Field Report: 5 Ways to Lose Your Shirt in DRTV

by Jordan Pine on Oct 7, 2016 12:00:00 AM DRTV

5_Ways_to_Lose_Your_Shirt_in_DRTV-275771-edited.jpgDuring my 14 years in the field, I’ve worked with just about every company on the short-form side of the business. That has allowed me to observe the inner workings of DRTV from a unique vantage point. While I’ve learned a lot about how to succeed, I’ve learned a lot more about how to fail. The trick is not losing your shirt doing it—although I’ve observed how to do that, too. Below are the top five ways:

1. Invest before success.

The beauty of DRTV, according to Harvard Professor Joe Lassiter, is that it’s “a venture capital model for products.” By that he means we invest in rounds as we see success—or we fail quickly and cheaply. What VCs do with startups, we do with products. At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work. In the field, I have seen many marketers take the opposite approach, using a ‘spend and pray’ methodology. For example, a client recently came to me for advice after having spent many months and tens of thousands of dollars developing a prototype. He personally believed in the product concept, and that was enough for him to invest heavily. I recommended we go back to square one and see if consumers agreed with his gut. I used the earliest step in my validation process, an online survey. In less than a day and for a couple hundred bucks, we learned that consumers were lukewarm on the concept at best. In the end, the client had to make the painful decision to cut his losses.  

2. Take it one project at a time.

What’s the secret to winning in a business where your best-case success rate is one in 10? Have at least 10 viable projects going at any one time. It’s so obvious, and yet so many smaller players do the opposite, focusing on one project at a time. They forget that time is money and few can sustain protracted periods without a winner. Put another way: This is not the kind of business where you can afford to fail sequentially. All of the most successful DRTV companies are experiencing multiple failures simultaneously right now while waiting for that next elusive hit to show itself. I call it a “portfolio” approach. Just as no smart investor would ever focus on one stock at a time, DR investors need to diversify.

3. Don’t believe the numbers.

“Numbers don’t lie,” says Scott Boilen, CEO of Allstar Products Group. “The moment you start believing in what people say over what the numbers say, you’re in trouble.” He used a recent ‘hot’ product as an example. Both his company and another major player tested it with the same result: less than half the response necessary to warrant further investment. Since they are both smart product VCs who use a portfolio approach, they dropped the project and shifted focus to other promising items. Then along came a novice marketer to test the product a third time. Surprisingly, it rolled out and a major retailer took it in. “I’m sure they had the same CPO we did, but they thought they knew better,” Boilen says. “A few weeks later, it’s already marked down to half its original price.”

4. Over-promise and under-deliver.

“Delivering a product that doesn’t work” tops Steve Silbiger’s list of ways to go broke quickly in this business. “The product you send in the mail has to do what is shown in the commercial,” the Top Dog partner says. In the field, I hear this often … and yet most DRTV players don’t have brand reputations to protect or continuity businesses to worry about. Ours are typically one-time sales for a price low enough to make a return more trouble than it’s worth. Indeed, this is the main reason ‘As Seen on TV’ products have had a poor reputation for quality. So what changed? Consumers’ behavior changed. Amazon recently made headlines when a study showed more than half of online shoppers begin with a search of their site. Besides comparing prices, these prospects are checking customer ratings and reading comments—and that’s just one way they will quickly discover if a DRTV product lives up to its hype. In the field, I have seen companies bet big on a product that didn’t deliver on its promises—and then watched as demand dropped off a cliff when the bad reviews caught up to it.

5. Take your time.

“Testing and then shelving it, and expecting it to work six months later, is foolhardy and a great way to lose an entire wardrobe,” says Dick Wechsler, founder of media agency Lockard & Wechsler Direct.“Jump all over opportunities when they present themselves.” Wechsler is speaking primarily of the fleeting nature of direct response, but the same is true in other areas. For example, novices assume patents and other legal protections are important and waste time securing them, but experts know speed to market is a marketer’s only real protection. In the field, I have observed a marketer win a battle for a lucrative retail business in which his product violated no less than seven of his competitor’s patents. The lesson is clear: If you’re going for it, go quickly. Don’t assume consumers that are with you today will be with you tomorrow, and never expect so-called barriers to competition to be anything more than speed bumps.

Photo by John Kasawa/

Jordan Pine is a consultant specializing in short-form DRTV and the author of The SciMark Report (, a popular industry blog.

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