When most people think about advertising, they think about TV commercials.
They’re the most obvious type of ad. They have the highest production values. The ads are often entertaining (even if they don’t improve sales). And they’re the easiest format to talk about with other people.
Direct response ads, on the other hand, tend to be made fun of. They’re the goofy infomercials on TV, the ads that show up next to your search results, or remnant ads that make crazy claims about magic berries or collectable coins.
They’re also written into things that are part of the fabric of everyday life that you might not even think about, but are critical for many blue chip brands. Coupons, special promotions, unique phone numbers, catalogs, loyalty programs, newsletters, and other methods are used to get customers together in a more measurable way.
The dichotomy between ‘brand’ and ‘direct response’ advertising is generally over-stated. The go-to man that most experienced advertising people choose is David Ogilvy to explain how to bridge the gap:
“We Sell Or Else”
Creativity is one of the most-abused words in advertising.
What clients need to know is that the end of advertising is not to be creative. It’s not to make funny ads. It’s to make sales. Every other proxy metric is not relevant relative to sales. Brand awareness doesn’t matter if you’ve made everyone both know about your brand and hate it.
When creativity is employed in advertising, it only makes sense if it leads to more cash for your business.
The difference between direct marketing and general marketing is that direct marketing has a direct connection to the selling process. It’s always possible to directly attribute sales to that particular ad, which makes it possible to do more accurate testing.
The direct response ad acts like an automatic salesperson. It either closes the deal or it doesn’t. If a direct response ad doesn’t out-earn its costs, it gets fired in the same way that you’d fire an under-performing sales rep.
Part of what Ogilvy argued for was to treat even general ads as if they were direct response ads. You can often tell the difference between a well-made ad and a bad one by whether or not the ad actually asks the viewer to do something at the end of it.
The one and only thing that makes advertising different from other kinds of media is that it’s designed to drive action. Any jerk can make up funny slogans that don’t actually get someone to do something. What you’re paying for is to measurably change the behavior of your target customers. Not to feel like a clever client for commissioning a piece of media. The media is just a means to the end of making more sales.
In industry jargon, this is the ‘call to action.’ If there is no call to action, the only way to measure the impact of the ad itself is to conduct awareness surveys and other metrics which are imperfect in terms of being able to establish impact on sales.
Big Corporations Aren’t Advertising Like You Think They Do
Marketers often cite Proctor & Gamble as the gold standard for product development and product marketing. What you don’t see when P&G wins awards for creative TV commercials is that it’s all connected into a more sophisticated back-end with an enormous direct response element. They test their TV commercials against internet components, print coupons, and store sales. Their ad agencies are not just coming up with big, creative ideas — those ideas are being held accountable using a mesh of direct response methods that collect a ton of data.
The boring coupons are there to back up and test different product lines, calibrate pricing, test packaging, and gather demographic information to help other aspects of their marketing.
Where small businesses tend to go wrong in emulating the creative ideas that they see on TV and hear on the radio is in going for the big idea without that back-end of data collection to support it.
What this usually results in is thousands or tens of thousands of dollars spent on design, logos, and other methods without any sort of accountability built into the system. On the other hand, there are some advertisers that ‘get it,’ using call tracking, coupons, and other methods to hold their general advertising accountable to their bottom lines.
Establish Direct Response Campaigns First
So, the trouble is not necessarily that small businesses tend to try to emulate the big guys and fail: it’s that they misunderstand what the big companies are really doing with their budgets.
It’s also not entirely accurate for direct response partisans to slag on Super Bowl commercials for being expensive and difficult to measure. It’s an enormous waste of money if it’s not backed by the before-mentioned mesh of direct response efforts that can help the company measure the impact of its other spending.
By establishing direct response campaigns first, you can discover what kind of language, imagery, and selling points resonates with your customers. One of the first questions I ask all my clients is what kind of language that they use to close sales, and what language customers use when discussing the product. When you have established direct response ads that make sales, you can transplant those words and images to general advertising, and those general ads (like TV, radio, display, and print) will be more likely to improve your bottom line.