The following excerpt appeared in Steve Dworman's best-selling book "$12 Million of Inside Marketing Secrets discovered through Direct Response Sales." She is the only writer featured in this blockbuster book (published by SDE, Inc. 2003 - available through Amazon.com).
As with the motion picture industry, writers are the unsung heroes of the infomercial industry. Creating a demand and desire for a product or service is an amazing skill. Colleen Szot has quietly been responsible for some of the most successful campaigns in the direct response television industry. In this interview, she reveals a lot of hard-learned secrets about what really generates sales, and what to avoid.
- Steve Dworman: Colleen, when did you start writing?
- Colleen Szot: Well, I actually started writing as a kid, and sold my first article for $1 at the age of nine. I then wrote for a lot of teen publications, interviewing local bands who came to my city and the like. I got into advertising in 1976, after I graduated from college. And I've been in the business ever since.
- SD: Didn't you work for some big ad agencies?
CS: Yes, I've worked at J. Walter Thompson and Foote, Cone & Belding in Chicago, and Campbell, Mithun Esty here in Minneapolis. I've been fortunate to work with some of the biggest advertisers in the country, including Kraft Foods, Coors beer, Wendy's, Oscar Mayer, Coca-Cola, VISA and tons more.
- SD: When did you start writing direct response?
CS: Well, believe it or not, 1 actually got my start in the 1970s, writing for the Oral Roberts ministries. You know, Christian ministries have been using direct response almost longer than anyone else. "Call this number and get your free book," is what helped a lot of ministries get on their feet.
Back then, we used more of a soft-sell approach, weaving true-to-life stories in with our messages. But I had the opportunity to work with some pretty heavy directors, like Sid and Marty Krofft and Phil Cooke, and learned a lot.
I've always liked the whole idea of direct response because it's measurable--you can run a bank image spot one weekend and not know if that customer opening a new account is here because he saw your commercial or because your bank happens to be around the corner from where he works. But with direct response, you run a half-hour show or a one-minute spot over a weekend, and you can see exactly how many people are responding directly to what they saw. I like that. Too often, creative people aren't accountable for their work. With direct response, even though many other factors, like the direction and talent and certainly the offer come into play, you can actually see the impact your words have on people. That's very powerful.
- SD: So you were in Los Angeles, working and being very successful at it, in the early '90s and then you upped and decided to move to Minneapolis in 1992. Why?
CS: I lived in Chicago for many years, and always felt like a Mid-Western gal. I love Los Angeles, and the thrill and excitement of being there, but really wanted to move my family closer to what I consider my roots. Plus, when we made the move, Minneapolis was a hotbed for direct response, with NordicTrack, American Harvest and K-Tel headquartered here. While some of those companies are no longer here, this is still a great place to be. I'm equal distance from each coast, and with the Internet and Skype, I'm able to work where I want to live. And the work has followed me, which has been great.
- SD: You sort of cut your teeth on NordicTrack, isn't that right?
CS: You know, I was really fortunate to work for NordicTrack at a time when some great creative minds were there, people like Barbara Thomas and Marshall Masko. I was on retainer with NordicTrack for almost three years and it was a great learning experience, as well as a highly successful time to be selling the ultimate in fitness equipment, a NordicTrack machine.
I didn't renew my retainer contract in 1996, because I had a non-compete with NordicTrack, and was getting inquiries from places like FitnessQuest and Tony Little and really wanted to flex my creative muscles. Shortly thereafter, of course, NordicTrack went under. I'm not saying my leaving had anything to do with it [laughs out loud] because I know it didn't, but the timing is certainly suspicious--ha!
Actually, I learned so much from the folks at NordicTrack. During the time I was there I saw them go from all lead-generation to more direct sales, and that was very exciting.
- SD: You had a front-row seat at NordicTrack and American Harvest. Give us your perception of what happened to these great companies.
