What Can We Learn from Billy Mays?

In the recent spate of celebrity deaths, the too-soon passing of Billy Mays hit me the hardest. That’s not to denigrate the accomplishments and following of Ed McMahon, Farrah Fawcett, Michael Jackson, and Steve McNair (here’s hoping that no new celebrities have made the list by press time), but there was a distance or, let’s say, a level of controversy surrounding these pop culture icons that left them at arm’s reach for me.

Not Billy Mays.

As an avid fan of the History Channel, a regular venue for As Seen On TV ads, Mays was in our living room — for better or worse — every single day. In recent months, I’d even grown to eagerly (but quietly) anticipate the next episode of “Pitch Men,” a reality show about his partnership with producer and fellow pitchman Anthony Sullivan, and their adventures in finding new products, producing the spots, and everything in between.

Mock him all you want (believe me, I do too), but the man moved an awful lot of OxiClean, Awesome Augurs, and Mighty Putty for a relatively small amount of output, making a ton of money in $14.99 and $19.99 increments (plus shipping and handling).

As good as his formula was, there’s a lot in Mays’ legacy that can be used to mold an effective search campaign that builds your brand and drives action.

Branding (“Hi! Billy Mays Here…”)

You knew exactly what was coming the second a Mays commercial hit the airwaves: The booming voice, the wide grin, and the blue shirt all moved together to say “something useful and cheap is on its way!”

In much the same way, making your search presence match your branding efforts in language, tone, and content will at once amplify its presence on the page and reinforce the image you’re projecting elsewhere. This is especially true if the messaging in your paid ads and your natural listings match, which is why even cursory contact between your PPC and SEO teams is important.

Always include your brand name in your ads and meta descriptions, and test usage of elements like ‘official site’ that let searchers know explicitly that your site is where they can experience your brand from the source.

Solve a Problem (Giving ’em a WOW Demo)

Outside of a jovial man screaming at you, Mays’ infomercials were always compelling for two reasons.

First, in his words, the products lent themselves to a ‘wow’ demonstration that provided an easy answer to an everyday problem. While you can’t use search to show stains disappearing in a flash, you can use it to target users extremely closely, and serve similarly closely targeted ads — especially in concert with a matching landing page.

This is most easily accomplished on the paid side, where extremely segmented campaigns can deliver very specific ads. Even in the natural world where the page selection for a given keyword is out of your control, it’s absolutely possible to develop and better organize your content in such a way that you can deliver highly segmented keyword users to the exact page that they’re looking for. This leads to more specific and targeted titles and descriptions, which can allow for a more detailed and specifically compelling message.

Show Value for Their Click (“But Wait — There’s More!”)

The extreme value of the products Mays sold were the second reason his offers were so compelling. Throughout “Pitch Men,” he was forever telling inventors he wouldn’t sell anything for more than $19.95 and frequently requested to ‘double up’ the sale with a buy one, get one free offer.

While you can’t necessarily promise to sell your products at a rock-bottom price or throw in a related item for free, there’s a reason that customers should especially buy your product. Sometimes it’s price point (or a guaranteed lowest price, for those in travel industry), sometimes it’s the quality of your product versus others, and sometimes it’s the versatility or the service attached. Leverage this in your messaging.

Even though with paid ads your available characters are few, it’s absolutely worth your while to test the various unique selling points of your brand and products to find which is most compelling — or even test completely new ones, and apply the learnings to your natural search presence.

Use a Call to Action (“Here’s How to Order! Call Now!”)

You’ve got their attention, showing them a solution to a problem that they’ve expressed and told them why it’s worth it to take a look. Just like at the end of any Mays commercial, ask for the sale — or at least for the visit. Even though your characters may be few, save room to ask for the click or the purchase with a call to action like “Buy,” “Join,” or “Get.”

Even the somewhat passive “shop” at least plants the idea of taking you up on your offer, where you can compel them further with more and prominent calls to action on your landing page.

This is most important on the paid side with the ads for your most specifically targeted keyword sets, and on the natural side with the optimization of your landing pages’ meta data, where you’re working with messaging for highly specific pages that are built to sell.

Be More Like Billy

Billy Mays may be gone, but as long as there are As Seen On TV products, for a certain generation, there will always be the memory of Mays. For all the success that he had in peddling Zorbeez and Hercules Hooks, marketers of all stripes would do well to remember him, too.

Submissions are now open for the 2009 Search Engine Watch Awards. Enter your company or campaign before July 17, 2009. Winners will be announced at SES San Jose.

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