July 2006 - An Eye for DR Radio

In 2005, Lasik Vision Institute set its sights on direct response radio, which has become a major part of its multichannel marketing program.

By David Lustig

Sometimes when a company needs to confront a problem, the answer is not necessarily a drastic overhaul or the realization that management has to change the way it thinks. After a little research and perhaps a bit of careful soul searching, sometimes the fix is just a little tweaking or maybe some new ideas from a different direction.

That was the case for the Lasik Vision Institute. Part of the Lake Worth, Fla.-based Vision Care Holdings, Lasik Vision Institute (LVI), had been extremely successful marketing its product-Lasik surgery to improve the quality of vision-through print advertising. But returns for print advertising dollars invested were beginning to show deterioration. It was time to investigate other media channels to see if the trend could be reversed.

“We were in print only,” says Jeff Dowdle, a direct response marketing consultant for Vision Care Holdings, “most notably that little flap on the front page of the Sunday color comics.” It had been a position in the newspaper, he says, that worked well for many years.

“Our target has been Middle America. The challenge was to make Lasik an affordable luxury.”

LASIK stands for Laser Assisted In-Situ Keratomileusis, a procedure that utilizes laser technology to reshape the cornea in order to provide the best vision correction possible. For LVI, founded in 1999, a cornerstone of their marketing strategy was to bring down the price of Lasik surgery in order for more people to be able to afford it.

But the traditional print message was not as effective as it once was, says Dowdle, who was brought in to the company to see what the next logical step was in turning sales around.

The answers he suggested were twofold. One was an Internet search engine advertising campaign using Google, MSN, Yahoo! and AOL. The second was the more traditional approach of direct response radio commercials.

That brought in John Wernz, chief advertiser officer for Minneapolis, Minn.-based Marketing Architects (M.A.) into the picture. Dowdle had worked with M.A. previously and knew the quality of its work. Could the agency be effective here?

Says Wernz, “We crossed paths with some of [LVI's] management team at other direct response companies in the past. So when it was time to do radio, I believe Marketing Architects was the only company on [its] list.”

Wernz, who has 10 years of direct marketing experience, explains that that while LVI had been successful in using print for many years, it had not broken into other forms of marketing. This was where M.A. could bring value.

A radio-only direct response agency, Marketing Architects started with a sign on a door in 1997. Today, it employs about 100 people working with more than 100 direct response clients both regionally and nationally.

“We do everything from insurance to infomercial products,” says Wernz, “anything to do with an 800 number is a prospective client for us.”

The first step then, was to have both the Lasik Vision Institute and Marketing Architects sit down and talk. That was about one year ago.

“[LVI] came to the table with very defined metrics,” says Wernz. “Cost per call, cost per consult and cost per procedure. It was not only the front-end response, but also how we could generate the most efficient cost per procedure.

“We’re very involved in constructing the entire direct response package. One of the key points we wanted to pull out as we sat with them was that we construct an offer for a free information kit. That wasn’t the first idea that had popped into their heads for radio, but we explained why that was the very best offer to use in this category.”

Wernz says that is where the real partnership started to occur and M.A. began putting together how the campaign was going to look with all of its different aspects.

“We quickly found ourselves on the same page,” he says, adding, “Very little tweaking had to be done.”

The Marketing Architects team went through the entire setup process, including developing a media plan to define which markets to begin testing. They looked at the radio formats that fit LVI’s target audience, and, most importantly, began shaping the creative message into one that was going to work for radio.

“Where we got very lucky with this,” continues Wernz, “is that the Lasik Vision Institute has a wonderful creative message: ‘Lasik for Everyone.’ It gave us the great benefit of being able to go after a broad segment of radio, not just talk radio or urban radio. It worked in a vast majority of formats.”

“I had laid the groundwork,” says Dowdle, “but they came in and really cleaned up what I had started. They are true direct marketers, disciplined in mass channel communications vehicles such as radio.

“LVI was very inquisitive. The board of directors was both curious and interested in the whole direct response approach.”

Wernz’s team integrated themselves into LVI and helped set up a very small test.

