A few months after creating a freezable lunch bag, Melissa Kieling, co-founder of PackIt, got a meeting with Target. The buyers told her that the product's uniqueness wasn't obvious, and they turned her down. "When they passed, we knew we had to do something out of the box," Kieling says.
So she and her co-founder, Jeannette Michels, turned to the land of the ThighMaster. They hired Euro RSCG (now Havas Worldwide) to create a two-minute infomercial demonstrating their product's features. PackIt's infomercial ran on Nickelodeon and the Cartoon Network, among others, and within a year, its sales went from $150,000 to $6 million. PackIt, which is based in Westlake Village, California, made the 2015 Inc. 5000 with $15.5 million in 2014 revenue.
While infomercials might seem like relics and can be expensive (from $40,000 to more than $1 million to make and another $150,000 and up for airtime), they can also be a marketing juggernaut. These founders tell you how it's done.
1. Make sure your product is "infomercial worthy."
"Infomercials can be a huge capital investment, and most products don't work with the format," says Eric Nelson, co-founder and president of New Berlin, Wisconsin-based Norman Direct, the company behind Shower Wow, Mr. Lid, and the Sift and Toss. All of the winners, he says, share three traits: "They're unique, they could appeal to a mass market, and they solve a common problem." Impulse-buy products selling for less than $20 that can easily pivot to retail shelves are a good fit for short-form commercials. Larger-ticket, high-margin items such as premium cosmetics and exercise equipment are a better fit for longer-form ads, like the half-hour "talk show" format. Products aimed at a niche market don't tend to fare well.
2. Get a producer with experience in your market.
When picking an agency, which produces, writes, casts, directs, and edits your infomercial, check its track record in your industry. "Ask which brands they've built, and then look beyond the logos," says Dean Leipsner, chief strategy officer at Go Smile. (The owners of the Bay Area-based Go Smile have been making infomercials for 30 years, and the product, a teeth whitener, is sold at Ulta and Nordstrom.) Leipsner also asks candidates for previous projects' sales-to-cost ratios. "You want an agency that's helped grow an entrepreneur's business, not one that's just played with the big boys," he says. Your producer will likely shoot several versions of your spot to see which one is most effective. "You have to have a lot of patience for testing and a lot of runway in your budget," says Leipsner. "The first thing you put on the air might not work. But the blessing is that when it works, you can be blown away."
3. Pick the right media strategy.
You'll need a media buyer, who'll often run a one- or two-week test to determine the best stations and time slots for your product. This test can run $25,000 or more. Once your campaign rolls out, the sky's the limit with media spending. The trick is making it financially viable, as Kieling did. "We were spending hundreds of thousands of dollars every week on this campaign," she says, "but we negotiated so the media spend wasn't due until 14 days after the spot ran. People were purchasing our product, and money was in our account within two or three days. It became this amazing self-funding, multimillion-dollar machine." Short-form spots usually have a limited life cycle geared toward retail, says Nelson. "You want to make money, but if you just break even and generate enough buzz to attract buyers, that's a win," he says.
As Seen on TV!
Five of the most bankable products to be sold through infomercials
The ThighMaster has generated more than $100 million in sales, and in 2014, creator Suzanne Somers unveiled a vibrating version. Asked for her best advice on selling, she says: "Always tell the truth. The public is smart, and they can smell BS."
Infomercials--followed quickly by primetime parodies--helped the Snuggie beat out its blanket-with-sleeves competitors. "Through the magic of TV and awareness, you can build a tremendous thing," says Allstar Products Group CEO Scott Boilen. Between 2008 and 2013, the company sold more than 30 million Snuggies, for a cozy sum over $500 million.
George Foreman Grill
The world heavyweight champion may not have invented the lean, mean, fat-reducing grilling machine that launched in 1994, but putting his name on the box and his face on TV certainly helped sales. More than 100 million of the grills--which retail for $30 to $140--have been sold.
Close-up video of someone scraping off her calluses might not seem like the hottest marketing material, but an infomercial featuring just that caused sales of this $10 impulse buy to soar. It's generated $450 million as of 2014.
Infomercial pioneer Ron Popeil has had many highs (the Food Dehydrator) and lows (spray-on hair). But this countertop oven, which debuted in 1998, became his best-selling product, with more than $1 billion in revenue. He coined the catch phrase "Just set it and forget it!" during the high-energy spot.