URL as effective as toll-free number

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Most of you are aware that the inclusion of URLs in commercials is having a huge impact on our business. You may be unaware, however, that parallels exist between these proliferating URLs and the advent of toll-free numbers in direct response spots about 30 years ago. By examining these parallels, we can see how the current trend is changing DRTV on many levels.

Many commercials today incorporate URLs into their spots, some for true measurement purposes and others not. From high-budget, brand-building commercials to traditional, longer-length DRTV ones, Web site addresses are everywhere. The industry is buzzing with talk about the impact of URLs, just as the industry buzzed when 800 numbers were introduced in DRTV commercials.

Some of you may recall the "old days" of DRTV before toll-free numbers, when handling calls from respondents was a logistical nightmare. It was the lowest-tech operation imaginable, with separate numbers and separate operators for each geographical area.

Many viewers were reluctant to call these numbers because they assumed they would be charged or because they had called once and couldn't get through-or they did get through and had to deal with an unprofessional operator who couldn't answer their questions or do much more than take the order.

Toll free numbers changed everything. Not only did they make it easier for viewers to order, but they were psychologically reassuring-people who were suspicious of the "ordinary" phone numbers appearing on the screen were reassured by the toll-free technology.

Over time, this technology enabled advertisers to provide callers with options for more information and ordering, to capture information that could be used for future database marketing efforts, to qualify callers for higher ticker lead generation offers and so on.

Richer Experience Online

Today, the use of Web site addresses in spots is having a similar impact.

First, it is making DRTV an even more accountable advertising medium. Just as 800 number technology made DRTV more accountable years ago, the technology is now in place to track a given television commercial's impact on Web site traffic.

We can now determine how many people visited a site after seeing a commercial and then clicked on the button for more information, used a retailer locator feature, printed a Web site coupon or ordered the product off the site. More so than ever before, advertisers have been demanding greater accountability from their advertising, and the combination of DRTV and Web site technology meets this demand.

Second, this linkage is ideal for the growing number of high-ticket, high-concept offers currently airing. Just as toll free ordering attracted blue chip advertisers to DRTV and expanded the range of offers, URLs are having the same effect.

Think about the wave of direct-to-consumer pharmaceutical commercials. One of the problems with these spots is that viewers immediately want more detailed information about a given medication. Commercials linked to Web sites offer viewers the chance to find this information, especially as it applies to their particular condition.

Web sites also provide the advantage of anonymous information searches-many individuals don't want to share information about their health with anyone besides their doctor. This ability to offer a huge volume of information in an accessible and, at times interactive, format will entice any advertiser with an offer that demands more information before buying.

Third, and perhaps most important, these Web site connections make the entire buying process easier. One of the challenges DRTV has always faced is motivating people to leave whatever television show they've been watching to dial a number. Now they don't have to. They can simply slide over to their computer and be online in seconds.

In addition, as television and computer technologies become more integrated, they won't even have to move-they can access the site through the same remote that operates their television sets.

Imminent Integration

This is just the start of the revolution. Just as it took a little time for 800 numbers to catch on (some people actually distrusted the promise that they could make a call and wouldn't be charged for it), it will take awhile before DRTV spots and Web sites are in perfect harmony.

Advertisers still exist who don't understand how to use Web sites in commercials, which display the site address at the wrong time or in the wrong way.

Moreover, many advertisers lack "dedicated" sites-sites that are linked to specific commercials. As a result, it is difficult to track the impact of a spot on Web site traffic.

Nonetheless, these are problems that will resolve themselves with education and experimentation. In a relatively short period of time, we're going to see more innovative integration of DRTV and Web sites, and the impact will be as great if not greater than when 800 numbers changed our industry.

Ron Bliwas is president/CEO of Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide's A. Eicoff & Company, a direct response television agency in Chicago. He is also a past chairman of the Direct Marketing Association's board. Reach him at ron.bliwas@ogilvy.com.

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