“With a group that is not experienced or educated in the approach, they are going to be skeptical,” explains Dowdle. “The way to show them is with a very small test of about $30,000.”

The way the M.A. model was set up, it was pure direct response. If LVI would run one commercial, it should be able to get accurate feedback.

M.A. put together a number of creative tests for LVI, winnowing it down to four that were presented and ultimately put on the air. Wernz suggested 60-second spots with LVI actively involved in their content.

While there was a fleeting thought of a celebrity host for LVI, it quickly evaporated, and M.A. says it usually does not suggest using one.

“For some campaigns you use a celebrity host but it is not a prerequisite for a successful direct response advertisement,” Wernz says. “Unless you have a personal attachment to the product, having a celebrity host has not proven to generate improved credibility.”

“It was amazing,” says Wernz. “We had one huge winner right out of the gate, and it outperformed our goals on a cost-per-call basis by 2 to 1.” From getting the nod to go ahead with the project to expectations better than believed took the combined effort under one month.

After celebrating their initial success, it was time for both Marketing Architects and Lasik Vision Institute to make sure the entire model worked.

With M.A. responsible for getting the ads out to the right radio stations, LVI wanted its first markets to be in three states: Texas, Oklahoma and Oregon-all strong parts in the U.S. for LVI.

But M.A. didn’t simply produce the direct response radio ads and walk out of the picture.

“We worked with LVI to measure cost per consult and cost per procedure for real meaningful metrics to determine whether they are making money or not,” says Wernz. “It’s more than just getting the phone to ring, it’s driving the profit.”

Since the start date of July 2005, M.A. has continued to measure and validate the results. The answer, says a happy Wernz, was a consistent 10-fold growth every month. Currently, the advertising campaign is generating more than 10,000 calls per month.

Another consideration is the time of day or number of times per day to air the ad.

“In our pricing model, all dayparts are effective for our clients,” says Wernz. “We’ve equalized all of the dayparts and days to perform at very strong revenue levels.”

Originally, M.A. started regionally with upscale radio ranging from oldies and news to talk and sports, then working its way into all relevant radio audiences. The LVI message was so great, he says, it worked everywhere.

Wernz and his team felt fairly competent going into the project that they could create something that would work, adds that Marketing Architects is very careful to decide who it tests.

“For every one piece of business we accept,” he says, “we turn down nine. Not everything can work in radio. We look to ensure it is a good fit for us, and then if it does work to the client’s satisfaction, it usually turns into a long-term relationship.”

Another prerequisite for success in direct response radio, says Wernz, is a strong call center. He was impressed with the in-house LVI facility. If a perspective client doesn’t have a call center, he says M.A. can point them in the right direction.

“Our call center has 30 feeds inbound and 30 outbound,” explains Dowdle, who says LVI works with an overflow partner to make sure the phone lines are open 24/7.

“It’s more than making the telephone ring,” he says. “We need to find out if people are going to show up and when they do, are they going to go through with the surgery? We have to complete the cycle.”

“This was a good one and we were lucky,” says Wernz about the LVI campaign, adding that while it was profitable right out of the gate, the process of optimizing it never stops.”

“Direct response is doing great,” says Dowdle.” We’ve continued to switch more and more money from print into radio and others.” The others he refers to is the Internet. Currently, LVI mixes all three mediums to get the call center telephones to ring, with the choice being Internet first, radio a close second and print being third.

“Print will always be part of the mix,” he adds, “but it will be more about promotions and announcements of short-time offerings.”

Would Vision Care Holdings use Marketing Architects in the future? It would and has, doing direct response radio for Eyeglass World, another division of the company.

“M.A. is a great partner,” concludes Dowdle, “and they have been a patient partner. The creative process, which is one of the hidden channels they offer is wonderful. They have consumer insight. The proof is that the telephones are ringing.”

Perhaps Wernz sums up the direct response collaboration with LVI the best.

“This,” he says, “is what you dream about.”

David Lustig is a contributing writer to Electronic Retailer magazine. We would appreciate your feedback. To submit comments, please e-mail the magazine at [email protected].


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