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
- Make your offer the star. Don't let a concept or drama overshadow the offer for your product. One spot I reviewed for a home mortgage finance company showed a couple in a loud bar trading clever quips about their relationship. It was irrelevant, distracting, confusing, and in the end more memorable than the company's offer. I provided a simpler script focusing on the offer, and response improved. Shine the spotlight on your offer and keep it there.
- Use spoken words to make the sale. TV is a visual medium, but you can't create action with images. Only spoken words can deliver a call to action and generate a phone call or response of some kind. Image spots, or commercials that make people read or look at pictures without any announcer copy, will rarely produce a good response.
- Use pictures to support the words. You should make sure that the words and pictures work together. While words sell in a TV commercial, pictures can illustrate and demonstrate, add interest, build credibility, and keep the viewer engaged while the words do their work. Visuals are just as important as words, but they serve a different function. Words sell. Pictures tell.
- Keep the production simple. Don't overproduce. The simpler, the better. Simple messages with clear words and pictures are easier to understand, more believable, often more urgent, and lead to action more directly. (In analyzing the spots of one of my clients, a children's charity, I found that the simpler our production, the higher the response.) Visual effects, editing techniques, music, sound effects, and other production tools can be used when appropriate, but should be justifiable in terms of response. If they are not, forget them. Find the one image that sums up your point and build the spot around that.
- For inquiries, put up your toll-free number early and leave it up. DRTV spots selling a product generally present a detailed offer, call to action, and phone number in the last 20 seconds or so. But for generating inquiries, it's wise to present your offer and call to action early in the spot. Put up your number within the first 20 seconds, then keep it up all the way through to the end.
- Show people, not things. People are more interested in people than in things. Showing someone on camera with your slicer dicer is more involving than a closeup of the product sitting on a table. Including people helps viewers relate to the product, believe your claims, and understand how the thing works.
- Cast actors who fit the scenario. Casting is not a matter of finding the best-looking people, but finding the people who fulfill the viewer's expectations. Doctors should look like doctors. Business people should look like business people. Carpenters should look like carpenters. The titles, clothing, and accessories of actors should match their roles.
- Avoid overly sexy imagery or models. Sex sells sexy products, but it gets in the way elsewhere. I can remember a car wash owner from my home town who insisted on putting a bikini-clad young girl on the hood of a red Corvette and running the car and the girl through his wash for a commercial. He was sure this would get attention for his business. What it did, however, was get attention for the girl, who came out of the wash dripping wet, and was known as the "car wash girl." I'll never forget that girl. But I can't remember the name of the car wash!
- Consider using a spokesperson. A stand-up presenter looks newsy. This type of production is also cheap and simple to produce. You can use celebrities, company representatives, fictional personalities, customers, or actors. The only restriction is the presenter's relevance to your product, service, or cause and how well that person can sell it. If a spokesperson or celebrity works well for you, you can continue the relationship and build recognition and credibility from spot to spot.
- Consider using "nearly famous" talent. You know those people whose faces seem familiar but whose names you can't remember? They're a good compromise between unknown actors and well-known celebrities. Their recognizability creates instant rapport without distracting the viewer from your message.
- Avoid humor (most of the time). Television viewers are trained to expect entertainment, so humor can sometimes help gain attention. The problem with humor is that often people remember the joke and not the product or the offer. Humor also wears out fast. My rule: when in doubt, leave it out.
- Use music carefully. Songs and background music are good for setting a mood, but can lower recall and get in the way. Jingles can increase memorability, but may distract viewers from the all-important announcer copy if too prominent. Again, when in doubt, leave it out.
- Emphasize exclusivity. If you're selling a product, you should offer more than convenience for responding to your TV spot. Otherwise, there is little reason for someone to call and wait weeks to get the item if that person can get the same thing at a local store anytime for about the same price and with no extra shipping costs. First, your product should be unique in some way. Second, it should not be available anywhere else. Third, you should point this out with words like "new," "introducing," and "exclusive" and phrases like "special television offer" and "not available in stores."
- Give yourself time to tag. Most spots have a tag or billboard at the end that gives the order or response information. But unlike print media, the viewer can't go back or hang onto it for reference. So you must allocate plenty of time to say and show the essentials. That means at least 15 seconds for a 30-second or 60-second spot and at least 20 seconds for a 90-second or 120-second spot. Think of it as a "disappearing order form."
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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