Magically Grow Your Sales With These Simple Infomercial Techniques

What if you could turn your site’s reluctant buyers into motivated customers?

There’s an industry that has been doing that for decades: infomercials. Think about it, they get channel-flippers to stop flipping, enjoy a sales pitch and then whip out their credit cards.

To learn how infomercials do it, and to help you use some the industry’s most powerful techniques, I invited Tim Hawthorne, who’s been dubbed “King of the Infomercial.” He executive produced the fourth long-form commercial ever to go on air and his company, hawthorne direct, grossed nearly a billion dollars in sales for its clients

Tim Hawthorne

Tim Hawthorne

Tim Hawthorne founded Hawthorne Communications (hawthorne direct inc), a television direct response advertising agency.



Full Interview Transcript

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Here’s the program.

Andrew Warner: Hi, everyone. My name is Andrew Warner. I’m the founder of, home of the ambitious upstart. How can you fire up your site sales by grabbing ideas from hot television infomercials? Today’s guest is considered king of the infomercial. He’s Tim Hawthorne, founder of Hawthorne Direct, which has managed over 300 direct response TV campaigns and grossed about a billion dollars in sales for his clients. My goal for this interview is to hear how he did it and to get his lessons for online pioneers like you. Tim, welcome.

Tim Hawthorne: Thanks Andrew, good to be here.

Andrew: So what is your most successful television infomercial?

Tim: Well, that’s difficult to say. We’ve had a lot of successes over the years. We’ve been doing this for 25 years, since the very beginning of the infomercial business back in 1984. That’s actually 26 years now. I think in terms of taking a company from nothing to a significant business, probably Phantom Vacuum Cleaners, which was a Canadian company back in mid-’90s that had actually licensed the Dyson technology of the cyclonic container. They were the first ones to bring it to marketplace. They were about a $3 million company. We did an infomercial for them and within a year, 18 months, we had them at probably $150 million. Within a second year, I think they were probably doing $250 to $300 million. Infomercials are incredibly good for taking a new product, especially an entrepreneur’s product, taking it from nothing to something. There are a lot of risks inherent in trying to do that, but it’s a great way to introduce a product to a mass audience.

Andrew: I read in my research for this interview that you managed the first infomercial for a Fortune 500 company, looks like from my notes it was Time Life. First one for a major credit card company, for Discover Card, and a major health insurance company with Blue Cross. I also noticed that you did some work for Apple Computer.

Tim: That’s right. We did a, this was back in ’95, I think it was the, I’m trying to remember the name of the model, it was an upgrade for the Apple Max and it was what we called a storymercial. Most of the infomercials you see on the air and I should just back up a bit and let everybody know the terminology we use in television, direct response advertising. I’ll back up even a step further and talk a little bit about direct response television versus traditional advertising. DRTV is any television commercial that will have a response mechanism on the screen. People in your audience are well aware that if it’s response driven, it’s going to be measured by click through rates. It’s click for the offer or whatever it might be. In television, it’s respond via an 800 number or go to this URL or text to this particular number. That’s what distinguishes the most obvious DRTV from traditional advertising. Within DRTV, there are a couple of categories. We call it long form, which is the infomercial or 28.5 minutes, and short form, which is going to be a 30, 60, 90, or 120 second commercial. Those are the primary differences. The infomercial is something that really came about back in 1984 after a long hiatus. It’s proven very successful over the years.

Andrew: Okay. I know that you did one of the first ones, in fact I think it was the number four infomercial back in the ’80s when infomercials came back. What was it for?

Tim: It was for a how to purchase real estate with no down payment product. The real estate, a lot people might be familiar with Carlton Sheets who was selling his real estate product for about 20 years, I think. Just recently it hasn’t been on the air that much because I think eventually he just ran into problems. Back in ’84, ’85, the dawn of the infomercial era was actually dominated by these real estate gurus. The first infomercial that I ever did was for one of those gentlemen, a guy named Ed Beckly, and it just took off and really established a new industry at that point.

