In the past few months ITV's Pop Idol has whipped the nation into a
frenzy. The reality TV show is currently attracting an average audience
of eight million, with up to two million viewers calling in to vote for
their favourite contestant.
This kind feedback highlights the effectiveness of direct response
television (DRTV) - few advertising media can trigger such immediate
Providing a hotline number with an invitation to interact, buy a
product, enter a game show, or donate to charity can generate, on
average, as many as 100,000 calls, the vast majority within the first 20
That's a very small window of opportunity, requiring flawless three-way
co-ordination between advertiser, media buyer and telemarketing
If the callers can't get through, the budget will be squandered and the
"The worst thing is to spend millions on a TV campaign without
organising call answering," says Greg Smith, divisional director at IMS
"But brands have learned lessons in the past few years, and that rarely
Planners have to decide whether to provide live operators or handle
calls automatically via interactive voice response (IVR).
Benefits of automation
At its peak, Celador's Who Wants to be a Millionaire took around 100,000
calls per show via Broadsystem's 3500 IVR lines. Initial calls are
handled automatically, with callers answering a simple question. Of
those who answer correctly, 100 are chosen at random and called back by
Celador's team. The network can be extended to 5000 lines when
necessary, but current volumes have reportedly fallen to such an extent
that the phone line is not generating enough profit to cover the show's
An advantage of automation is that it bypasses the need to recruit and
teach operators, which means it can be implemented more or less
Faced with the foot and mouth outbreak last year, the government set up
a hotline, but this was quickly swamped by calls from anxious
It then appointed IMS Response, which had an operation up and running
But IVR would have been an inappropriate response for many of the
hotline's callers, and by the next day the bureau had in place a
30-strong team of operators able to provide help and reassurance to
those most obviously at risk.
A live operation was also favoured by ONdigital (now ITV Digital) as the
best way to gather data and push sales for the launch of its TV
The campaign was handled by Merchants, with operators at contact centres
in Milton Keynes and Cork handling as many incoming calls as possible,
the overspill being captured by IVR.
"When you consider what companies spend on an advert, they often skimp
on the response," says Sandra Galer, Merchants account manager.
That dual approach is also adopted by MM Group when handling the
response for the National Canine Defence League, which advertises over
Last year's spot generated a high volume of calls, although being shown
exclusively on cable and satellite made this manageable. According to
donor recruitment manager Mary-Anne Partridge, the priority was to make
it easy for callers to donate.
An IVR system is less effective with donations, since callers are often
unwilling to give their credit-card details to a machine. Where it comes
into its own is recording contact details, enabling operators to ring
back in quiet moments. "When we tried this with our charity clients, we
found that nine out of ten were quite happy to be contacted, making the
donation there and then," says MM Group operations director Stephanie
The tendency of viewers to respond immediately to a TV ad means that a
contact centre is faced with long periods of calm punctuated by frenzied
bursts of activity. This is a challenge for managers, who have to keep
staff motivated and alert. "We have a TV monitor on, so that people can
get ready when the ads are about to come on," says Merchants' Galer.
A way to avoid an imbalance is to advertise on non-terrestrial channels
as it helps spread the load. For instance, 24-hour shopping channel
Screen Shop advertises products with 'infomercials' that run
Media buyers play a crucial role in gauging the likely response to a
client's campaign and recruiting a telemarketing bureau with the
appropriate capacity and level of service. The bureau will, at the very
least, be provided with a detailed media schedule that enables it to
recruit and train operators well in advance. Telemarketers are involved
at the outset, providing insights about the response that can favourably
influence the planning of the campaign.
But problems still occur. One of telemarketers' biggest bugbears is when
the client takes advantage of a late offer to place cheap advertising,
but forgets to tell the contact centre, which then gets swamped with
On the other hand, media buyers and clients rely on feedback from
telemarketers to help them plan their advertising strategy. But this
does not work if contact centre managers fail to understand what is
Andrew Burgess, managing director of direct media specialist Equi-Media,
recalls a case where a company learned that most of its calls were being
made in response to ads in The Yellow Pages. So, it transferred a large
part of its budget to directories.
But response dived. Investigation showed that operators had not asked
which ad the caller had seen, and instead entered the easiest code to
remember, which happened to be for Yellow Pages.
DRTV is not just about responding to calls, but also collecting data to
feed back into marketing campaigns, making it a complex but extremely
HOW POP IDOL DEALS WITH VOTING
More than three million viewers rang in to vote for their favourite Pop
Idol last Saturday night. In the weeks leading up to the show, the
average number of votes has been 1.2 million.
"We did expect a high volume, but the past two weeks exceeded
expectations," says Cathy Lincoln, account director at Telescope, the
show's customer contact management agency.
Pop Idol is aired in two parts, with votes being made in the two-hour
gap, and announced in the second show.
The system, run entirely through interactive voice response (IVR), is
managed by Telescope, which collates votes from phone lines and the web,
before passing the results to executive producers on the show.
Despite the 28,000 phone lines available to viewers, controversy has
arisen over complaints that lines close too early or are jammed. So how
does Telescope, the show's customer contact management agency, ensure it
can handle the volume of calls?
"We work with BT to ensure the correct amount of calls are put through.
We get the peak of calls in the first 10 minutes after the first show,
and people may not get through immediately, but they have two hours to
vote," says Lincoln.