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Direct Response Marketing

For eDiets, Mobile and Social Are No Fad

1 Nov, 2013 By: Thomas Haire Response

“The direct response industry — or at least those that started out in TV — has been very slow to move to the Web,” says Ronald C. Pruett, Jr., CEO of As Seen on TV Inc. (ASTV), the Clearwater, Fla.-based parent company of eDiets Inc. “If you take a look at many of the agencies in the space, a lot of them are just getting up to speed on the Web, but you can’t be afraid to test and to be on the leading edge with some of your budget on new channels or technology. Online, whether social or mobile or anything else, you have to be prepared. And we’re taking eDiets down that road.”

Pruett, a former member of the Response Advisory Board and a prior Response cover subject during his stint at Liberty Medical (Response, February 2008), began serving in an advisory role to As Seen on TV and eDiets early in 2013 before joining the company as CEO on May 6. But nearly as soon as he began looking at the eDiets business, he knew it was time for a change.

“We were an older brand in the space and we were not competing with the top players,” Pruett says. “We had no choice but to reposition ourselves. Staying with what we were doing made no sense. The jury’s still out but I think the new Holly Madison Diet is an example of where we want to be. No one’s done what we’re trying to do with her — and her sophistication with technology is crucial.”

eDiets debuted the Holly Madison Diet on October 17, featuring the star of the successful E! reality shows “The Girls Next Door” and “Holly’s World.” Unlike many diet programs that utilize various forms of direct response, however, Madison is not just a paid spokesperson for eDiets — she and her diet are a brand that is partnering with eDiets.

“It’s a true partnership,” Pruett says. “With a model that’s driven by CPAs (cost-per-acquisition), we really want to partner with people who are as motivated as we are to make it a success.”

Shifting Shapes

Success is something that has followed the Boston-based Pruett throughout his career. He made a name for himself, initially, building overseas operations for insurance giants AIG and Liberty Mutual before getting involved in venture capital projects that led him to “getting hooked on this blossoming thing called the Internet,” he told Response in 2008.

After founding a series of consumer-oriented Internet brands, including, as well as his own Web venture group, The Boston Associates, he became CMO of the Liberty Medical brand — well known for its DR ad campaigns featuring actor Wilford Brimley.

“With each of those companies, I really ended up getting involved by doing advisory work initially,” Pruett says.

From there, Pruett became CEO of Mercury Media, one of the DR industry’s largest independent media agencies, where he spent 18 months before moving back into his consulting and advisory roots. “I really couldn’t find the right opportunity in the DR world, but I did have the good fortune of being asked to join the entrepreneur who created Drupal, the open-source content system and the world’s largest tech community,” Pruett says.

He turned that opportunity into a role on the executive committee and as chief marketing officer of Acquia, which owns, operates and commercializes Drupal. “During the course of my tenure, it became the fastest-growing software company in America and we built out the business to Europe, Australia, India and South America,” he adds.

Still, Pruett had the itch to return to the DR space — “I just really like the people and the style of the business” he says — and he got the opportunity to begin advising Kevin Harrington and the team at ASTV in late 2012. “I joined ASTV when eDiets was merging into the business,” Pruett says. “I had some background with eDiets — I knew the largest investors, as they were based in Boston, and eDiets was a client when I was with Mercury.”

The eDiets brand, which began in 1997 with a 12-week weight management program known as Practi-cal, had peaked at around 2 million customers worldwide in 2006, but had steadily fallen behind some of the bigger competitors in the space before becoming a wholly owned subsidiary of ASTV on Feb. 28. “I became the CEO, more or less the brand steward, when I got involved,” Pruett says. “I looked at the landscape and market — the Jenny Craigs, the Nutrisystems and even some of the up-and-comers — and decided it was time to reposition the business.”

A Celebrity-Driven Community

Step one in that repositioning was to sell the company’s food delivery business and instead build out eDiets as a digital platform. “It’s a $65 billion market, and a lot of models are tired and old,” Pruett says. “We had to do something different and bold.”

And though eDiets had been a major proponent of traditional DR channels over the years — TV, radio, print — that meant going all digital. “When I got involved, we brought in Mercury Media to test TV with some new celebrity personalities,” Pruett says. “We dusted off some of the old radio spots to test with Kre8 Media, as well, and we tested online a bit with Mercury. As we took a look at the numbers, I felt that the change we needed was to move eDiets to a pure online play. We are able to build a lot of that in-house, including the social aspect — which I believe is the key moving ahead.”

Pruett says that “DR is moving toward building these communities” that are crucial to the existence of a lead-based program in the diet space.

