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Direct Marketing: Push vs. Pull

When you consider the psychology of direct marketing, you realize that it is fundamentally different from outside-in marketing. Leaving junk mail and other spammy methods aside, the best direct marketers use facts about the target audience to try to understand what they need and push it to them. In that respect, it is outside-in, right? Well, not exactly.

For example, James recently moved and had to notify the U.S. Postal Service of his change of address. When he opened the envelope from the Postal Service, it was full of ads for home improvement centers, insurance firms, and other businesses commonly frequented by those who have recently moved. After he moved, he received the same ads in direct mail that had been included in the envelope. Not only did those companies know he probably would need to do business with companies like the ones in the ads, but they knew how to reach him most effectively, by repeating the ads multiple times. In psychology, this is called priming—repeating the same message multiple times to get a desired result. Direct marketers have used this technique successfully for decades.

The key difference between outside-in and (well-done) direct marketing is in the word push you probably noticed. Direct marketers push messages to those who are somewhat likely to be interested in them. They don’t wait for the audience to tell them that they are in fact interested. They are willing to concede that they might get only 1% response for their direct mail campaigns. But, even if they do, they will get a solid return on investment. So they push messages and hope for the best. In the process, they effectively spam the other 99% of their audience. And they don’t care.

The reason they get the ROI is that you are an audience that is somewhat captive to their messages. You can’t choose not to receive your mail. When you open your mail box, there might be a check or an important letter or card. There will also be the direct mail pieces. You can choose to recycle them instantly, but you must at least look at them. In short, you must “opt out” of them. A small percentage of users don’t opt out. These are the ones who give direct marketers their ROI.

Digital marketers have tried the push model from the beginning. But it never worked very well. Why not? Because web users are not a captive audience. They “opt in” to only the information they want to consume. You could say that opting out, such as deleting an email or abandoning a web page, is a lot like recycling a piece of direct mail. The difference is that you can keep sending direct mail to the same customer even after he has recycled 100 pieces, hoping to hit the mark with some of them, but web users are always moving and seeking information rather than waiting motionless for information to find them. It’s always been called “surfing” for a reason. Automated spam filters constantly evolve for a reason.

Other techniques can cross the line from “welcome” to “spam,” also. Readers believe that they have developed banner blindness and do not even see display ads. But marketers now retarget ads by showing display ads informed by searches and other activity. And people do seem to notice them, whether they click on them or complain about them. Whether these ads are “welcome” or “spam” depends on how relevant they are to the reader, but they are at least more relevant than random display ads.

Once a digital marketer violates the trust of the audience, which is based on allowing them to opt in rather than forcing them to opt out, they never come back. Over time, relying solely on push marketing in the digital world is a losing proposition, as your user base slowly dries up. Websites become ghost towns. Email newsletters end up in spam folders. And social platforms die.

While all this might seem obvious to some people, others might reasonably object, saying, “One man’s pushing is another’s sharing. If the content is good, why can’t you push it?” And that is the real question here. What kind of sharing violates the trust of the audience, and what kind increases it? Every marketer must make the decision between spamming and sharing and must realize that spamming does have real consequences.

It’s not that push marketing never works. And we aren’t trying to get you to stop all push marketing. We are trying to persuade you that employing solely push techniques causes you to send more and more emails, to buy more and more display ads, and to blanket your audience with more and more interruptions. If 99% of them are not interested, eventually your audience will find ways to tune it all out. That said, it is also true that you need to prime your audience to help them discover you. If your content is high quality, sharing it will be welcome—and that’s what you are aiming for.

If you learn what your audience needs and pull them into your experiences through search and social media, you will develop a loyal audience—and ultimately get better results. Users who are allowed to “opt in” to messages are prequalified as interested parties. They will spend some of their precious time and attention exploring your site to get answers. Once you gain their trust, you can begin to subtly influence them to try (and ultimately to buy) your products and services. We usually refer to this content-first approach as content marketing.

Unlike push techniques that must start by getting attention from your audience, pull techniques require paying attention to your audience. Because you can’t pay attention to every single audience member, you analyze data as a way to know them. That’s the essence of outside-in marketing—using data to focus your content marketing.

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