The Realities Behind Direct Response Myths

Direct response television lends itself to a staggering variety of misperceptions, false assumptions and just plain strange ideas. Over time, these various elements solidify into unshakable myth. Our industry is so vulnerable to myths because of two factors.

First, it's an industry that has undergone numerous changes in a relatively short period of time. Not so long ago, our industry was dominated by “one-step” offers for unusual or niche gadgets marketed by small companies. The term “one-step” describes the single step consumers take between seeing a TV offer for a book or record collection, for example, and picking up the phone to place an order.

Today, however, there are many more “two-step” offers for mainstream products and services marketed by a wide variety of organizations. “Two-step” describes the first step of a consumer's calling to leave basic information – name, address, phone number and even demographic details — followed by the second step of contacting that consumer by phone or direct mail. Two-step marketing is useful in building targeted databases of potential sales leads.

Second, DRTV is a hot field. Almost every major company is looking for a way to make DRTV work for them. In the rush to capitalize on this advertising form, people are not taking the time to test their assumptions. With all the changes and innovations impacting our industry, it is easy to fall back on the myths and avoid the more difficult route of exploring new ideas of how DRTV can be used in sophisticated marketing strategies.

While myths have grown up around all aspects of DRTV, the most damaging ones relate to media. It's important to examine these myths and clarify the realities behind them.

Myth No. 1: Only Longer-Length Sports Work. This myth says the standard length of short form DRTV spots should be two minutes because reducing any lesser amount of time, even 30 seconds less, allows neither enough time for the 800 number to air on screen nor to demonstrate a product or service.

Certainly, two minutes is the right length for many DRTV commercials, but we have found that simple lead generation commercials can work with shorter lengths. In fact, even 30-second and 10-second spots work as “billboards” that capitalize on viewers' familiarity with long-running campaigns.

The myth there was shattered by a harsh reality: Too few availabilities for two-minute spots. Out of necessity, the industry had to develop a format for effective, shorter spots and the creative departments of agencies came through for clients.

Myth No. 2: DRTV only airs overnight. Overnight time slots are not necessarily bad for a particular DRTV campaign, but they certainly are not the only available slots. Late night DRTV spots have been lampooned so often that people accept the probability that there is some sort of “magical” late night direct response period. We have talked to otherwise savvy advertisers who assume that these late night slots are the only ones direct marketers can afford.

In fact, DRTV spots run in all dayparts. You will even find them on prime time on independent stations, smaller networks and cable networks. The ability to create shorter-length DRTV spots provides even more flexibility in the placement of spots in highly visible dayparts.

Myth No. 3: Network Buys Never Work. The reasoning behind this myth has always rested on two assumptions. First, no inbound telemarketer can handle the volume of calls generated from a network spot. Second, network is simply too expensive to pay out.

A number of telemarketers have handled the issue of volume by staffing up and linking up with order centers. Just as important, they have developed highly sophisticated interactive systems that do not require live operators. While these systems are not appropriate for every offer, they are terrific for certain lead generation spots because they can offer a menu of options for viewers.

There are a variety of ways to reduce the costs of network buys to reasonable levels. Most networks have open inventory very close to air dates that can be bought on a distressed basis. There are also shows that networks have tremendous difficulty selling, including highly controversial shows that many offend general advertisers that want to air image and awareness spots, or ones that simply have not met rating standards.

Myth No. 4: DRTV is impossible to target. A persistent myth is that DRTV media buying is a helter-skelter, “unscientific” business in which low-priced, low-rated spots are all that matters and it is impossible to target a market segment. This myth is especially ridiculous considering the proliferation of cable networks for every interest and taste. Many of them have rates and availabilities that are very favorable to direct marketers.

The associated myth that it is impossible to target upscale viewers has also been shattered. There have been buys that successfully sell expensive cards, siding for homes, high-end stereo equipment and other products and services to affluent customers. The belief that affluent people do not watch programs on which DRTV spots run or that they are not responsive to direct response commercials is absolutely false.

Emerging Myths

Myth watching is an occupational necessity for those of us in the media end of the DRTV business and I fully expect to see many more emerge in the coming years. Some will certainly be the results of direct response efficacy, or lack thereof, of infomercials and the Internet.

As misleading as the myths are, they contain just enough truth to be dangerous are very easy to believe. DRTV is a rapidly evolving and highly effective form of advertising and those who capitalize on it will be able to separate myth from the realities.

Francie Gordon is senior vice president and media director of A. Eicoff & Co., a broadcast DRTV agency in Chicago.

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