'The future's bright - the future's digital'

Jason Potts talks to Helen Barrett about how charities will be using digital technology to recruit donors.

The future of direct marketing is digital. But the breakneck speed with which technology changes makes it impossible to predict how donors will respond to charity direct marketing in 15, 10 or even five years' time, according to Jason Potts, director of Think Consulting.

He believes many predictions are the stuff of science fiction. "I've had experts try to convince me that, in the future, direct marketing messages will appear on jelly beans as I lift them to my mouth," he says. "From a geeky perspective, the technology is there, but so what? It has to be grounded in reality."

One such reality is social networking and the challenge it presents to charity marketers. Potts talks about the direct marketing technology being rolled out by social networking website Facebook this year.

The site's Beacon system scans personal information that people display to their friends on their profiles - including the charitable causes they support. It then enables external advertisers to display highly targeted online ads, which, says Potts, have the potential to be much more effective in recruitment than traditional cold direct mail packs.

Potts predicts that such adverts could change how donors perceive charities' messages: "Facebook can target people with adverts that don't even look like adverts," he says. "They look like interesting sources of information."

Charities' messages, then, could become an extension of how people express themselves - which sounds like a direct marketer's dream if it weren't for the risk of users becoming subjected to so many charity ads blinking away on their profiles that they become adept at ignoring them.

However, Potts says that charities are reporting better results with social networking advertising than with online banners, at least with campaigns.

He says conventional direct mail packs will eventually be abandoned. "I'm not going out on a limb when I say that - it's a logical conclusion of digital convergence," he says. "Supporters recruited online and through face-to-face don't respond to mail packs at all.

"Why would these people suddenly become more mail-responsive in future? They've chosen digital channels, and that's what they'll stick with."

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