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FutureNow Article
Monday, Jan. 14, 2008

Infomercial Techniques that Work (or Your Money Back!)

By Jeff Sexton
January 14th, 2008

It slices AND dicesAfter finishing my last post on “100% Risk-Free,” I couldn’t shake a nagging feeling that I’d unfairly slammed the infomercial and the people who generate large sums of money from them. (Apparently, many of you agree.) The simple fact is that infomercials work. Against some unenviable odds, infomercials manage to convince viewers to buy a lot of product. So why not learn from them?

Here’s what I meant to suggest:

1.) DO borrow from what’s best about infomercials, with an eye on what will transfer to the Web.

2.) DON’T use anything that would remind visitors of, or cause them to associate you with, infomercials.

And in case you doubt that “100% Risk-Free” falls into the “don’t” category, just try Googling that phrase — the results speak for themselves.

What Infomercials Can Teach Online Marketers

Dramatize the benefit — Have you ever seen an infomercial that just tells you the features or merely explains the benefit? Hell no! They want you to see the thing in action and compare it to the alternative. It’s not enough that you see how well the rotisserie oven cooks. You have to see how well it cooks compared to a conventional oven. You have to visualize the thing saving you from having to pay attention to the oven (“Set it and forget it!”) and how much money your very own rotisseries oven will save you over buying rotisserie chicken at a specialty chain restaurant.

Infomercials universally dramatize the benefit to the point where viewers can’t help but picture themselves enjoying the product themselves. But don’t confuse the infomercials cheesy execution of this technique with the core strategy itself. Dramatizing the benefit is precisely what Steve Jobs did with his introduction of the iPhone. Steve always dramatized the benefit of the phone’s abilities within the context of a typical user scenario. For instance, here’s how Jobs showed the iPhone’s benefits in a real-life scenario.

Never mind the fact that Pacific Catch didn’t actually serve calamari when this commercial first aired, the case for the iPhone was so powerful, they were forced to add it to the menu.

(For websites that do an admirable job of this, check out OmniWeb and Mint.)

• Employ (and stage) “Sinatra Tests” – Honestly, have you EVER used a kitchen knife to saw through a soda can? Neither have I. But to the average viewer, the Ginsu’s ability to cut through an aluminum can, then effortlessly slice a tomato, meant the darn thing would cut through several years worth of plain-old food without ever getting dull. Same thing with the lubricant that allowed the engine to start while frozen in a block of ice. And the cleaner that can get ground in motor oil stains out of carpet.

As for the Web, the most recent, and memorable example of this technique has to be LifeLock, where the CEO posts his SSN on the homepage. (If you’re going to imitate infomercials, imitate that.)

• Use effective risk-reversal techniques — Specific, substantiated risk reversal techniques are absolutely indispensable for infomercials. Every one of them offers at least a 30-90 day money-back guarantee, or a “quit at any time with no obligation” assurance. Stay away from a generalized “100% risk-free,” but DO offer as many specific and substantiated ways to reverse or eliminate risk as you possibly can.

Lands’ End does a nice job of this, especially with their custom-made clothing. While their thorough body-shape algorithm inspires confidence, most visitors are probably still left with the nagging question of, “How can I make sure the clothing will fit just right? I’d hate to pay extra for a great fit and wind up with something that wasn’t perfect.” Lands’ End’s response:

If the fit isn’t “just so” the first time around, you can nip and tuck your profile accordingly and re-order a new item. We save all your information, so you can fill your order with just a few keystrokes. And, if your Lands’ End Custom garment is anything less than perfect, you may exchange it, or return it and we’ll reimburse you for the purchase price. Lands’ End Custom is Guaranteed. Period®.

My guess would be that this risk-reversal technique plays a significant part in Land’s End’s ability to sell 40% of their jeans and chinos as custom orders.

• Making testimonials can’t-miss, hard-hitting events — Infomercials actually break from the action in order to showcase testimonials. They don’t just sort of have them scrolling past the bottom or far right portion of your TV screen. Nor do they assume you’ll go to a website to read testimonials. They break the show in order to ensure you’ll watch normal people endorse the results. Most websites never do this. Instead, they bury testimonials on a separate page, or only have a single testimonial inconspicuously placed in the far-right column.