CS: First, NordicTrack...you know, Jim Bostic, who was the president when I was there, was really the heart and soul of NordicTrack. This was a man who took the company from a small mom-and-pop operation to $400 million in sales. And although he was a bit of a tyrant, and many people referred to his time there as "the reign of terror," he was an unbelievably intelligent and intuitive man, and frankly; I liked him. We would have creative meetings in which we would pitch the work we were doing, and in a matter of minutes he would be able to tell you what to change to make it better, or whether or not it would work at all. And lots of times, that would come across in a mean-spirited fashion, but you know he knew what he was talking about. Well, in 1995-96, the fitness market was really saturated, and NordicTrack was no longer the only machine on the block. I think one of the big mistakes NordicTrack made was not making "affordable" fitness machines soon enough. It did develop its All-American line, with treadmills and cross-country trainers that anyone could buy, but too late. There were too many other exercisers to choose from at that point. But I think the critical mistake NordicTrack made was ousting Bostic in 1996-97. The parent company, CML, was operating out of fear--fear that they would not continue to enjoy the growth they already had and that was a huge mistake. There was no way they were going to duplicate that kind of growth. It was fiscally impossible, and yet they thought they could do it by bringing in new management. Over a two-year period, they let 300 people go--good, bright, innovative people and that was a mistake, too. The irony is that shortly after Jim Bostic left, he was tragically killed in a car accident, and so they couldn't even bring him back if they wanted to. Very sad, very distressing.
Today, NordicTrack is still a very viable and even memorable name in fitness. It's funny, the company hasn't been on the air for three years now and yet the other night on NBC's Will & Grace I heard Will refer to a NordicTrack like it was still number one. And in many ways it is--it's the ultimate and nothing has taken its place. NordicTrack machines are now made overseas, and you can buy them through their stores and through Sears, but they certainly don't command the presence they once had. But they still command the respect.
As for American Harvest, I knew David Dornbush, one of the founders and CEOs of American Harvest, quite well. He would come over to my house and we would write shows - like the Jet Stream Oven, the Dehydrator - together. He was an extremely brilliant man, with the kind of rare insight into what consumers wanted, at the precise time they wanted it. Just like Jim Bostic was NordicTrack, Dave Dornbush was American Harvest, and while he was one of the most innovative thinkers I've ever met, he left some of the other day-to-day decisions to others, and they weren't always right. When American Harvest went under, Dave had patents pending on more than 60 new products, but he lost the backing and the name of American Harvest to fund those products. He stayed in the business, as brilliant and loved as ever. He had people stop him on the street and ask him for his autograph. And a more personable CEO you'd never meet. Sadly, he also past away of cancer in 2005.
- SD: Let's fast-forward. In the last couple of years, you've scored big with hits like the Orlimar Trimetal, Tony Little and Toma's Tan Perfect, which was HSN's biggest hit in 1999. How has direct response, and in particular, direct response writing, changed over the years?
CS: Ten years ago, a lot of direct response was hard sell. "Operators standing by, call now, call in the next 30 seconds, etc." and while I think an element of that can still be found today, and is applicable for some products, the direction today seems to be less knock-em-over-the-head, and more of a softer sell. I think DR writing changes, in some way or another, every six months or so, with the introduction of a new way to position products, or a new type of offer. I think on the whole, shows today are much more polished, much more stylized. Infomercials today look more like traditional advertising or even TV programming. Everyone uses animation, and so you have to have some degree of that, everyone uses music, and so you have to use that. Are they artistic? Well, I'd put CNN's "The Cold War" infomercial or the new David Dikeman show up against programming today--they're that good. I think the bottom line, however, is that the same old direct response principles that worked 10, 15 years ago, still work today. You tell 'em, you tell 'em, and you sell 'em. Sometimes it's just that easy.
- SD: What new techniques have you introduced in your shows?
CS: Well, for example, for the new DishPlayer 500 show, that I wrote for The Direct Network, we used a menu to tell the viewers what was coming up. The same technique has been used very successfully on local news shows, and my thinking was that if we tell viewers that we're going to hear from a kid reporter, or find out the answers to your most frequently-asked questions in the next few minutes, then maybe we can hold the viewer for a little longer, and get them to pick up the phone.
I've also had amazing success using a little-known line to tell viewers that our product is so hot, we can hardly handle all the calls. The line is, "If operators are busy, please call again...we want everyone to take advantage of this one-of-a-kind offer!"
That particular sales line has made me almost as famous as writing for the George Foreman Grill. Social psychologist Robert Cialdini has quoted it in many, many books, and if you just Google my name, you'll see it's made its way into major publications (The UK Guardian, Psychology Factory/Stockholm, Fakt/Poland, Morning Sun Newspaper/ Japan)and best-selling books ("Enchantment" by my friend Guy Kawasaki) around the globe - if I had a nickel for every time it was used...well, I'd be as rich as George Foreman (or nearly!)
