A Simple Formula for DRTV Success

by Dean Rieck

People are funny.

Virtually every home in America has one or more TVs. But no one ever admits to watching much. If you believe what people say, they spend all their off time reading Shakespeare or attending the opera. They're just too sophisticated or busy for TV.

Of course, when people gather around the water cooler and someone mentions last night's sitcom, everyone blurts out, "Yeah! That was great!" It takes them a moment to regain their composure and backtrack, "Of course, that was the only episode I've seen. I don't watch TV much."


Television is THE universal medium. It has been said, "If it doesn't happen on TV, it doesn't happen."

But the denials shouldn't surprise us. People also claim they get sick of receiving catalogs and insult direct mail by calling it "junk" mail. But these media work like gangbusters. And, if done properly, so does TV.

Remember, never judge people by their words, only by their actions. The fact is, just about everyone watches television. So the question for direct marketers is not "Do people watch TV?" but rather "How do people watch TV?" Therein lies the secret of understanding how to write and produce an effective and profitable DRTV commercial.

Soda Breaks and Channel Zapping

Judging by the vastly overproduced spots coming out of most ad agencies, people are glued to their TV. They sit attentively absorbing every word. Analyzing and deconstructing every image. They carefully follow the complex presentation of high-level concepts. They laugh, sob, cheer, and applaud. Phone in hand, they are ever vigilant, responding immediately to a toll-free number flashed on the screen for three seconds.

Really? Uh ... I don't think so.

The only people focused on TV spots are the people producing them. When average Americans watch TV, they're tuned in to see a specific program, not the commercials. During commercial breaks, people run to the kitchen for a soda or zap around 150 channels to see what else is on. And what about the distractions? The phone ringing. The dog barking. The kids screaming. Some people just turn on TV to keep them company as they read, clean the house, eat dinner, visit with friends, or ... produce another generation of TV watchers.

In other words, your viewers, your potential customers, ARE watching TV, they just aren't 100% focused on it. And that's the key. FOCUS. Because viewers are not focused, you have to be. You must present an attention-getting, clear, direct selling message. This begins by focusing on your goal. Unlike many other TV commercials, you are not creating an image or building a brand, you are generating an action.

So you have to know exactly what action you want. There are four main actions for a DRTV spot: 1) Get an order. 2) Generate an inquiry. 3) Produce store traffic. 4) Support a campaign in another medium. Before you write a single word or shoot a second of video, decide what you want viewers to do and focus the entire spot to provoke that action. If you have other objectives, create other messages to accomplish them.

The Formula for a Focused DRTV Spot

There really is no such thing as a universal formula for a DRTV spot. You might be selling exercise equipment, or generating inquiries for financial services, or soliciting sponsors for poor children, or any of a dozen other things. Each will have unique requirements. However, since most spots are pushing a product, I'll keep this simple and give you one "formula" for generating orders.

1. Get your viewer's attention. Remember, people are engaged in all sorts of activities besides watching TV. And even if they're watching, they might not really be paying attention. TV watching can be a very passive activity. So you have to break through the fog and grab your viewer. Research shows that viewer interest rises or falls dramatically during the first 5 seconds. To quote Kenneth Roman and Jane Maas in How to Advertise, "Commercial attention does not build. Your audience can only become less interested, never more. The level you reach in the first 5 seconds is the highest you will get, so don't save your punches."

2. Present a problem. Your time is severely limited in any TV spot. Even a 2-minute spot goes by fast, so you can't dawdle. The best way to get attention is to dive right in and present a problem your viewer can identify with. Show the problem or demonstrate the old way of doing something. Universally-experienced problems are best, the more common and troublesome the better.

3. Solve the problem. Once you have presented the problem, show how your product is the solution. This should be a simple, immediate demonstration. Show before and after. Show results. Show benefits. Think visually and dramatize everything.

4. Make an offer. Give the price, clear ordering instructions, terms, and a call to action. Add extra incentives, such as premiums, a lower price, related items, add-ons, or anything else to increase the value of the offer. Since you probably want a phone order, push your toll-free number hard. Show it. Say it. And since people may want to write it down, you have to say it often enough to embed it in their memory or give them time to find a pencil and paper.

5. Guarantee your offer. A guarantee is essential to lower the doubts of your viewer. There is always the thought "What if this doesn't work? What if I don't like it? What if there's a problem?" An unconditional, money-back guarantee removes these doubts at the moment of decision.

6. Add immediacy to your offer. You want a call now, not later. When people put off action till later, they tend not to act at all. Most direct response offers on TV work because of impulse, and that impulse may vanish later. The entire gist of your message should be "Call now or you will lose this opportunity." This can take the form of time or quantity limits, rewards for fast response, or directive language that urges the viewer to "Call now" and "Hurry."

A Few More Pointers to Achieve Focus

Some of these tips may seem elementary, but you'd be surprised how often advertisers waste thousands of dollars because they don't focus on such basics.

But then, how would I know? I don't watch TV much. Actually, I don't even own a TV. Oh, maybe just an old black-and-white set with rabbit ears stowed away in the basement somewhere. The one in the kitchen doesn't count ... or the little one in the bedroom, which was there when my wife and I moved in.

And as for the big screen in the den, well that's just for baseball ... and PBS. Really.

Copyright © 1999 Dean Rieck. All Rights Reserved.
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