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Hooked on Sales

How a learning-products company mastered the emotional sell online.
By Stephanie Clifford, January 2002 Issue

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As infomercials go, Hooked on Phonics's spots are oddly compelling. There's an energetic teacher named Anne Johnson talking about how exciting it was when her student Cooper's self-confidence blossomed. And Penny Donnelly smiling at her daughter Ashley, a cherubic 6-year-old with blond ringlets, describing how Ashley's reading skills have soared. All thanks to Hooked on Phonics, they chirp. Their TV testimonials are part of the San Francisco-based direct-sales company's meticulously crafted pitch. "This is an emotional sale," says Michael Coombs, a director at Web development firm Tristream and a consultant to Hooked on Phonics. "It's about your child not being able to read." Refined over HOP's 15-year existence, it produces lucrative results: $55 million in sales in 2001.

The HOP website ( was another matter altogether. The site should have been a good performer for the company, given its direct-sales knowledge. But HOP couldn't get the emotional sell to translate to the Web. The site was generating less than 20 percent of sales -- respectable, but HOP felt it could do better. Worse, only 15 percent of visitors stayed on the website for five pages. In terms of e-commerce strategy, "the site followed many of the existing conventions," says Mike Manning, director of e-commerce at HOP. "It provided a lot of information and had lots of 'buy now' buttons. What it did not do was follow our sales model."

And therein lay the problem. With 30 links on the homepage alone, the website violated HOP's carefully distilled marketing principles from the get-go. "We got bogged down in features and functions, instead of outcomes and emotions," Manning says. So HOP brought in Tristream, based in Grass Valley, Calif., for an overhaul.

One of Tristream's first steps was to pore over hours of HOP infomercials to glean its direct-sales approach. Next the Tristream team got into the mind-set of average customers (moms in their 30s) by listening to call-center tapes and leafing through sales data. The team pasted up pictures of hypothetical customers, like Lisa, a 38-year-old mother of one from Irvine, Calif., and brainstormed how the site could appeal to her.

Within three months the Tristream team, along with nine HOP staffers, designed a new, HOP-principled website. Now when Lisa visits the site, she's given 3 options instead of 30: Improve your child's reading, cut homework time, or make math fun. Those options home in on the customer's key interest, just like a call-center rep would. After selecting an option, Lisa is asked for her child's age. That helps her feel that the site is tailored to her needs; it also allows HOP to gather customer data. Lisa is then taken through a series of pages outlining appropriate products. The price and a buy link are revealed only at the end. A toll-free number is also played up, as call-center close rates are twice what they are online -- a statistic Manning attributes to the product's emotional appeal.

Sales are already up 43 percent online, and Manning expects the site to generate sales of $18 million in 2002 -- nearly 30 percent of company sales. For the entire effort, HOP paid Tristream $80,000 and spent $400,000 on a tech upgrade.

The company is pleased with the site and wants to make it even more reflective of its TV spots. A future step is to incorporate video of HOP infomercials into the site via Flash presentations. (Note to talent agents: Young Cooper and flaxen-haired Ashley are both seeking representation.)