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Tuesday, Jun. 30, 2009 at 8:20 am

Billy Mays: If All You Remember is the Voice, You’re Missing Out.

By Jeff Sexton
June 30th, 2009

HE HAD A VOICE NO LIBRARIAN COULD LOVE – CAUSE HE ALWAYS TALKED LIKE THIS.  But look past the booming voice and easily parodied stage persona of the late Billy Mays and you’ll find an extraordinarily gifted pitch-man, worthy of his own TV show.

A pitch-man whose fame and success made him the target of more pitches than he ever gave.  Pitches made by desperate inventors looking for him to save them after they’d already mortgaged the house, spent the kids’ college fund, and invested all their life savings trying to bring some gadget to market.  People who showed up saying, “If only you, Billy Mays, would represent me on TV, I know we’d be able to sell my ________

So what was the one product quality Billy INSISTED on? The one thing a product absolutely had to have if he was going to take on that kind of responsibility?

Demonstrability.

And Billy talks about the importance of demonstrability within the first 23 seconds of this video – the last interview he ever gave.  Watch:

YouTube Preview Image

What Billy knew that so many of us forget, is that a conclusion that the audience comes to on their own is a conclusion they’ll believe and act on. No normal advertising claim can achieve that, no matter how much evidence you throw behind it.

SHOW someone an “I can’t freakin’ believe it” demonstration, and they’ll walk away convinced. Try to persuade them with a stack of studies, facts, and figures, and they’ll likely assume you rigged the tests, got your testimonials from all your friends, and “interpreted” the facts with all the abandon of Jim Cramer telling people to hold onto their Bear Stearns stocks 6 days before the bankruptcy filing.

In Web terms, put your Social Security Number on the front page of your website and I’ll be a lot more likely to believe you can also keep me safe from identity theft.  Forgo the demonstration in favor of detailing your 14-step process to keep me safe, and I may not even read it, let alone believe your claim(s).

And, 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 from a carpet, or, yes, the incredible stain removing feats of oxy-clean.

YouTube Preview Image

So the question for you Web copywriters out there is, how can you inject demonstrability into your copy?

And if you can’t fully create demonstrability with copy and static pictures alone, how can you use a little video to bring that info-mercial magic to your sales pages?

And as a warning, this Zappos video is a clear case on how NOT to do it.

Do these guys show the product in action?  No.  Do they show you any parts of the shoe a visitor can’t see from the multiple images Zappos’ site already provides.  No.  So what the hell is the video for again?

How about showing me the guy’s foot in the flip flop, with a close up on the arch support?  How about showing me how flexible (or not) the flip flop is – how much it bends with the foot vs. how hard it slaps up against the heal with each step.  How it fits a narrow/medium/wide foot.  Etc.  Going a few thousand steps further, how about showing me how well the shoe looks after a few months of use?

C’mon, Zappos, why use video if you’re not going to actually SHOW the product in action?  Why use the video if you’re not going to actually help answer more questions than could have been answered with just text and pictures?

Anyway, Billy Mays’s family has my deepest condolences.  And you readers have my sincere wish that you take one of Billy’s last marketing lessons to heart.

Add Your Comments

Comments (38)

  1. Great post Jeff… You put the words right in my mouth. Billy Mays was one of the best pitchmen ever – and someone who went way too early before we saw his star fully shine.

  2. Whenever I saw him on a commercial I always had to hold myself back from buying — to figure out if I REALLY needed that product — so convinced was I that I should order it …

    … BUT, I always had the gut feeling that Billy himself thought he was selling a great product, something he would use himself. That type of trust is priceless.

    And it’s funny: he’d be working on diff’t products with diff’t companies and yet the Billy Mays implicit “trusted brand” was what did most of the selling work.

  3. watch this video i found on someones blog, its a rap tribute for Billy, its great
    http://yovia.com/blogs/timlara/2009/06/29/rip-billy-mays/

  4. Really super post, Jeff! Billy’s enthusiastic demos were pure gold. When your pitchman becomes so positively associated with your product — well, what’s better than that?

  5. Article from the New Yorker – The Pitchman by Gladwell

    http://www.gladwell.com/2000/2000_10_30_a_pitchman.htm

  6. Great post. My kids would always point to him on the TV and say “there goes that yelling guy”. He will be missed!

  7. Another “celebrity” who was 50 just died. He had a lot going for him.

    May Billy Mays rest in peace despite some of the negative things people say.

