Infomercials pack direct-marketing punch

Eye doctor’s program is a viewer favorite

When vision-correcting laser surgery was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in Rockville, MD, in October 1995, Walnut Creek, CA-based ophthalmologist William Ellis, MD, had to reach a mass market quickly. He wanted to beat potential competitors to the punch.

His challenge was to inform near-sighted individuals in the San Francisco Bay area of the benefits of the new procedure and of the benefits of using him as their laser surgeon.

His approach: Take the message to the people via television. His staff produced an infomercial to explain the procedure and get his name out to as wide an audience as possible.

"It runs on a number of cable networks throughout the area," says Bob Lim, director of patient information services for the practice. The half-hour program features Ellis explaining how the surgery works and several of his patients providing testimonials about how the surgery improved their lives.

Why an informercial? Ninety percent of the potential market for the procedure has only a vague idea of what the surgery entails and its likely benefits, says Lim. "They just are not informed. How else are they going to find out about it?" he asks.

The simple fact is that ophthalmologists don’t have easy access to most potential patients, says Lim. They generally see people who either have experienced eye trauma or disease. For their routine eye exams and prescriptions, most people go to an optometrist.

So how can ophthalmologists educate consumers about technological advances in their specialty? Writing a book about the latest in refractive surgery isn’t going to do the trick in terms of capturing most potential patients’ attention. That seemed to leave infomercials, which do attract attract the attention of the viewing public, as the best option.

The funny thing about television is that it instantly legitimizes you and your product or service with the viewer, says Andrea Eliscu, RN, MBA, president of Winter Park, FL-based consulting firm Medical Marketing.

"Television is a very powerful medium," says Lim. "People watch television, they see the program and make a phone call," says Lim.

Once Ellis made the decision to produce an infomercial, he had to decide the best way to pursue the project. Using professional production houses and editing studios are the easiest way, but the practice had concerns about costs and maintaining control over the project. (See story on infomercial costs, p. 9.)

The result was that much of the scripting, directing, and editing functions were performed in-house. Lim acknowledges that most practices considering producing an infomercial may want to go to professionals and get a turnkey service where everything is done by hired help.

Maintain control with inside help

People from inside Ellis’ practice had a better idea what the hot-button issues are for prospective patients and how to discuss them, it was decided. And by keeping much of the work in-house, Lim felt he could control the quality of the final product.

"Dr. Ellis has renowned skills," he says. Lim’s job was to assure that the infomercial portrayed Ellis as the kind of profession he is.

"When you are dealing with medicine, you want to maintain integrity," he says. The last thing you want is to have your world-renowned surgeon come across as a used car salesman.

To project the right image, the tenor of the program had to be educational. Dealing with a complicated topic, Ellis wanted to provide patients with as much information as he could in a half hour.

At the same time, there had to be a subtle message that Ellis was the physician of choice. The infomercial stresses his 20-plus years of experience and the thousands of patients he has helped during his career.

"Infomercials work if somebody is interested in the product or service," says Elsicu. "What researchers have found is that people channel-surf," she says. When viewers switch from station to station, they often stop to watch anything that might have an impact on their lives.

Corrective vision laser surgery is just such a service. It appeals to those tired of trying to locate their glasses or worried about losing their contact lenses.

"When you think about the population of candidates for that service, it’s enormous," says Greg Wheat, president of Televisual Communications in Clearwater, FL, a company that works with physicians to produce educational videos.

There has to be a broad spectrum of appeal to cover the huge production costs of an infomercial, he says. Those generally range from between $1,000 and $2,000 per finished minute for a product created by a full-service production house. That’s $30,000 to $60,000 for a half-hour infomercial. Who can afford that?

Ophthalmologists will spend that kind of money on a marketing campaign, says Eliscu. So will plastic surgeons and otorhinolaryngologists who perform cosmetic surgery. Dermatologists use infomercials to market hair restoration and liposuction surgery services.

Primarily, infomercials are for high-ticket consumer elective surgeries that aren’t covered by insurance. Marketing for those kinds of procedures are more aggressive than most types of medical advertisements. Because people are paying for the procedures out-of-pocket, physicians have to help create demand for the services.

Format of infomercial is important

When you are laying out that kind of money to produce an infomercial, you want to make sure that it works. An infomercial that just explains how useful your service is won’t be enough to hold viewers’ attention, warns Eliscu.

"No one will watch for half an hour if you have two people sitting on a couch talking. It will fail," she says. They will be seen as just a couple of talking heads.

If that happens, the practice gets no response to the program and can’t afford to run it for long, says Lim. Ellis and Lim aren’t saying how many laser surgeries the doctor has performed as a result of the infomercial, but the infomercial has been playing with great frequency during the past year.

Ellis’ infomercial uses actors who dramatize the problems of nearsightedness. A talk-show type host keeps the program moving by making transitions between Ellis, his patients who provide testimonials, and the dramatizations.

In a dramatization, you want to create a scenario which vividly and passionately portrays the benefit of your service, says Eliscu. For laser corrective surgery, that might be a grandmother walking toward her grandchild who is running to greet her. Grandma might say: "Now I can really see her little face changing as she grows up," says Eliscu.

Multiple cameras add expense but provide a variety of angles that better capture the looks on the faces of your actors, she says.

When taping the infomercial, Eliscu advises shooting lots of extra tape. That allows the practice to generate a couple of different versions so it will always look fresh to viewers even if they have seen part of it before.

Eliscu is working on a half-hour program that has six five-minute segments that each has a different look while conveying the same message. It will keep the channel surfers hooked, she says.

For any practice that goes to the time and expense to produce an infomercial, it’s important to have a good way to track results. The practice should always provide a toll-free number that viewers can call to speak with a consultant at the practice, says Eliscu. "Then your telemarketers can try to bring them in and make the sale."

Ellis’ practice tracks its results that way, although Lim isn’t telling how many laser surgeries the doctor has performed. The volume has to be pretty high, one competitor observes, because Ellis’ infomercial has had a good long run on cable.