Andrew: When I said the number four, I don’t mean like number four as far as sales. I mean the fourth one on the air, in the ’80s, grossed over $60 million in sales. What a revolution for marketers online. You guys must have just been jumping for joy that suddenly there was a whole new industry opened up without competition, entrenched players.

Tim: That’s right. It was pretty astonishing. I remember the first night that I put the telecast, the show, back then in ’84, ’85 infomercials were actually an hour long. A lot of people don’t remember this, but instead of sitting through a half hour infomercial, you were sitting through an hour.

Andrew: Now that we’ve talked a little bit about your background, I thought maybe you can teach us some of the techniques, some of the ideas that you give infomercial creators. Maybe we can use them as we build our Internet companies. One of the big ideas that you share with infomercial creators is that product is king. What do you mean by that?

Tim: First and foremost, when you’re trying to create an immediate response which is what direct response television is and direct marketing on the Internet is all about, you don’t want to present an ad that people could kind of think about. It’s not a branding ad. It’s not something that you want to generate a feeling or an emotion in a person about a product so that when they’re at a retail store later on they can think about buying it. It’s something you want to motivate them to purchase at the immediate point that we’re right at, at this point.

In order to do that, I think there are definitely certain products that fall into a category of generating immediate response. That’s why we say in direct response television that product is king. It would be difficult for us to sell, for example, an automobile with one click. Where by having someone call an 800 number, if you can get somebody to call a 800 number or to click for more information about a considered purchase, like an automobile, a washer/dryer, something of that sort. In order to get somebody to respond immediately, it has to fall into some categories that we would consider to be appropriate for immediate response. That’s why we say product is king. These particular categories tend to fall, in direct response television, I think there’s some similarities on the Internet, into categories such as fitness, beauty, diet, business opportunities, kitchen and home appliances, and things of this sort which are easily demonstrable and within a price range where an immediate response is very possible. Priced anywhere from $9.95 to let’s say $495. This is the price category and these are the product categories that seem to appeal mostly to people to make that immediate response, which is what we’re looking for in direct marketing.

Along with that, you’re looking at products that do appeal to certain key parts of needs of human beings. Among those are a need for love, a need for security, a need for acquisition or wealth, a need for pleasure. We can also take a look at products and see how they might be in terms of appealing to solving fears that people have or satisfying greed which is again acquisition or wealth. Also, products that somehow tap into guilt or exclusivity, the one-of-a-kind type of thing and those that build ego. When it comes to a product, people in direct response television, they can take a look at a product. They can see if it’s simple, if it solves a common problem, if it appeals to one of these very instrumental aspects of human nature. If it doesn’t, then it’s not going to be something that we would recommend anybody try in direct response television, and it’s probably not going to work on the Internet either.

Andrew: If an ad doesn’t work, how do you know if it’s the ad itself that doesn’t work, or if the product that you’re promoting is inappropriate for the medium?

Tim: That is a really good question. We, I’ve seen many direct response television commercials selling products which even after 26 years of being in the business, I would say they’re in the category of fitness, beauty, diet, business opportunities; they’re solving some need for security or wealth or greed. They’re ticking all the boxes of being the appropriate kind of product. They have an incredibly well-produced commercial. That is also well-structured and has a great offer and somehow doesn’t work. On the other hand, I’ve seen products that for whatever reason I thought would never work. They didn’t have a very good creative execution, and they worked like gangbusters. The bottom line is that nobody can predict with 100% assuredness as to whether or not something is going to work on the Internet, on direct response television. But there are things that we can take a look at. If we do see a product that we think is great, you have to look at the commercial. You’re saying, “You know what, this is a soft offer. A lot of improvement could be made to the offer. Let’s see if we can go back, change the offer, and test it again.”

The nice thing about direct response television and the Internet is you can test these different creative points. Even after doing that, two, three, four times, test new offers, new creatives, if it isn’t working, there’s something that’s just not connecting between the product and the mass audience. So, again, difficult to really determine beforehand, but with testing that’s the only way we’re ever going to be able to figure out whether or not it’s going to work.