“Our competitor now is People Magazine,” Pruett contends. “They have ‘diet special issues’ and cover celebrities and celebrity diets in print, online and in social media. This prompted us to go back to the original idea of eDiets, which was in that space — a community around celebrities who have worked hard to lose weight and want to share their secrets. We even hired back the site’s original editor and original nutritionist.”

Pruett says that women, especially, get a lot of pressure about their weight because of the national focus on female celebrities and their figures. “With more celebrity-driven information, we want to make dieting and nutrition fun,” Pruett adds.

But the turn toward an online-only campaign (at least for now) also came from clear data. “Right now, 50 percent of the traffic to our site is from mobile devices — smartphones and tablets — and we haven’t even rolled out an app yet,” Pruett says. “And tablet users, especially, are staying a lot longer. On the site, we’re using what I think is the next version of DR in this space: more storytelling and less in-your-face sales pitches. It’s about building that community.”

The Diet Next Door?

Community was a key in eDiets’ deal with Madison to launch the Holly Madison Diet. “When we partnered with Holly, we knew she had more than 1 million followers (currently 1.32 million),” Pruett says. “She tweets four or five times a day — that’s the approach we want in combining diet, nutrition and celebrity. It helps us build out our social platform and turn it into social commerce. That builds brand through sales — which is what DRTV has done so well over the years.”

The Holly Madison Diet is designed for new moms and other women seeking a sensible plan for weight loss or weight management. Madison married Pasquale Rotella in September after giving birth to their daughter, Rainbow Aurora Rotella, in March.

With personalized meal plans and recipes developed with Madison’s food preferences and healthy lifestyles in mind, the program is hosted on a proprietary eDiets platform. “As a new mom who is consistently working and traveling, I needed a revived lifestyle plan that would help keep my energy up and my weight down,” Madison says. “Like me, many women today find it difficult to eat right when they are constantly on the go and pressed for time.”

There will also be an app released for users of the diet and Madison plans to add nutritional products and supplements as well. “I am really passionate about nutrition, and I love helping others to be healthy,” Madison adds. “I look forward to sharing new recipes.”

The conversations between Madison and eDiets began prior to Pruett’s arrival, but slowed during her pregnancy. Once her daughter was born, though, the pairing of celebrity and company seemed just right.

“She’s a special personality and really wanted to get back in shape quickly after her daughter was born,” Pruett says. “Most of the brand ambassadors in this space are merely paid endorsers, but with Holly — this is her plan, and we’re partners. Her likeability across many age groups is really impressive. She’ll have her own site with branded products and her own app. In the social world, this is the new direction for celebrity-branded diets.”

Madison says the mobile aspect of the program is key. “I love the convenience of this program — being able to access all the diet information from my phone helps me make healthier choices when I am on the go,” she says.

While the entire campaign is online to start, Pruett says there may be live shopping opportunities “down the line.” He adds, “We’re in discussions with one of the big three shopping channels now.”

Adding Mobility

Pruett believes that creating new successes for eDiets will only help it build on its brand legacy. “One of the most impressive things about eDiets as a business is that we have more than 10 years of articles, blog posts, data and search optimization to lean on — being an original player on the Web gives it a lot of authority,” he says. “Our videos have received millions of views over time. We need to leverage that, re-target consumers, and use social to rebuild the brand. That’s how connected celebrities like Holly can help most.”

That said, Pruett says that the new eDiets will also rely on tried-and-true business concepts. “I am constantly reminded that you need to have a good team — smart, innovative people are critical,” he contends. “And we always need to remember that an authentic story — one that’s compelling and solves a problem — is crucial.”

He says that eDiets is looking at two sets of potential partners going forward: product partners to “build out our marketplace”; and celebrities and celebrity nutritionists — “people who have the sway to build brands around.”

And while he says that DRTV advertising is something that may be “still to come” down the line, Pruett believes in the combination of social and mobile to drive eDiets as an online business. “We need to build our social capabilities in house, along with some agency specialists who can help us on Twitter, Pinterest and Facebook, primarily,” Pruett says.

He adds, “And I think the big opportunity with mobile is with tablets. The information we send through our newsletters — that you can read on a smartphone. But when we talk about the things that drive stickiness on our site and sales opportunities, it’s happening through tablets.”

It’s this kind of forward thinking that Pruett believes will help eDiets rise to prominence once again. “If you’d approached me a couple years ago, I’d have said eDiets is almost passé,” Pruett says. “Anything with that ‘e’ in front almost seemed dated. But with the expansion of tablets, smartphones and quicker shipping, older brands are relevant again. The brand is more mobile. The whole company was built by DR, but now as a pure E-company, it’s got to build itself via online and mobile.” ■

About the Author: Thomas Haire

Thomas Haire

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