Direct Response Press, Attribution, and the Rise of Local Media

Picture of a Hillarys Blinds press ad

Hillarys Blinds – a good example of direct response press advertising

I had cause recently to undertake some research into the state of direct response press. Because of the ‘dash for digital’, it had been some time since we (at MCS) had looked at this medium and when we did, we were surprised that there was so little data ‘out there’ about it. We talked to media agencies, publishers, marketing bodies, local media organisations, and past exponents of direct marketing who led the boom of the 1990s. And yet very little data emerged.

Although we know how to create effective direct response press ads, we wanted to know answers to key questions, such as does Direct Response press advertising still work? What response rates should brands expect? Or is most of the audience online, and should brands put all their ad spend into digital? And has direct response been made redundant by the infinitely more measurable pay-per-click, online display and affiliate advertising?

In the 1990s, direct response press, along with direct mail and inserts, was a key element of the direct marketing proposition, which promised that advertising spend could be measured accurately. Branding ads, argued the DM industry, were a waste of money. With DRTV, direct mail, door drops and inserts, direct response press was seen as the Holy Grail of marketing, where true ROI could be measured and ‘wasteful’ advertising could be abandoned, with the direct sale cutting the middleman out at the same time. I remember even the Heinz marketing director saying that he was going to put all his money ‘below-the-line’ as a result, giving his then advertising agency a temporary fright until he was ‘moved on’.

Now the same argument is being made by digital marketing. Potentially every click, it is argued, can be measured – via a process called attribution – ensuring not only a truer understanding of ROI but also almost real-time insight enabling trimming and optimisation of online campaigns.

Picture of the attribution funnel model

The marketing attribution funnel model – but 50% of businesses are still using ‘last click’ to measure attribution (image from

Marketing attribution is the practice of determining the role that channels play in informing and influencing the customer journey. But the both DM and digital suffer similar difficulties – accurate attribution. With direct marketing, brands know that many customer touch-point engagements have arisen from an ad or direct mail piece – but can’t attribute them unless, for instance, the customer has rung the unique phone number in the ad, or gone to the assigned landing page, or entered the unique reference code from an ad, insert or mailing (a very inexact science given customers’ lack of ‘discipline’ in this area).

The same problem exists with digital. For too long, marketers have confused attribution and last-click activity. In a 2012 report by eConsultancy, Marketing Attribution: Valuing the Customer Journey, Bill Kee, Product Manager for Google Analytics points out that although only 14% of businesses think that last-click attribution is effective, over 50% of them are still using last click measurement, suggesting they haven’t worked out how to properly master attribution modelling. Small wonder since I don’t think anyone has, although the objectives are clear from Jeff Zwelling’s recent blog. For true attribution, marketers need to be able to track the customer journey across online and offline channels and via the range of devices they use.

Picture of a spread of local papers

Local press – read differently from national press so attractive to brands. But our research shows no consensus over whether it is in decline or not.

Parking direct response and digital to one side, one thing that our research did reveal was that Local Media are growing in use and importance – our pooled research is available in the slidedeck The Rise of and Case for Local Media and short paper On Direct Response Press Advertising. Lots of positives came out of it, such as evidence that although readership and circulation of national newspapers is in long-term decline, that of local and regional papers is increasing. Another finding was that media agencies and publishers have clubbed together to offer brands greater audience reach, enhanced targeting, and access to more receptive consumers (since they read local papers differently). This suggests that direct response press has growth opportunities too. But before we could celebrate, out came a report by Group M stating that almost £400m in print advertising will be lost from the UK newspaper market by the end of 2014. Worse, the decline will be biggest in regional ad spend, which will be down 9.6% (£104m) this year, and a further 11.6% (£113m), next year. So we’re a bit and if anyone wants to add to the debate, answers on a postcard please. Or email or a tweet. At least we will get our attribution right.

As well as administrator of New River Marketing, Richard Fullerton is Business Partner at MCS, an integrated marketing agency. This article has also been published at Marketing:Blogged. Readers are invited to join our Direct Response Press Advertising Group on LinkedIn where we are collecting and sharing data on the medium.


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