Andrew: Okay. Your next point is one that I’ve seen in infomercials a lot. You say create an urgency to buy. How do you do that?

Tim: Well, I think the first and foremost way to do it is to really define what we call “the big promise.” The big promise is, essentially, one line that you’re going to be putting out as your headline, somewhere, if it’s a video, somewhere within the first 5 to 60 seconds, as to what your product ultimately can do for an individual. The big promise and how it’s crafted is probably the most important thing you need to do creatively in putting together your commercial or your ad.

I’ll give you an example. We did a product for a client a number of years ago, which was a patterned, multi or dual roller, painting device. It was alike a roller paint device except it had a pattern and there were two different rollers on a stem so that you could actually create these patterns on a wall like faux painting, as they called it. It was called Wall Magic. What we determined was that this particular product was going to be excellent for people that really wanted to have a different look on their walls other than a flat painted wall and people that found it dreary and drudgery to paint any wall. We came up with what we thought was a big promise that would be effective. Here’s the big promise. Transform anyone’s home or apartment from ordinary to extraordinary in just minutes. What we tried to do here was to move beyond just the fact that you can paint something that’s pretty on your walls quickly and create a line that was going to appeal to people and their dreams of creating a home that’s much more beautiful than they’ve ever had in the past. They aren’t going to have spend a lot time and sweat about it. Transform anyone’s home or apartment from ordinary to extraordinary in just minutes. The big promise. That could be a headline. That could be a subject line of an e-mail. The big promise in crafting exactly what your product can do, the ultimate benefit that provides, is probably the most important thing in terms of creating an urgency to buy.

Andrew: You know what and I see that, I see that working on me all the time. Websites that I end up signing up for quickly are the ones that make a clear big promise to me. I know exactly what I’m going get. I’m thinking right now of Groupon. They say right away, I think it’s up to 90% discount at restaurants and shops that you already love. I’m sure I’ve got the phrasing wrong but I understand the benefit immediately, and that’s why I gave them my e-mail address as soon as I landed on their site. You also say, showcase an irresistible offer. How do you do that?

Tim: I think that after the product, and if you’re doing a television commercial, after the product, the talent becomes actually the next most important factor of success. By talent, I’m talking about the presenter or the celebrity. You really don’t have that equivalence, I think, certainly in display advertising or any kind of text advertising on the Internet. In video, talent becomes really critical to the success, and we can talk a little bit more about that later. After talent, the next most important aspect of the success of your commercial or, I think on online, any kind of advertising is going to be the author.

Again, this is for generating an immediate response, which is what direct marketing is all about. Creating an irresistible offer comes down to actually understanding some of the basic needs of an individual. Among those needs are, is that everybody wants a deal. Everybody wants to get something with dollars off. Everybody wants to get it quickly. Everybody likes to get more and more. These are some of the basic aspects of human nature. So, we try to appeal to individuals by structuring an offer that’s actually going to hone in on these aspects. Among those aspects is we’re going to be trying to add bonuses and premiums and discounts and coupons. Let me give you some examples of successful direct response television offers and many of these you’ve seen. You’ve seen not only in direct response but in print advertisings. In print advertisements, you have seen them on the Internet.

Here’s some of the basics. Buy one get one free, or get the second one at half price. So you’re getting an immediate discount. Buy one and get a second one super size, so you’re actually doubling or tripling the order. Buy one and the second is actually going to be double the size. Drop a payment. Let’s say that your offer is three payments of $19.95, that’s your initial offer. But wait, if you call now, if you order now, we’ll actually make one payment for you. So it’s only two payments of $19.95. So that’s drop a payment.

