July 2005 - Tales from the DRTV Wars

Why do good DR products fail? And can your flop be saved? Maybe, say these battle-scarred veterans. Or, maybe not.

By Jack Gordon

Everything Gene Silverman knew about direct response television advertising-and he knew plenty-told him that The Power of Negotiation ought to score a home run.

The time was the early ’90s. The product was a set of audio and videotapes from Nightingale-Conant Inc. that taught negotiation techniques useful to just about anyone in all sorts of situations. Silverman, vice president of marketing services for hawthorne direct inc., a DR marketing company in Fairfield, Iowa, looked at the half-hour infomercial his firm produced for The Power of Negotiation and saw a sure hit.

“We hid a camera in a woman’s purse and sent her and her husband into a car dealership. They used the negotiation techniques to save thousands of dollars on a new car,” he says. A second hidden-camera demo showed another couple, ignorant of the techniques, paying much more for the same car.

The DRTV campaign for Edgar Morris cosmetics highlighted loyal customers.

A more surprising hidden-camera segment showed people negotiating a discount from the marked price of a TV set at a national retail outlet. As the capper, the infomercial showed footage of a woman who used the techniques to negotiate personally with Saddam Hussein for the release of her husband, who was taken prisoner by the Iraqis during the first Gulf War. “You saw this American housewife meeting Saddam, saw her husband released, saw the three of them together, saw her and her husband arriving back in the United States,” Silverman says. “We thought it was great, and so did the client.”

Yet when they tested the infomercial, he says, “it fell on its face. We got some sales, but not enough to make it profitable.” Silverman tested different offers-a two-pay of $29.95, a three-pay of $19.95. He tested specific markets, including Washington, D.C.

“But we never got much of anything,” he says. “My God, we proved that you could save thousands of dollars and even negotiate with the biggest despot in the world. We proved that for $59.95 you could get the power to do that.” Yet, the program fizzled.

What went wrong? The answer came from follow-up interviews with viewers who called the 800 number but didn’t buy the tapes. “People seemed intimidated by the idea of negotiating price,” Silverman says. “We think they were embarrassed by the thought of haggling in a retail store. But they didn’t come out and say, ‘I’d be embarrassed.’ They said things like, ‘It’s just not for me.’”

Negotiating in retail stores was the main idea that gave the product an everyday purpose and mass-market appeal. The negotiation course sold well to business audiences through Nightingale-Conant’s traditional channels, but as a DRTV offering, it never took off. The memory haunts Silverman to this day. “I still use those techniques whenever I buy a car,” he says.

While the DermaPoints product may look unusual, testimonials stress its pain-relief benefits.

There is wide agreement among industry experts on the basic characteristics that make a product a good bet for DRTV. The big three, cited most universally, are these:

  • Since television is a “shotgun” medium, the product should appeal to a mass audience, not a niche market.
  • Because media time is so expensive, the product should be able to sell at a price point that allows at least a five-to-one markup over the cost of producing it.
  • The product should solve a demonstrable problem. Ideally, a DRTV commercial should show what Silverman calls a “magical transformation”-such as a before-and-after demonstration of a heavy person who lost weight, or a tough carpet stain that vanishes when a cleaning product is applied, or whatever.

But lesser-known characteristics also can undermine a product’s DRTV potential. Tara Borakos, president of Tara Productions Inc. of Pompano Beach, Fla., recalls a two-minute DR spot she once produced for a product called Tire Saver. “It prevented your car from getting flat tires,” she says. “The product had mass appeal, and [our commercial] had amazing demos-tires blowing out from glass, cops shooting tires, moms getting stranded in parking lots.”

The national test flopped. “We got some inquiries, but not many conversions,” Borakos says. She “tweaked the offer” by changing the bonus incentive and “making the offer really stand out with value,” but still no luck.

The glitch? In retrospect, she says, “The main problem was that it’s hard to get people to make a direct-response impulse buy on a preventative item. We lost sight of that. There are occasions when prevention will sell [on DRTV], but the rule of thumb is that it doesn’t.” Though she didn’t know it at the time, Tire Saver’s determined inventors had previously tested DR commercials produced by two other companies, also with no luck.

Even when a product looks like a natural for DRTV, a whole lot of dominoes have to fall just right in order for a campaign to succeed. DR is a tough game, recalling the old saying about committing a perfect crime: A hundred mistakes can trip you up, and if you can think of half of them, you’re a genius.

Maybe the economics don’t work: Consumers just don’t see enough value in the product to justify the price you need to get. Maybe you’re paying too much for media. Maybe the offer or the production needs to change-but if so, what should you tweak? The payment structure? The bonus incentives? The demos? The testimonials? The hosts? The emphasis given to particular features or benefits?

The Power of Negotiation shows consumers how to successfully negotiate “the deal.”

Or maybe the problem lies in the backend of your campaign. Is something wrong with the telemarketing script at the call center? How about the upsells or the continuity program you were counting on to make the campaign pay-are they not working?