Infomercial testimonials, on the other hand, are frequently very specific and feature a person raving about how they’re kicking butt with the product, rather than focusing on the product itself. The interviewed customer seems ever-ready to say, “I too was skeptical, but now…” These are all things that websites would benefit from.

(Sadly, the sites that interject testimonials most consistently are those ridiculously long, single-page, direct marketing-style “internet riches in a box” sites. In addition to embodying the dark side of infomercials, these sites will also interrupt their hard-sell chest thumping every few paragraphs in order to showcase a testimonial from some semi-anonymous goober who testifies to his transformation from barely holding down a McJob to — allegedly — raking in millions per day. Check out the search results for “100% Risk-Free” to see this technique in action. Just promise me you’ll ONLY copy this one technique from these sites. And nothing else. Please.)

Understanding the difference between saleability and value — The ever-popular “But wait, there’s more!” phrase was never used to increase the price. The price always remained $19.95, no matter how many 6-way vegetable peelers or steak knives they threw in. What the added extras were intended to do was to increase the customer’s willingness to pay the $19.95, not to make them willing to pay more. That’s the difference between saleability and value. Too often, online marketers confuse these things. They think that strong stories or ties to social causes are ineffective because they can’t always increase the selling price. Don’t get me wrong, a good story can often increase the selling price, but just as often these elements are best used to increase saleability instead of price.

So there you have it, the brighter side of infomercials. Imitate those and stay away from the “100% Risk-Free” claims.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go spray some extra hair on my head, juice a few pomegranates, set the rotisserie chicken for tonight, and watch this great documentary on Pitch People (as seen on TV).

Add Your Comments

Comments (21)

  1. Jeff,

    I think this information more clearly describes what you were trying to say. There is validity in EVERYTHING. Even a broken watch that is right twice a day. Our task is to look for that validity and apply it without prejudice in our businesses. I am constantly reminded that there are many ways to skin a cat and that there is no one philosophy, person or method that is THE WAY.

  2. Excellent post Jeff,

    I think that IM & Ecommerce are generally a reincarnation of Direct Marketing with new and improved abilities.

    >>Direct Marketing blends marketing & sales so does IM
    >>Direct Marketing generally requests (demands) immediate action (call now, get your credit card), IM definitely does that too.
    >>Direct Marketing measure immediate direct results – familiar? A show goes online. How much did it cost? how much did it make? What if we had a regular person instead of thecelebrity and showed the tin can thing twice/ What if we have the audience say WOW!!! really loud. Infomercials are tested.

    >>>Most importantly

  3. But wait, There’s more!!!

    Most importantly, Infomercials require permission. Someone is sitting on the couch or making breakfast watching em’ by choice. They are not just waiting for Simpsons to come back on.

  4. Thanks for the heads up! Really great post. That’s a must-read I must
    say. :)

  5. Great post Jeff. Specially I liked “Dramatize the benefit ” .

    Do you think a comparison table which shows benefits as compared to other products should benefit in conversion.

  6. This is a situation were execution can make the difference, so I’d have to see the chart. In general, though, I’d say that the chart would allow for a direct comparison of products – which highlights the differences – but might not be the best way to dramatize the benefits of those differences. If you construct a “scenario-based” chart, that might work better. Again, I’d have to see the chart to give you more specifics, but those are my off-the-cuff thoughts.

  7. [...] Infomercial Techniques that Work (or Your Money Back!) – Sometimes long, infomercial copy works where short copy doesn’t… [...]

  8. [...] Infomercial Techniques that Work (or Your Money Back!) [...]

  9. Jeff, I suspect that very few people watch the entire infomercial all the way through. What’s more likely is a viewer catching part of it, perhaps several times, and a different portion each time.

    That’s why the “commercial within the commercial” – the summary of all of the goodies you’re going to get when you buy – is repeated several times within the broadcast.

  10. Chuck,

    That’s a great insight and I think where that really applies to Websites is the notion that you can not assume that visitors have already been to this or that page – especially the home page as only about 30% of your visitors will enter through the home page.