  8. John,

    Great point! And if you watch any episodes of the TV series, you’ll find that Billy really did test the snot out of a product to make sure it worked as advertised. And he did that *before* he would be willing to produce the infomercial. Billy came off as confident and sincere because he was.

    - Jeff

  9. Good article Jeff. I caught the show Pich Men once, I thought I would use it as a learning experience, to see what I could pick up from the pros.

    Because aren’t we after all, all pitch men for our own product and website?

  10. I wonder if detailed testimonials would also be a good way to demonstrate the product’s value – or does that have have a “rigged” feel to it too?

  11. nice nice entry! inspiring!

  12. Bob,

    Testimonials can indeed be a good way to demonstrate a products value as customers will often talk about how the product performed in action as well as how it performed over time – something that regular web copy/pictures often fail at.

    Unfortunately, you don’t always have great testimonials to work with. But you can always produce better copy/pictures/video.

    - Jeff

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  22. I loved Billy Mays for the same reasons and I’m heartbroken that he’s gone.
    Malcolm Gladwell actually went into great detail on the subject of demonstrability, in the context of Ron Popeil, another of the great pitchmen. If you haven’t read this profile, you must: http://www.gladwell.com/2000/2000_10_30_a_pitchman.htm

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  25. So glad you put your thoughts about Billy out there. Having done many a consumer trade shoe snf having heard both good and bad pitchmen, I have to say that Billy really did stand head and shoulders above the rest. Billy will be sorely missed by millions of us who shared our living rooms with him every day, learning from Billy the miracles of Oxy Clean, or Orange Glo, or any of the other products he’d pitch us through our televisions. He really did know how to reach people and how to give them what they needed to make an instant buying decision. He masterfully used his authenticity and passion for the products he pitched to enroll, engage, and activate us like few others have or ever will. It’s so sad that he left us so early, but it’s great to see someone recognize him for the talent that he was.
    Thanks so much.
    J

  26. Thank you so much for your input with respect to our video descriptions as we are constantly trying to improve the video content. This department is in it’s infancy we are always looking for new ways to show the product.

    At this time we have started adding some shots of the shoes on actual feet to give our customers an idea of what the shoe will look like on their feet. Not all of our products will have this in the video description but we are going to do our best to include all that we can.

    As much as we would like to show each item in action, the majority of the products are our actual inventory. If we did this, we would make that particular item unsellable.

    We have the video descriptions not only for our customers to view the product, but to get a look into the culture we have here at Zappos. We want to show our customers that we are fun and weird and the video descriptions allow us to give personality to our products.

    Constructive criticism is always welcome, but our company’s goals and objectives are probably different than most. It is sad that Billy Mays passed away and we hope that others can learn from his great abilities. Thanks again for your input and if there is anything else we can do please do not hesitate to ask!

    Derek F.
    Zappos.com
    powered by Blogs

  27. Derek,

    Thanks for the response. Please know I’m a huge fan of Zappos and am usually very impressed with all of your online retailing and marketing efforts – which is why your video efforts stood out in such stark contrast.

    While it was clear that the videos I saw were attempting to showcase an offbeat sense of humor and attitude, it seemed like that was taking precedence over showcasing the product itself. Give me whacky personality in ADDITION TO the product info, and I’m thrilled. Give me whacky personality INSTEAD OF product info, and I’d rather be watching Letterman. As it was, the information that was conveyed was not any more extensive than the manufacturer-supplied bullet points and the video images weren’t really any better than your static photos. Even if you can’t show the shoes in action, maybe you can dig up additional info about the product and get some more zoomed-in close-ups.

    At any rate, thanks again for the response.

    - Jeff

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  32. excellent post
    thank you very much
    As far as i am concerned,testimonials can be a good way to show products’ value.

  33. excellent post
    thank you very much
    As far as i am concerned,testimonials can be a good way to show products’ value.

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  36. Great post Jeff! I knew there was a reason why we got along so well, our affinity for billy haha jk. No but seriously you can tell a great deal about a person by the influences they look up to. I will always look up to Billy, not just for the voice either!

  37. @ Grok. Spam alert on this post? Do you guys not have a filter I think there was 10 posts by the same site all saying the same thing.

  38. Dramatizing the benefit of a product is what info-mercials are all about. So many products don’t have any special results or benefits and cannot be sold in that manner. I do, however, like the advice given to zappos.

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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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