When it comes to proving its worth, direct marketing (DM) blows every other marketing services discipline out of the water. Its ability to target precise audiences and track response to actual sales is why DM expenditure has grown each year since 1992 and commands ever greater proportions of marketing budgets.
DM does well because it goes deep. The industry has grown around complex geo-demographic tools (such as CACI's Acorn, which splits everyone in the UK into 56 'types' of person - see box, opposite) and lifestyle data compiled from nationwide questionnaires.
These polls can tell marketers how two streets in the same town differ in terms of where residents holiday, how much they earn and their outlook on life in terms of their attitude to giving to charity, or whether they are early adopters of technology. Marketers have long used this to ensure the mail they send goes to the people most likely to respond, and even to choose the type of language used in a call for donations.
By comparison, PR is of course less exact. While PR companies have analysed and segmented audiences from an evaluation point of view, some believe they could make better use of analysis when planning who they want to target and the publications best to reach them.
So should PROs be taking a leaf out of their DM colleagues' book? CACI director of business planning John Rae believes more detailed geo-demographic analysis could be beneficial. 'The Acorn classifications allow PROs to see subtleties among communities that aren't particularly obvious, and give you a better understanding of the group you're after,' he says.
What is driving PROs to take targeting more seriously is pressure to prove their return on investment. Rainier PR MD Stephen Waddington believes the situation is starting to change.
'There's a new breed of PR professional trying to become more targeted,' he says.
'It's possible to be sophisticated in your research to decide where to push a story, so why not? The trend for the past few years has been of clients wanting to use PR not just to build up brand profile but to drive the sales process, too.'
But applying DM techniques to PR needs to be thought through. A PRO's objectives are quite different to those of a direct marketer's, so not everything is appropriate.
'In many instances there is no need to hone down to a street-by-street level - PR is more predicated to spheres of influence rather than targeting individuals to drive sales,' says Brands2Life director Chris Cartwright.
Increasingly though, the two are working together. When ISP Bulldog launched its broadband service, the DM analysis was also applied to the PR. Brands2Life mixed this with TGI data to help it find the right audience and influence its media strategy.
'We targeted media consumed by our audience, using TGI, and cross-referenced this with Mosaic's demographic profiles and postcode information,' explains Cartwright.
More pertinent an issue than whether PR needs to take on DM targeting techniques seems to be measurement. While with DM, clients expect, and get, a clear measure of the return on investment a campaign has wrought, in PR this is less clear cut.
The tendency to stick to traditional measurements, such as column inches and media coverage, frustrates many in the industry, including Waddington. 'There is a fixation on measuring clippings; what we should measure is end results, such as sales and leads generated,' he says.
Clients may also welcome this. Pharmaceutical firm Alltracel marketing director Nigel Theobald feels that the emphasis is too often on quantity of editorial, rather than quality of people known to read it. 'We'd love our PR to be measured on the latter,' he says.
Not surprisingly, PR companies that have DM suppliers as clients are leading the way in practising what their clients preach. Eulogy! specialises in 'DM PR', and its largest client is The REaD Group, which sells lists of people who have died so direct mail databases can be cleaned up to avoid mail being sent to those who have died.
Heading the account is Eulogy! MD Adrian Brady. 'With a sensitive product like this, all you can do to build brand and generate sales and registrations is through PR,' he says. 'However, rather than waste PR time on regions where sales penetration is already high, we looked at the whole country and found which areas had high death rates, as well as where registrations for the product was low, and targeted media only in these postcodes. A by-product of this is that if registrations then went up we also knew that it was down to our PR activity because it was the only activity.
This activity also gave us cost-per-registration information.'
So what is holding agencies back from doing more 'direct response' PR? Fear and client expectations seem to be the two clear factors. While many clients want more measurable results, they still need to be convinced to swap traditional PR measurements for less impressive, but arguably more specific, ones.
There is a consensus, however, that PR will never reach DM's levels of accountability, partly because it just does not need to. Beattie sums it up: 'That level of clarity is the Holy Grail, but with PR it's a broader sales tool - it is about the relationship and we measure qualitatively and quantitively; this is the X-factor of PR that DM doesn't have.'
Despite this, PROs should not stop striving for more efficient targeting of media. However it is achieved, a more stringent and focused approach will lead to more accountability and hence, better results.
SHOULD PR LEARN FROM DM?
YES - STEPHEN WADDINGTON, MD, RAINIER PR
'The big difference between PR and the rest of marketing is the lack of direct correlation between input and sales generated - everything gets measured on sales, except PR. The PR industry is so unsophisticated - it tends to shy away from any kind of accountability and its fixation with press clippings is really not meaningful. DM goes a stage further; the response rates can be low but it's a qualified lead at the end of the day. Changing is a necessity of survival - it's the only way to develop a business and grow. PR has got to think smarter.'
NO - GEOFF BEATTIE, CEO, PLEON
'Whether it's necessary to apply the same levels of analysis and consumer knowledge to PR campaigns as go into DM entirely depends on the type of campaign you're doing. If you are doing a big brand campaign then it's not necessary. With a big brand message in glossy magazines, you wouldn't apply those techniques, but if you are working for a telco that uses a lot of mail, for example, you have to find a way of doing that because it wants results. You are never going to have the same clarity as DM, although with online techniques PR can compete because it has the infrastructure to do so.'
WHAT IS GEO-DEMOGRAPHIC TARGETING?
Geo-demographic products such as CACI's Acorn can inform PROs about potential audiences. Acorn classifies UK postcodes through more than 125 demographic statistics and 287 lifestyle variables, enabling users to get a very detailed profile of their target audience. Acorn classifications provide information on anything from income bracket, profession and house type, down to interests, charity and holiday preferences, how often a household eats out and how much it spends on food shopping every week.
London is largely made up of five categories: Wealthy Achievers, Urban Prosperity, Comfortably Off, Moderate Means, and Hard-Pressed. Each of these can be broken down into further sub-sets. Wealthy Achievers, for example, can be divided into Wealthy Executives, Affluent Greys and Flourishing Families, all of which can be defined into types. Wealthy Executives, for example, comprises affluent mature professionals in large houses, affluent working families with mortgages, and villages with wealthy commuters.
Acorn shows that affluent mature professionals have an above-average interest in fine arts and antiques, golf, gourmet wine and food. They spend a lot on their cars, and have an above-average tendency to use the internet.
In comparison, the Hard-Pressed category comprises Struggling Families, Burdened Singles, High-Rise Hardship and Inner City Adversity, all of which are likely to have much more limited means and very different lifestyles and interests.
'Acorn would allow PROs to do things that aren't obvious,' says CACI director of business planning John Rae. 'If you wanted to do pro-hunt PR, for example, you could go to hunting magazines, but that's preaching to the converted. However, if you profile the readers of hunting magazines, you can use Acorn to find other titles they might read.'