Even changes in the way a product is packaged by the fulfillment company can turn a losing campaign into a profitable one, says Frank Cannella, CEO of media and marketing agency Cannella Response Television Inc. of Burlington, Wis. “If a package exceeds certain dimensions, shippers charge more to deliver it,” he points out. “Being half-an-inch off can add a couple of extra dollars to your shipping costs.” Those couple of dollars can mean the difference between hitting and missing your cost-per-order target.

There are, of course, rules of thumb that can help a producer troubleshoot a commercial. For instance, if a product is strange or peculiar looking, make strangeness a virtue. Rodney Buchser, president of DR marketing firm FMS Direct of Tarzana, Calif., once took on a pain-relieving device called DermaPoints after a half-hour infomercial by another producer had flopped.

DermaPoints “looked like a massage roller with spikes,” Buchser says. “We had to overcome skepticism because this was a goofy-looking product.” He made a number of changes to the original infomercial, but one of them was to have the people providing testimonials acknowledge the gadget’s strangeness. “We had them say things like, ‘It’s the goofiest-looking thing I’ve ever seen. But it works!’” So did the new campaign.

Industry wisdom holds that the only sure way to know how well a DRTV commercial will work is to test it. The same applies to any changes you make in a commercial. But there are right ways and wrong ways to go about fixing a DRTV ad, says producer Collette Liantonio, president of Concepts TV Productions of Boonton, N.J.

Faced with a disappointing test, many clients say, “‘Let’s just tweak it and go back out with another test,’” Liantonio says. “But there’s no strategy behind the tweaking. They just haphazardly try different things: ‘I think it’s this, so let’s fix that. And while we’re at it, let’s fix three or four other things’-so now you have no control [i.e., no point of reference] to tell you which change made an important difference. Then, if something finally works, they consider themselves marketing geniuses.”

SyberVision weight control product offers customers techniques for shedding those extra pounds.

Guessing blindly is a good way to waste an awful lot of media dollars on testing and re-testing, she says. If you’re going to tweak something, tweak with a strategy in mind. How do you develop a strategy? By asking target buyers about your commercial.

Case in point: In 2003, Liantonio created a one-minute and a two-minute DRTV spot for a self-propelled vacuum cleaner called RoboMaid. “Everybody loved the commercial we made,” she says. It showed RoboMaid vacuuming on a variety of surfaces and in hard-to-reach spots underneath beds and around toilets. It made a virtue of the gadget’s strangeness with “a very cute scene” in which Liantonio’s dog chased it around a room.

In the first national tests, the RoboMaid spots generated some orders “but not nearly enough revenue to pay expenses.” Fortunately, Liantonio says, the client was A.J. Khubani of Telebrands, “one of the best marketing minds in the industry.” Before changing the commercials, Khubani showed them to focus groups and asked questions.

The focus groups revealed a problem that neither Liantonio nor Khubani would have stumbled upon in years of trial-and-error tweaking and testing. “One point we stressed in the commercials was that you could set RoboMaid and forget it: Turn it on, leave the house, and it would clean for you,” Liantonio says. As it turned out, that idea “upset a lot of women.” They didn’t like the image of this machine running loose in their homes while they were away. They wanted a strong sense of control over it. And they wanted to be able to set it to run at certain times.

“I would never have guessed that the idea of RoboMaid cleaning while I’m gone would be perceived as scary rather than wonderful,” Liantonio says. “The beauty was that I had a client who found out what the problem was before he tried to fix it.”

Preventative products, such as the Tire Saver, don’t always work as an impulse buy.

In this case, the product itself went back to the drawing board for the addition of a timer. Changes in the commercial, also based on focus-group findings, included beefing up the promise that buyers would always be able to get replacement cleaning cloths for the machine. Khubani’s goal all along was to use the DR campaign to generate consumer demand that would persuade retailers to stock the gadget in stores. That’s where RoboMaid can be found today.

Focus groups are by no means a panacea for ailing DR campaigns. Sometimes they’re unhelpful. For one thing, Silverman cautions, “focus groups are outside the element people are in when you need to reach them-alone in front of the TV late at night or on Saturday morning.” But that’s not an argument against asking target buyers for useful information instead of just testing blindly. Recall Silverman’s conversations with callers who said no to The Power of Negotiation.

And who says focus groups have to be formal? Cannella recalls a two-minute DRTV spot for a product called the Weed Thrasher, a device that fits on the end of a lawn trimmer. In its first test about four years ago, the commercial didn’t quite succeed. “The response was close to the CPO [cost-per-order] target we laid out,” he says, but close doesn’t cut it in DR.

“We called in several of our friends who work in their yards a lot and showed them the spot,” Cannella says. Two points of confusion emerged. “First, the offer looked too good to be true. They thought we were throwing in a gas-powered trimmer free.” In fact, the trimmer was not meant to be included with the $20 offer. Second, he says, “we had to show the installation a little differently to demonstrate how easy it was to install.”

With a few other changes, the two-minute spot went back on the air and scored a hit. The Weed Thrasher now sells at Home Depot and Wal-Mart, Cannella says. “And we’re still on the air with it.”

Jack Gordon is editor at large. Please point your Web browser to goodprodsjuly.marketing-era.com.

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