Direct Response Television: Handle with care

A view from the sharp end of direct response television

Maria Hamilton Lyons

Simon Andrews' article (Admap, June '94), was an able and informed look at the growing use of Direct Response Television and its likely development. However, I think some further commentary would be useful from the experience of the response handling industry … those of us at the sharp end of the process.

DRTV is still new and exciting for many advertisers and agencies. But too many expect DRTV to deliver that which it cannot; too many are putting inappropriate marketing objectives at the door of DRTV; and too few are affording the strategy and tactics of actually handling the response high enough on the agenda. Why spend all that time and effort creating brilliant campaigns, only to throw the response away through poorly planned or inappropriate handling? Here then, expanding on Simon Andrews' article, are a few practical points.


To begin with, it must be recognised that DRTV is an 'impulse' response mechanism, where experience has shown that the greatest proportion of response comes in within minutes of the ad being screened. So whether the advertiser or the caller is paying for the call, there is pressure to keep it as short as possible whilst capturing the enquirer's details effectively. Nothing will antagonise the caller more than being kept on the line longer than is necessary to answer their enquiry. Equally, calls tend to be generated over a very short space of time, and so speed of call handling is crucial in ensuring that calls are not lost because all the available lines are busy. Consequently, if it is important to your sales and marketing strategy to capture more than the bare minimum of information about the enquirer, then you are unlikely to achieve that objective by using DRTV.


Such considerations are of particular concern to sectors where product differentiation is difficult, competition is fierce, and long-term customer profiling and management is essential for effective cross-selling and up-selling. Detailed information gathering is usually key to customer profiling, so the less pressurised atmosphere of direct response print advertising, or direct mail, is often a more effective way of capturing such in- depth customer data. Nevertheless, DRTV can act as a powerful means of 'reaching the parts which other media have not yet reached', so long as the objective is confined to generating a very simple, structured, first enquiry.


A golden rule of direct marketing is, 'never mind the width, feel the quality'. In other words, high response is not enough; high quality response is the first imperative. Say the first fulfilment of a telephone enquiry is to mail a glossy brochure. It does not take much to realise that the cost of sending brochures to thousands of callers becomes astronomical.

To control such wastage, one has to address the nature of the offer presented in the ad. The wastage element can be filtered out, to an extent, by the ad's creative - maybe something as simple as saying 'phone anytime for further information' instead of 'phone now for your free information pack.' This both helps to spread the timespan of response, as well as filtering out unprofitable calls from enquirers who have simply been attracted by the word 'free'.


The next critical factor is speed of call handling, to ensure that all calls are picked up when they flood in, minutes after the advertisement's broadcast. Here, systems are needed which allow the call handler to generate the enquirer's address by just entering a postcode into the computer (known as Rapid Addressing Systems). With this kind of computing support, call times can be reduced or, just as importantly, time created within the call to gather that critical extra piece of information from the enquirer.


Finally, there is a huge community of potential customers with whom DRTV will cut no ice whatsoever. They simply will not be inspired to lift the telephone in response to a TV ad, however appealing and enticing it may be. They will only take action when they see direct response advertising in printed form. Most marketers are promoting products and services which do not appeal exclusively to a 'DRTV-friendly' audience (usually younger). This inevitably means that anyone who concentrates media spend too heavily on DRTV may be cutting out any chance of response from a whole section of the potential marketplace.

DRTV is exciting, it is growing fast, and further 'information superhighway' developments will undoubtedly increase the role of direct response advertising. Good old print advertising retains certain advantages over DRTV - it is generally less expensive, serves niche markets better, and is more flexible. On the other hand, DRTV cannot be rivalled for eliciting immediate, high-volume response from the mass audience.


Maria Hamilton Lyons

Maria Hamilton Lyons

Maria Hamilton Lyons spent the earlier part of her career with Aircall where she was Customer Services Director. She joined Readycall in 1990 as Managing Director.