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How to make use of infomercials

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Crucial to all direct-response TV efforts is the industry’s mantra-the call to action. At the end of the day, the primary goal of most infomercials is not to build brand recognition but to motivate the viewer to act, whether that means to buy something or go somewhere.

Every direct-response TV segment includes a toll-free number or Web address or both. Typically incentives are part of the equation. For instance, depending on the cable station airing it, Excite@Home’s infomercial touts offers ranging from free installation to three-month subscriptions at no cost.

“Now that the chips are down, accountability is no longer an option-it’s a requirement,” says Lee Frederiksen, founder and CEO of the Frederiksen Group, the Falls Church, Va.-based direct-response marketing firm that created “The Monster Show.”

Creating a high-style infomercial with compelling images and narrative was not Mercedes-Benz’s only aim. The company also wanted to send people to the Web. Throughout the 30-minute segment, viewers are directed to find out more about Starmark through both a toll-free number and the Starmark Website.

“What really blew us away was how frequently people actually chose the Website to respond as opposed to the phone,” Keogh says. “We were absolutely expecting it to be 85 percent phone and 15 percent Web. Instead, it flipped in the other direction: 70 percent of respondents used the Website instead of the phone.”

Through its two roughly month-long runs, Mercedes-Benz’s infomercial garnered responses from 30,000 viewers. To be considered a respondent by Mercedes-Benz did not mean just clicking at the site or placing a call. It entailed providing accurate information that included the respondents’ names, phone numbers, addresses, both snail mail and email (when applicable) addresses, as well as indicating if they were interested in additional information. “Once they said yes, we then sent them a package which was an incentive for them to go take a test drive,” Keogh says.

Mercedes-Benz is still calculating how those numbers translated into actual sales, but the number of respondents exceeded company expectations, Keogh says. In fact, Mercedes was so pleased with direct-response television that it retailored its infomercial into two shorter 30- and 60-second versions, which are slated to air this summer. Keogh expects the longer version to air again.

Beyond providing the time to demonstrate a product or service or tell an involved story, infomercials also offer advertisers a feature missing from splashy 30-second spots: mechanisms for measuring results.

Historically, gauging the success of an infomercial has entailed determining how many viewers called a toll-free number. Today, while calls still remain the predominant measuring stick, advertisers are relying more and more on Websites for that.

For instance, the mechanism for tracking the success of “The Monster Show” works like this: Viewers are instructed how to access a special “Monster Show” section of the company’s homepage. Only viewers of the show know how to do this. By clicking on the “.com” in Monster.com, participants gain access to special features, including the Learn to Love Monday Morning Quiz. This test measures satisfaction with their current employer. For its part, Monster.com is able to track how much activity the infomercial generates.

To track its Website respondents, Mercedes-Benz created a unique address for the infomercial and tweaked its general site so that the company could determine when the infomercial drew a visitor to the site.

Despite the advantages infomercials afford advertisers, industry insiders warn that companies – particularly those with tight advertising budgets – should not view infomercials as a panacea for their marketing woes. Not only is the world of infomercials riddled with snake oil salesmen angling for a fast buck (see “Beware of Schlockmeisters,” below), but it’s also a format that’s difficult to execute well.

“It can be a very dangerous format,” warns marketing guru Jay Abraham, a marketing consultant who wrote Getting Everything You Can Out of All You’ve Got. “An infomercial is not an endeavor for the timid or mediocre. It’s for marketing minds who know the turf. If you don’t, you can get your head handed to you quickly.”

Beware of Schlockmeisters

While the cheese factor may be playing a less dominant role in infomercials, that does not mean the industry is not riddled with its fair share of schlockmeisters. Industry veteran Steven Dworman, who has tracked the industry for more than a decade in his newsletter, Infomercial Marketing Report, agrees. He offers these tips for smelling a rat and determining whether a long-form ad is the best use of a firm’s precious (and in most cases shrinking) marketing dollars.

1. Beware of snake oil salespeople selling goods on the cheap.
Do your research before selecting a producer – make sure the production house has a successful track record. There are lots of production firms marketing themselves at bargain rates (Florida is a hotbed for such firms). If a production house says it can make an infomercial for as low as $50,000, a red flag should go up.

2. An infomercial is not a cure-all for a faulty financial model.
Unless a company offers consumers some kind of service or product, a half-hour of airtime does not guarantee increased revenue; it simply becomes another tactic for drawing traffic to a site.

3. Take note of infomercials that offer an opportunity to offset your advertising costs.
Rather than just trying to drive viewers to your site, build something of value that you can offer consumers at a reasonable price, while still paying for a portion of your advertising. In some instances, such as Monster.com, simply driving traffic to the site is adequate because it jibes with a company’s overall business model.

4. Make sure mechanisms for follow-up are in place.
In running a campaign, you’ll get hundreds, if not thousands, of new contact information on viewers who call in or visit a site. Make sure you’ve got a program in place for following up.