverage social media for both direct, immediate responses and longer-term, indirect responses. This includes the elements of ZMOT we mentioned, as well as related activity like blogging, link-building, or even influencer outreach. These are digital forms of marketing that have a long-term benefit to the business but are not necessarily designed to have a distinctive, measurable impact on sales.

The bottom line

Some elements of social media marketing are direct response marketing, however, many of the aims and benefits of social media are far more traditional. As a proportion of the content shared, less direct, brand-building content far outweighs the direct hooks that attract sales or enquiries.

The reality is that social media has become the environment that many humans spend a lot of their time. This means the nature of the relationships individuals have with social networks are deep and varied. This is why an array of marketing tactics have shown to be successful on social media.

As far as direct response marketing goes, the fact that we can so accurately track such activities on social media does not mean it is the definition (or created) it. Far more pure forms of direct response marketing can be found in the form of email or text marketing and telesales.

Steph Jones.
Steph Jones

Head of Social

A hands-on Head of Social, with extensive experience across Charity, Retail and eCommerce, both agency side and client side, with brands such as WWF, Virgin Pure and Purity Brewing. Steph considers all facets of the customer journey through social and paid media, as well as creating engaging content in line with the business goals to capture attention and convert audiences.