INFOMERCIALS HIT THE WEB;DIRECT SALES SHOPS MOVE THEIR EXPERTISE TO INTERNET SALES

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As seen on TV" is fast becoming "as seen on computer," too.

Infomercial products, those darlings of late-night and off-hours TV, are making their way to the Internet's World Wide Web. D-Frost Wonders, Battery Operated Paper Shredders, Swirl-A-Way Hair Removers and Salsa Chefs have found their way to cyberspace.

It's a natural evolution, say direct response marketers, who for years have billed the infomercial as the first truly interactive medium.

Williams Television Time, a Santa Monica, Calif.-based infomercial agency, last week launched a Web site at http://tvshopping.com. Tony Hoffman-often described as the "father of the infomercial"-recently launched a similar site at http://asseenontv.com. And Antony Payne, president of Beverly Hills, Calif.-based direct response marketing company Impulse, has christened an online shopping directory at http://www.impulsetv.com/drtv.

"Most infomercial companies would say they're pioneers in interactive media because they specialize in direct response marketing," said David Savage, VP of NIMA International, the trade association of the infomercial industry. "Just watching the strategies and plans of different players proves there's tremendous opportunity for infomercial marketers to grow with interactive technology."

"There's a real parallel between infomercials today and interactive television and online services of tomorrow," said Tim Hawthorne, president-CEO, Hawthorne Communications, a full-service infomercial agency in Fairfield, Iowa. "Infomercials offered the first, basic level of interactivity, from which the new-media industry is growing."

First-quarter 1995 media billings for the TV infomercial business were $241.1 million, a 55% increase over the same period a year ago. And infomercial pioneers see online media-and the Web especially-as avenues to publicize and sell products, as well as to facilitate customer service.

According to a survey commissioned by NIMA and executed by the Gallup Organization, 39% of direct response TV viewers own computers. And of that 39%, 26% subscribe to an online service.

Additionally, 62% of the 1,000 consumers surveyed said they'd be more likely to buy a product via TV if they could select the product category in which they were interested.

"We already know the direct response model and the elements that make people purchase; and we have a vision that translates into the future of online and interactive television," said Robin Allen, senior marketing manager at Williams, which buys time and places media for infomercial marketers.

Williams has already created an interactive division and placed the products of two of its clients-Philips Consumer Electronics' CD-i player and Proform's Cardioglide-on the SportsWorld service on the Internet (http://www.sportsworld.line.com).

"We want to have an umbrella shopping site that's a haven for direct response marketers on television," said Ms. Allen. "The core medium is direct response marketing; online is only the next avenue."

During a test conducted in July, Williams client Kent & Spiegel Direct displayed the site's Web address in infomercials for its AbFlex fitness product. Within 10 days, Williams had 12 online orders; to date the company has sold more than 100 online.

"Every marketer is looking for additional incremental income, so we're going to see everyone putting infomercial products online," said Peter Spiegel, president of Culver City, Calif.-based Kent & Spiegel.

In addition to Williams' site, Kent & Spiegel also plans to put up its own corporate site to offer information to product inventors and infomercial clients.

"We've got highly qualified browsers coming to our site who actually want to make a purchase," said Williams Television Time President Katie Williams. Williams will lease space on its site to infomercial marketers selling products and will charge either by cost per sale or by cost per highly qualified inquiry.

"Getting people off the couch to get a credit card and dial an operator is real tough to do," said Greg Renker, a founding partner of Guthy Renker, Palm Desert, Calif., whose products will be sold on Mr. Hoffman's online mall. "To be able to access a place online where you can find a product will enable an impulse buyer to seek out a product later."

Mr. Hoffman hopes one day to sell storefronts on his cybermall that will link to other infomercial sites on the Internet.

However, now the site just sells products-like the pasta machine, the mighty mixer and Kountry Kickin western dance video-and even has areas for close-out items and special items for half price.

"In 1992 the darling of the marketing industry was the infomercial," said Mr. Hoffman. "Today it's the Internet and the [information] superhighway. So those involved with infomercials are adapting to the highway and cross-promoting online sites within infomercial spots and through traditional marketing channels."

"The infomercial industry knows direct response television, and we know the Internet," explained Rick Petry, VP-media at TV Tyee, an infomercial production company based in Portland, Ore. "Somewhere down the road the two will need to coherently link together. And those beachheads must be established before the surf hits the shore, or we'll get lost."

For now, electronic catalog-type sites seem to be the answer.

"Once consumers can access product information like they do with catalogs, electronic retailing will capture a dramatic slice of market share," said Impulse's Mr. Payne. "But you don't just want to catch the fish, you've got to reel it in ..... which happens to be something infomercial and direct response marketers are good at."

The Internet craze within the infomercial industry doesn't mean players are about to ditch TV. By 2010, Hawthorne Communications estimates interactive media will have penetrated more than 35% of America's population, leaving a strong 65% still paying close attention to traditional TV.

"The television is still the most powerful medium for influencing consumers in our culture," said Mr. Renker.

"The power of the Internet will be to enable consumers to access television's products conveniently. The television will create the need; the Internet will fulfill it."

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