The $9.95 trial offer is something that’s worked very well for people in direct response for the last 10 or 15 years. That is for a product that’s going to be much more expensive than $9.95. Maybe $49.95, $99.95, $199.95, but you can try it now for only $9.95 or for the cost of shipping and handling. In that particular case, vendors obviously taking a risk. You’re only collecting $9.95, and you’re shipping the product to the individual. They are essentially required to return the product to you within 30 days or you will hit their credit card for the full price. Of course, they understand this when they call in or when they actually go to the website and actually affect the order. They understand that if they don’t return the product within 30 days they’ll be paying the full amount or they’ll be paying multiple payments after that 30 days. But a $9.95 trial offer, what a superb way to get people to just try your product for less than $10.

Discounted coupons are obviously something that’s been around for 150 years. Coupons that you can download from the net are another option. If you’re buying the product at retail, you go to the internet, get coupons, print them out, and take them to your retailer. This is becoming much more popular.

I think one of the most powerful bonuses or premiums that you can offer is free shipping. A lot of people don’t understand the power of this. For some reason, if I’m going to pay $99.95 and there’s an additional $9.95 or $14.95 or $19.95 for shipping, that additional amount which is very important to many vendors, if you can sacrifice that, it has an amazing impact on people. Just hearing “free shipping.” As a matter of fact, in just a moment I’m going to give you some examples of some very powerful words that are used in direct marketing, but “free” is simply known in our business as the most powerful, most effective word in the English language. Free shipping is a very powerful bonus and premium.

Dollars off, you can say that it’s $99.95, but for the next 30 days 30% off or $30 off. Discounting immediately becomes very powerful too. Those are some examples of how to create an irresistible offer. One note that I should make here is that if you’re doing something in video and the process that you’re taking people through is linear in time, you actually build the offer over a period of one, two, three minutes. You provide the initial offer. Perhaps it’s $99.95 and you’re going to get A, B, and C. A minute later you say but if you call now we’re also going to give you premiums D and E. Oh, by the way, if you use your credit card, we’re also going to give you free shipping and at the very end, we’re also going to give you a free gift, which if you return the product, the gift is yours to keep. Just our saying thanks for you trying the product. You can see that over the period of two to three minutes we can actually build this offer with a number of different levels, providing the core offer with the high price, then additional bonuses, then potentially reducing the price instead of three pay of $33.33, it’s now going to be two pay of $33.33. Adding more bonuses, giving free shipping. So going through a process of actually building what we call a Christmas tree offer. By adding more and more that a person’s going to get makes it very enticing and irresistible, I think, as you can see.

Andrew: The better than money back guarantee, you’re right. I hadn’t thought of that in years. When I used to order things from magazines or even comic books, I think as a kid, they used to have the better than money back guarantee. If you’re not happy, keep the free gift, return the product. We’ll give you your money back on the product. The free gift is yours to keep. I haven’t seen this used online at all. I’m thinking of all the different web apps online that I’ve been thinking of trying out, but I wasn’t sure about whether I should take my credit card out. If they said, Andrew not only will we give you your money back if you’re not happy, you’ll also get to keep some portion of this service forever. We don’t make that available to people who don’t at least try us out. I’d jump on that because now I’ve got a real incentive to sign up. What a great idea. I forgot all about that.

You also said earlier, before we started the interview, that we need to emphasize the magical transformation. What’s the magical transformation?

Tim: The magical transformation is, probably in terms of the creative. By creative, we’re talking about, in text advertising, we’re talking about the words. The content of what we’re writing, the order of those words, that’s the creative. When it comes to television, it’s a combination of the audio, the video, and the words. In this creative execution, the magical transformation is probably the most critical thing that can happen.

I’ll give you kind of a classic example of what we mean by magical transformation, and that’s in a diet show. Everybody’s familiar with, Nutrisystem, I guess. It could be long form or it could be short form. The before and after is somebody before they lost the weight and after they lost the weight. You will always see those images side by side eventually. It might be a full screen image, initially of the person before they lost the weight, squeeze it back, bring up the image of the person after they’ve lost the weight. They’ve lost 30 pounds. They’ve lost 50, 60 pounds. That’s a before and that’s an after. That’s what we call the magical transformation. Magical transformation is in essence how to showcase what your product can do for somebody. In other words, how is your product going to transform my life? Of course, if it’s a diet product, it’s going to transform me magically from being an overweight person to being a fit person. If it’s an exercise product, it’s is going to be the same way.

