April 2008 - Rick Petry

Trial By Fire

By Rick Petry

The so-called “soft offer,” where consumers are invited to order a product and use it for a trial period before being charged, is becoming an increasingly hardscrabble path to direct response success. In much the same way marketers pile on sweeteners in offer configurations (e.g., “…and you’ll also receive a plastic spoon!”) this practice is a testament and in some ways, an indictment of the rapidity with which conventions that are perceived to be effective are adopted by the industry. A corrosive by-product of this penchant for imitation is a public conditioned to expect a laundry list of entitlements that continues to grow and includes: the elimination of all risk, loads of extras, free shipping and super-low payments. This kitchen-sink approach puts a tremendous burden on manufacturers and their supply chain as they struggle to sell a quality product with adequate margins.

How did we get here? The soft offer sprang from the loins of the continuity program, where the markups on products such as skincare, makeup, ingestibles and DVDs loaded with self-instruction or dormant entertainment libraries allowed the numbers on these seemingly innocuous offers to pencil out. They were also a response to consumer skepticism about an entire genre of advertising. Hence, the soft offer acts to soothe unsure consumers because it neutralizes fears of dissatisfaction. And while marketers may spin it as, “We’re so confident you’ll love our product, we’ll let you try it for free,” such a communiqué may be interpreted by prospective buyers as, “We know you may think everything sold via DRTV has the substance of Cheese Whiz, but let us prove differently.” For proof of this, look no further than home shopping or most online e-tailing including eBay and brick-and-mortar retailing-none of which rely on the tactic.

Further evidence of this DRTV crisis of confidence is the fact that now hard goods such as housewares and fitness equipment are relying on free trials. And while certainly they can be effective tools for conversion to a single pay at telemarketing, the economics of such formulas beg the question: Where exactly are we headed? If you think that paying people to try your products is the next logical step in this continuum, it’s worth pausing to consider we may already be there.

But before we cue the tumbleweeds, allow me to confess that despite evidence to the contrary, I’m a glass half-full guy at heart. When people ask, “Has your time invested in ERA paid off?” I stop and reflect on where, in light of the dynamics described above, we would be without self-regulation, a voice on Capitol Hill and our collective efforts to legitimize our industry. Perhaps together we can evolve our marketplace to the point where sellers can reclaim their conviction by asking a fair price up front for their goods and services. The alternative suggests the story of the frog slowly boiling to death. And though a frog may taste like chicken, nobody wants to get mistaken for either one.

Rick Petry is the immediate past chair of ERA and a freelance writer and consultant. He can be reached at (503) 740-9065, or via e-mail at [email protected]


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