The New Direct Response Works: “But Wait! There’s More!”

We’re seeing more marketing that looks like direct response advertising these days.  It’s everywhere.  And it’s becoming the new framework for online advertising.

In the last century Direct Response was the province of late night low budget advertorials for golf clubs and kitchen choppers and prostate vitamins.  And today all that still goes on.  So does junk mail and its bastard spawn e-mail spam.

But while the Direct Response newspaper ads and radio pitches continue unabated (“Pick a phone and call 123-456-7890,” always repeated three times) we’re now seeing the framework of direct response becoming the model for all marketing.

In the online world we talk about “conversions,” which is more or less what TV pitchman Ron Popeil calls “sales.”  Some conversions aren’t sales, true.  They’re engagement metrics like requesting a download, signing up for a newsletter, entering an online game.  But these conversions are starting to use some of the old rules of direct response.

By the way, Malcolm Gladwell wrote a brilliant profile of Ron Popeil in the New Yorker.  You can read it online here. It’s well worth the time to read and by the end you’ll be in love with Ron Popeil.

Popeil and his fellow TV pitchmen go to great lengths to explain how their new product works. “It’s so simple—you just push the metal skewer right through the chicken, pop it into the Showtime rotisserie, then set it and forget it!”

It’s not a far stretch to see how the Internet as a research medium plays into this.  We can explore new products and services at our leisure.   We are in charge so the pitch is less threatening than broadcast messages.  And instead of grabbing the consumer by the throat and marching him or her through a pitch, the consumer decides when to take the next step.

We can’t do a countdown like Ron Popeil:  “How much would you be willing to pay for this oven?  Two hunded dollars?  We’re not selling it for 200, or 150 or even 100 dollars!  You can get this oven today for just $89.99!!!! That’s three easy payments of $29.99 a month!”

But we do invent triggers within the structure of the consumer experience that get the consumer to engage further.  Tactics like downloading a trial copy of software or music for free work like this.

The general principles of direct response marketing sound like a litany for online advertising campaigns:

  1. Get the person’s attention quickly by defining a problem that provokes fear, fun or desire.
  2. Make your statement of value plain and quickly—here’s what we do for you
  3. Talk about them, not you. It’s not about you, it’s about the benefits you provide to them.
  4. Personalize it if you can.
  5. When you explain, it’s benefits not features that stick.  Solve my urgent problem/want fast and for real.
  6. Ask for the sale. Have a clear response mechanism and put it in the hands of the customer right then.  Give them a reason for doing it now rather than later—offer a discount, show how little inventory is left, let them design their own.   Or offer a bonus gift if they act in the next ten minutes.

I read over these six ideas and I think they could be re-stated in the language heard at user experience design conferences.

As companies come to realize how little lift they get from brand advertising, more and more dollars will flood into direct response channels.  This is where online advertising is seeing its boom today, because of an ability to engage, personalize, target and re-target a prospect.  It’s almost like Ron Popeil as the ghost in the machine, saying to us:

“But wait! There’s more!”

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About Rohn Jay Miller

I'm a strategic designer who works with clients who are transforming their business models because of change brought on by the Internet. Solving disruption is often a problem and an opportunity at the same time. Previously I was a founding partner of Ikonic/USWeb in San Francisco, and Senior Vice President--Product & Technology for Knight Ridder in San Jose.

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