It’s a kitchen gadget, for example the Magic Bullet, which is essentially a mini-mixer. It’s taking all these ingredients that are sitting on the table — the strawberries, the yogurt, the ice — throwing them in this mixer, hitting it a couple of times and voila, you have this amazing strawberry smoothie. That’s the magical transformation.

Virtually in every infomercial, every direct response commercial you see. you look for the magical transformation and how it’s executed because it’s probably, it’s the thing that grabs people the most emotionally. How is the product going to transform my life?

For example, going back to vacuum cleaners which are very basic, it’s throwing a lot of stuff on the floor. You have a dirty floor, take your vacuum, one swipe across the floor and everything is cleaned up. Where that vacuum swiped, everything else is still dirty. The Wall Magic product that I just mentioned a little earlier, you’ve got a blah room with kind of average looking walls. Fast mo, somebody using the Wall Magic with the paints and within five seconds you’ve got this incredibly, beautifully painted, faux painted room. You bring those two images together, you have the before and after. That’s the magical transformation.

Whatever your product is, look for the magical transformation. How is it going to change somebody’s life? How can I really graphically represent that on the screen or in text?

Andrew: You earlier mentioned specific phrases and selling words. You and I before the interview talked about magical phrases. What are magical phrases?

Tim: Magical phrases, I think, are going to be the way you put together, obviously, words that have a particular appeal to people. One of the ways to do that is to first be aware of some of the words that are very powerful in direct marketing. I’ll give you a list of some of these. As I mentioned, “free” is still, I think, and will always be considered the most powerful word in selling. After that we would probably think of words such as now, you or your, easy, easily, guarantee, break-through, revolutionary, fast, quick, instant, magic, new, special, exclusive, limited time, risk free, only, save, money back, money back guarantee, call now, and in terms of a classic phrase, “but wait, there’s more.

Everybody kinds of kicks around that particular phrase and it’s used often. One of the reasons it’s used so often is that it’s so effective. I can give you a few others that are often used. This is, again, this is in direct response television.

Andrew: I’d love it, yes, please.

Tim: So here are some additional phrases. “This offer couldn’t possibly get better, or could it?” “But hold on, we’re not done yet.” “We know you’ll love.” “Call or log on now.” “You’re going to love this.” “And that’s not all.” “Call right now and you’ll also receive an additional free bonus.” “But hold on, I’m just getting warmed up.” “What could you possibly be waiting for?” Let’s see what else I can find here. “This is an unbeatable price.” “You don’t want to miss out on this one.” “What are you waiting for?” “This is an absolutely incredible deal, and you won’t find it anywhere else.” “If you aren’t completely satisfied, just return it for a complete refund. No questions asked.” Which is a classic phrase in direct response television, asking no questions is really critical. You don’t want to confront somebody when they’re returning something.

The real classic, I think, also is, “If you don’t like it, we’ll buy it back.”

Andrew: As you were listing that, I can hear certain Internet marketers in my audience roll their eyes. I can almost hear them through the audio, through the iPods that they’re listening to us on. I will talk to them. They’ll tell me how they change the color of the button on the website and their sales increased. How they changed a little phrase, instead of sign up now, order now, or be joined up, or something awkward, it works and it increases their conversion rates. They’re willing to do that. I wonder if they’re willing to try some of these techniques, some of these words in their ad copy and test them out. Then come back and tell me how effective it’s been.