    Further, this notion – that not everyone will have seen everything on your Website is one of the keys to the importance of Point of Action assurances. You have to re-assure your Web visitors about your hacker-safe site and your privacy policies, and guarantees AT the point you are asking them to give you their e-mail, contact information, and credit card info. You can’t assume they’ve been watching the whole program, so to speak.

    Anyway, thanks for the comment, it’s really a useful observation.

  11. Awesome post, I think it would be good to followup with another one of the opposite nature; specifically what you should NOT do online that traditional media or infomercials do offline.

  12. Another good tip to learn from infomercials – the beginning hook is almost always a surprise, an incongruant image or statement that breaks through the clutter. At least buying the infomercial another 15 seconds of your time.

    The infomercial hook is the web equivalent of the great headline, intro copy or image that pull you in.

    The sledgehammer and the watermelon, the “you wouldn’t fry an egg on a diamond ring” and “when does a diet pill cost $178 a bottle?”

    Jason

  13. Jason,

    Nice point. Of course, the first mental image – the first hook – is always important no matter what format you’re working in. But I love your examples; those infomercials really did try to hook the viewer, didn’t they?

    -Jeff

  14. My 8 year old daughter loves infomercials. She watches them over Spongebob. I agree – it’s because the hook is at the beginning and she gets hooked. At 8, she isn’t the primary consumer of these items anyway. I think the thing that is most compelling about Informercials is they set up a problem you didn’t really realize you had. You didn’t really deeply feel your knives were not sharp enough, you didn’t know you needed glue that could glue two items together (items that you don’t even own) you didn’t know the regular push-ups you were doing were wrong, and now with simple little push-up handle thingers you’re going to look like a fitness model instantly, etc. The sequence of the infomercial is something I think might be hard to replicate on the web but it seems to be: here is a huge problem and we have the most amazing and innovative solution ever.

  15. While your commentary does make since, my two biggest gripes are as follows:If you are a ‘real’ inventor who wishes to get the word out about a product that you believe it, then why not make available a product that the consumer can ‘really rely on’, and will keep coming back for when they know you can be trusted to deliver the ‘best’ for them that you can? It makes me extremely angry that these ‘corporations’ jip and rip off so many people, who just might become ‘valued customers’ if they weren’t used as ‘suckers’ for ‘gimmicks’ that probably were no good in the first place.
    Second, I’ve come to the conclusion that if ‘any’ of these ‘companies WILL NOT’ allow me to use (or except) “money orders”, I will not be buying their product no matter how ‘interested’ in it I am. While credit cards are ‘supposed to be more reliable’, just look at how many times people have been charged ‘over and over again’, for prodcuts that turn out to be ‘defective’ or have a short shelf life? I can use my money order and put a stop to that ‘process’ muy pronto.
    I apologize for the ‘long’ post, but once again, that’s for your imput and when I can ‘finally’ find a product or two that actually ‘does work’ and has ‘proved’ itself to the consumer, then I just might take a chance to give it a try.

  16. Re:Commentary on infomercial products. Sorry for my grammatical errors, I meant to say ‘believe in’, ‘accept’ rather than except, and ‘input’ rather than imput, and take a chance ‘and’ give it a try.
    Also, inside of using products like the ones mentioned to ‘cleanse your colon’, why not go to a ‘Naturo Pathic Doctor (Alternative Medicine)’, and let them clean out your colon that way, which is also the ‘safe’ way to do it? Or if your medical plan will not pay for it, perhaps these physicians can ‘recommend’ a method that one can use at home which will be just as safe. Just a thought.

  17. [...] yes, dramatizing the benefit has long been the specialty of the infomercial, whether it was the ginsu knife cutting through the tin can, the sham-wow pulling up spilt coke [...]

  18. @Jeane the are tons of ways to cleanse your colon both with a doctor and naturally

  19. great thank you for share.

  20. [...] want about infomercials, but they’ve always understood the power of time-sensitive offers. And they just work. Same thing goes for home shopping networks. They say, “You have to call in the next 10 minutes [...]

  21. [...] Infomercial Techniques that Work (or Your Money Back!) [...]

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Jeff is a Persuasion Architect, Web copywriter, blogger, and instructor of FutureNow's Persuasive Online Copywriting workshop. Follow Jeff Sexton on twitter

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