I also like to think "outside the box," and would love to see marketers take more risks, Of course, it's not my money, so that's easy for me to say. But I can't tell you how many people call me up and say, "I have this product but I want to do a Kevin Trudeau-type show...or a TaeBo show." And I tell them, then hire their writer. Yes, they've enjoyed some tremendous success, and I admire greatly what they do, but how about doing something new and different? Why not position testimonials a whole new way? Or why not borrow a page from daytime talk shows and have the person who lost a ton of weight with your fitness or diet product confront the bullies who teased them in high school? Borrow a Seinfeld concept and do a show backwards, or go to a new, exciting background, using new, credible talent. I'm tired of seeing the Santa Monica Third Street Promenade, the Venice Beach area, and if I'm tired of it, what do you think consumers are?
- SD: Tell me about some of the shows you've written that after testing, didn't perform and you had to make changes to it--and what kind of changes you made.
CS: Well, I'll give you a great example from a recent fitness show I did. I can't get into specifics, but it was a great product, and I had talked the client into offering a charity overlay. He wasn't quite sure of that aspect, but his wife thought it was a great idea, and so we did it. Well, the show in testing pulled about a 1.3, so we made some changes, took out the charity overlay that he thought was holding it back, and tested it again--and you know, it got the exact same numbers. What was the problem? A couple of things, in my opinion. The first was timing. I'm a firm believer in the right timing. You don't run a weight loss product during the Christmas holidays and you don't sell a suntan lotion in the dead of winter. I think if the show had gotten on the air earlier in January, it would have done well. But by the time mid-February or March comes around, the people whose New Year's resolution was to lose weight, have already bought an exerciser, or they've discovered some new weight loss pill or liquid or other regimen, and they're just not interested in your product, no matter how great it is.
I recently rewrote a show that had started at Tyee and then went to a couple of other production companies before it landed in my lap, and that was for a tool show. Absolutely phenomenal product, just the most amazing set of tools in the world, honestly, but the people involved, namely the president and others, were simply too close to it and couldn't divorce themselves from the production. I wrote a script, a great script, too, and everyone loved it, and they shot some new footage with ShadowBox Pictures. But then the president himself decided to edit the show. I don't understand why people hire experts to do a job for them, and then don't let them do it. He tried to do a kitchen sink type of show, putting way too much into it, and while the testimonials were incredibly impactful, there were too many of them. He would have done better to error on the side of keeping it simple and saving some of the great footage for the next great show. But he didn't and the show didn't work.
I think another mistake marketers make is in not pricing the product correctly. They either under or over price it, and the consumer doesn't see it as a value. I worked on a weight loss show awhile back and they tested it at two price points: one for $59.95 and one for $39.95. Now that's a huge difference, and the $59.95 did better. That's because we were able to say, "For just $2 a day, you get one month's supply of all this," and that hit a button with the consumer like I knew it would. I always tell my clients, you always have the chance to lower your price--you never have the chance to raise it. So start at the higher price, and give consumers value for their money, and see what happens. If it doesn't work, you can always lower the price.
- SD: What 10 things can marketers do today--that they're not doing--to make their shows work harder?
CS: Number 1, coordinating a company's marketing efforts with their Web site. I was talking to my friend Elizabeth D'Orazio of lntelliVision the other day. She and I worked on Toma's Tan Perfect. She said marketers are simply not using the Internet to their advantage, especially with short form and lead generation, and I agree 100 percent. The Web site should appear every time the toll-free number appears, both in the show and in the CTA. That allows the consumer, especially the "thinker" who's on the fence about making a purchase, to go there and get more information and even see demonstrations.
Number 2, there are a ton of things that marketers can do to add production value to their show that don't cost an arm and a leg. For example, good lighting. Good lighting can make a world of difference. I just finished a show in Florida and the lighting changes from locale to locale. It's not only obvious, it's distracting. And anytime you're distracting the viewer, they're not paying attention to your product.
Number 3, music. Most people use the same needle-drop music as everyone else, when they can often get a custom music bed just for the cost of royalties. There are a ton of musicians who'd love to create music for your show, for very little, just for the exposure.
Number 4, marketers should watch more regular TV and see what they're doing. You know, today's consumer is very savvy, and if they're channel-surfing and see anything that smacks of a commercial, chances are they're going to zoom right past it. But if you make your show entertaining as well as informative, you're going to stop them in their tracks, and hook 'em.