Tim: I think they should. Here’s one of the truths of direct marketing and that is that, while I think this is one of the truths of selling. I don’t think anybody likes to be sold to. I think we all kind of roll our eyes when we get accosted by a used car salesman. Used car salespeople are probably at the very bottom of the list of respected professions. Everybody really enjoys and is entertained by fantastic brand advertising that is entertaining — Nike, Coca-cola, Pepsi, whoever it might be. Where we really at times don’t even know what the product is that’s being advertised. You can go from one side of advertising, talking about a product, which I would describe as being very soft. This is brand advertising where we’re really talking about what the brand means in terms of emotion to you. Nike is all about getting fit and being better as a person. We’re really not talking about the product. It’s a very soft sell. All the way to the other side which is a hard sell which is in essence it’s a carnie, it’s a pitchman, it’s Billy Mays. It’s a guy in your face telling you, you absolutely need this product. From soft sell to hard sell and most people would prefer to always be soft sold.

The fact is, is that if you want to sell directly and you want to sell immediately, the hard sell always works best. There is no doubt in any direct marketer’s mind. As much as we would love to be selling soft, because nobody likes to be sold the hard sell which is telling people what you’re going to get, telling them what the product is going to do for you and telling it to them directly, there’s nothing that’s going to make the phone ring or people click and order more than the hard sell. Unfortunately, I think it’s a fact of life. I can’t tell you why psychologically the hard sell works, but it does. I think it’s just up to us as direct marketers who want to be in television or on the Internet, we can use these techniques but we have to use them with integrity. We aren’t trying to fool anybody. As a matter of fact, in direct marketing, one of the reasons why I like direct marketing and the direct sale is that we’re truthful. We tell people exactly what the benefits are and what the features are. We aren’t trying to associate the product with something that’s sexy or something that’s not what the product is. We’re telling you what the product is. We’re telling you why you should have it, what’s it’s going to do for you in your life, and we’re telling you also that you need to order it right now. Hard sell is there. I think you need to learn the techniques of how to do the hard sell with integrity. Test, test, and test to see what really works.

Andrew: Yes, absolutely, I think we in the Internet space and we in technology in general just need to own our responsibility as salespeople. It’s not enough to just create great products. If nobody knows about them, if nobody buys them, if nobody interacts with them, there’s no company to keep developing these new great products. I’m so glad to have you on here and to do an interview with you on selling because I want to do more of it and I want to get more of my, I want my audience to do more selling. Is there anything else that you think is important?

Tim: I think that there are a lot of different things that are necessary, I think, to understand about great selling. There are some books which I probably would recommend and perhaps, Andrew, I could send you a list and you might be able to put them on your website. Books that people should buy to understand the basics of strong direct marketing and how to really sell on the Internet or on television. I think one of the keys here also is that, certainly in direct response television, is for us to be very real. We aren’t trying to trick anybody. We aren’t trying to be deceptive. We’re trying to convey the truth about a product that we know will really help people in their lives. That being real quality, I think, is absolutely essential. Also critical to this also is testimonials. People have seen infomercials for years and years and the use of real people and how they feel about a product. You can never underestimate the power of a testimonial, whether it be a written testimonial or whether it be a video testimonial. My point of view is that if you have a product and you’re on the Internet, it doesn’t take much to get a video testimonial of somebody. The power of that video testimonial is so much more significant than a written testimonial. A big recommendation, testimonials, and the quality of those testimonials can make the difference between success and failure of a product. Probably a great tip here is make sure you have great testimonials.

Andrew: Absolutely. I’m going to suggest this. First of all, I would love to get that list of books. My audience keeps asking me for books to read as follow-ups to some of my interviews. I’d love it and I will absolutely link to it. I’m going to ask my audience to do this. Find a way to create that irresistible offer, or if you already have that, can you rephrase your offer in the way that we discussed here today. Make it an irresistible offer and e-mail it to me. I would like to see what you guys are coming up with. Come back to where we’ll have that book list for you. Is there a website where they can go to see you, find out more about your work?

Tim: Sure, and there’s actually quite a bit of, there’s some chapters of my book that are on the website. I think there are some videos. I did a video called the “Analysis of an Infomercial.” I think we have some sections on that. They can learn a lot about the creative of doing direct response television on our website too.

Andrew: All right. Well, thank you. Thanks for doing this interview. Thank you all for watching, bye.

Tim: Thank you, Andrew. Bye.

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