Best Practices For Online Direct-Response Marketing

Economically, 2011 is shaping up to be a challenging year. Key measures are all trending down, and global equity markets are in retreat. But this doesn’t mean that we stop marketing. Instead, it underscores the need to ensure that our direct-response efforts are as effective as possible.


Economically, 2011 is shaping up to be a challenging year. Key measures are all trending down, and global equity markets are in retreat. But this doesn’t mean that we stop marketing. Instead, it underscores the need to ensure that our direct-response efforts are as effective as possible. 

In support of greater effectiveness, I have listed five key best practices to consider for online direct response marketing:

1. Create a multi-touchpoint, lower funnel, digital ecosystem.


The Internet is the single most important research tool for many goods and services. Whether researching a new automobile, shopping for a mortgage or looking to book a dream vacation, consumers conduct most of their research online. We are even seeing significant online activity as a precursor to offline sales for consumer packaged goods products, making the digital channel essential in delivering your message to target consumers.

Marketers have been creating ever-larger digital ecosystems for their brands for some time now. Too often, the ecosystem is built to accommodate multiple messaging strategies, such as driving brand awareness and shopping. A best practice is to build ecosystems that have congruent messaging objectives. In this case, we are talking about an ecosystem solely dedicated to shopping and sales. Ideally, this ecosystem would contain a mix of media elements such as paid, earned and owned. Appropriate touch points may include: 

  • with a strong focus on shopping activities
  • shopping that is mobile friendly
  • Dynamic landing pages for each product or service
  • Dynamic banner ads
  • Distributed shopping tools
  • Native apps focused on shopping
  • Facebook 
  • Flash sale partnerships
  • Twitter
  • Community/loyalist management
  • Location-based targeting

Additionally, you should consider the use of offline channels, such as broadcast, print, and radio to increase the overall reach and frequency of direct-response messaging. 

2. Devise an effective single-search strategy.

Search is still the single most important tool to drive traffic to your ecosystem. There is increasing competition for a high page rank in all types of search. Most marketers realize that the most effective SEO (natural search) and PPC (pay-per-click) or SEM (paid search) strategies are holistic and interdependent. 


In addition to natural search including more maps, images, video and real-time social elements, the criteria for site ranking is becoming more complex. To drive relevance and remove superfluous results from natural search, Google has made significant changes to the calculation of its quality score. The quality and volume of inbound site links is increasingly related to content quality. 

There is also more competition in pay per click (PPC) rankings. In many verticals, marketers compete hard for generic terms with research sites, lead aggregators, affiliates, and of course, other brand marketers. Marketers are becoming better practitioners at using paid search to acquire new customers while driving loyalty, and this practice raises the bar for everyone. 

Hence, it is critical to ensure effective keyword coverage for your brand and generic terms and to ensure that natural search and PPC programs are integrated and working together. You can’t afford not to have a high page rank for your key terms. 


3.Purchase display media with the right tools.

It is a buyer’s market right now because of an over-abundance of display ad inventory. Advertisers can benefit from this situation with the right technology. Specifically, direct-response advertisers can utilize demand-side platforms or DSPs to exploit this market condition. A DSP enables auction-based bidding in real time to reflect the true market price one impression at a time. In short, a DSP enables search like buying of display impressions. This is a highly effective strategy that yields less waste and greater price efficiency.  

Another benefit of using a DSP is the ability to buy an audience that has exhibited specific purchase-intent behaviors, such as visiting a third-party research site. There is virtually unlimited intent data available to enhance targeting accuracy as technology now allows the separation of content from audience. Such data can also greatly improve ROI–improved targeting should lead to more conversions. Responsible advertisers make all the content providers actively compete, within a transparent market place, for our clients’ limited advertising dollars.   


If your organization is new to using DSPs it is a best practice to use one at a time and add in data components to learn which data lifts performance. Alternatively, marketers with more extensive experience can simultaneously test multiple DSPs as long as they have the tools in place to effectively manage frequency caps and avoid “double counting.”

4. Dynamic customers require dynamic content. 

Not all customers are alike, nor should the content or offers that are delivered to them be. One of the great advantages of digital is that it can create different experiences, in terms of offers and messaging, in almost real-time for different consumers.  


The best performing direct-response ecosystems make effective use of dynamic landing pages and dynamic banner ads.  You want a very tight integration between your paid-search ad copy and the landing page delivered to the customer.  Multivariate testing between these key elements should be extensive and ongoing.  A “test early and test often” mantra always improves the results of any campaign.  

If you are going to deliver custom offers such as special purchase incentives through your digital ecosystem, then maintaining an up-to-date and accurate online CRM database is key. Most sophisticated marketers have long since integrated their online and offline CRM databases. A holistic view of customer lifetime value allows marketers to determine the right offer to the right consumer at the right time. 

5. Optimize, optimize, optimize.


Optimization should be at the center of every direct-response ecosystem. Custom ROI models that measure that value of each interaction and touch point should guide decision-making. For non-ecommerce sites, the ROI model will need to account for how online activity drives offline behaviors, such as sales. All ROI measures must share or attribute the value of each and every conversion activity. The monetary credit of submitting a lead, requesting a quote, or making an online purchase must be shared among all digital touch points from the consumer’s unique journey. 

Each campaign should be optimized prior to launch and while it is still live. Prior to launch, scenario planning should be used to determine the optimal media spend and mix with a deep understanding of the interplay between search and display. In this case, you will need an ROI model that is as much a forecasting tool as an evaluator of past performance.  

Once the campaign is launched the second phase of optimization begins. Targets are set for each touch point within the ecosystem and evaluated immediately after launch and throughout the duration of the campaign. Because the media plan is being updated weekly, underperforming media placements should be dropped immediately. Paid search should be monitored daily with frequent adjustments to bid strategies, keyword lists and daypart schedules.  As mentioned earlier, multivariate testing should be used to determine the ideal search copy, landing page content and banner-ad creative.   


Post-launch optimization that follows this schedule can improve ROI results significantly, by as much as four to six times. However, this approach requires a highly integrated team and a consolidated data environment. Your display media, search, creative, account and technology teams need to operate as one, using a single source for marketing intelligence. Clearly established processes and a battle-tested toolset are the cost of entry. Finally, you will need a highly effective work processes between agency and client that are built on trust and a mutual understanding of success.  

Driving Home Results

Let us all make the most of this challenging marketplace. Use it as a reason to hone and perfect our direct-response marketing efforts. Manage this complex ecosystem with a comprehensive strategy that includes: 


  • Single-search strategy 
  • Powerful display media placement tools
  • Dynamic content 
  • Pre- and post-launch optimization

An effective combination of these elements offers new opportunities to connect with consumers like never before and significantly improve the ROI of your digital direct-response efforts.   

[Image: Flickr user Helen K]


About the author

Steve has over 24 years of agency and client side experience leading CRM, interactive marketing, sales and media practices for brands including Nissan, Bank of America, Visa and Procter & Gamble, to name a few. In 2011, he was named an Adweek Media-All Star for his innovative work measuring earned and owned media content and developing predictive analytics models to optimize digital ecosystems