Number 5, invest in great directors. Direct response is no longer the bastard stepchild of advertising, like it used to be. It is a viable and highly acceptable means for selling products. So get a director who's doing cutting-edge work on brand commercials and hire him or her. The Direct Network is a great example. Here's an agency who's done a lot of name brand TV commercials, as well as direct response, and they give it the respect it deserves. It goes without saying that you don't hire someone who looks down on infomercials or who's out just for the awards. You want someone who wants to make the phone ring as bad as you do, and do it with some of the latest techniques. And you know, you can get a good director for $1000 to $2000 a day. It doesn't have to be expensive.
Number 6, look for some new pitchpersons. I respect Forbes Riley as much as anyone, but let's see some new faces, hear some new voices, create some new hosts.
Number 7, do something new and exciting with your testimonials. There are just too many talking-head-type testimonials. Invite all your testimonials to a picnic and capture their unedited comments on camera. Put five women who are going to their class reunion on the same weight loss product or exerciser and then ask the bullies who used to tease them what they think about them now. Have the testimonials meet the inventor of the product and tell him what they think. Do something new.
Number 8, invest in good animation, but not necessarily expensive animation. Beth D'Orazio was telling me that she uses 2-D animation with 3-D camera moves. Less expensive and yet it looks fantastic.
Number 9, rethink your CTA. To quote you, Steve, you once wrote, "You should only put in a call to action when you've built up to such a crescendo that your viewer is salivating." That may be 12 minutes into the show or it may be 24 minutes into the show. Then hear those phones ring.
Number 10, it goes without saying, to invest in a great script. Ask about their recent successes, successes they've had in the last six to 12 months, not successes they had three years ago. And pay them what they're worth. The script is the foundation for everything.
Oh, I have one more. Number 11--take some risks. Create a new format, do something daring, do a show backwards from solution to problem, bring people to tears, or make them laugh, just as long as they pick up the phone.
- SD: Do infomercials in your opinion, sell as well as they used to?
CS: Well, that's a loaded question, because I think consumers today know that whatever they see on television will, more than likely, be in retail stores within six months. And so they may wait and buy it at retail, but then the infomercial has done its job...it's driven sales, just to a retail outlet versus direct from TV.
Yes, I think infomercials sell as well as they used to, they're just selling to a more focused, more discerning viewer. There was a time when marketers had a lot of returns or people called to ask questions, and not necessarily buy the product. I think that's changed. Returns are way down across the hoard and more people are calling to order than to ask questions. So I think your answer is yes, they do sell as well as they used to, but in a different way.
I also think that anyone shopping in a store today realizes that we have a labor shortage. All the stores are begging for help, and consumers are suffering because there is no one on the sales floor who is knowledgeable enough to serve us the way we deserve to be served. So we're looking for other ways to buy, and direct response has always been one of them.
But like with all things, a well-written script, is just part of the equation. A great-selling show is also dependent on great direction, good talent, super editing, so many different factors.
- SD: Speaking of that, you used to produce and even edit your own movie trailers, so why don't you produce the shows you write?
CS: Well, to be honest, I don't like producing, and yet I have enormous respect for people who do it, and who do it well. But I absolutely love to write. I'm passionate about words, and I do it pretty well, and so why not do what I love to do and get paid for it?
Plus, a lot of my clients are production companies who value the writer and the script a whole lot more than they have before. I still think there are shows where people say, "We're just going to wing it without a script," but that's becoming less frequent. If you really think about it, the script is everything. It's the foundation for everything you do. That's not to say it's carved in stone. I like to work with a hands-on producer/director, someone like Jeff Young of ShadowBox Pictures, Steve Spinner of FitnessQuest, and Joan Renfrow of Onyx Productions. I value their input and when we brainstorm, you can practically see the sparks fly! I don't write in a vacuum, and I don't care who has a good idea. If it's good and it works, let's use it.
But to get back to your question, there are, of course, a lot of full-service production companies who want to do everything, from writing to fulfillment, and I say more power to them. But sometimes when that happens, something gets short shrift, and more often than not, it's the script. It's like going to a general practitioner for cancer surgery. Wouldn't you rather go to someone who's a specialist at what he or she does and does it successfully, every day?
- SD: The greatest compliment you can receive is when a product beats its sales estimates.
CS: The bottom line is and always will be sales. For example, a WalkFit infomercial I wrote moved 360,000 units in 30 days for NordicTrack, when they had projected 90 days. Tony Little's Gazelle Glider broke QVC's 19-year record in 1998, selling $50,000 worth every minute, and on and on. That is what is gratifying.