How to Survive the Oprah Effect
Two weeks after quitting a full-time job in marketing to spend more time with her young son, Olivia Logan was watching The Ellen DeGeneres Show when Ellen announced an upcoming Mother's Day show. On a whim, Logan sent a few shirt samples from Baby Candy, her forthcoming baby clothing boutique, through fan mail.
She hit the jackpot. Producers called with an invitation, and Logan of course said yes. But there was a downside. Baby Candy still wasn't much more than an idea. At the time, she was still using a small hand press and had only made a few shirts.
"I'd been thinking about starting," she says, "but was kind of nervous and unsure about jumping into it. I had a name and I did the registration for the website domain. But other than friends and family, I had no sales prior to getting on the show."
Three weeks later, millions of households had seen her baby clothes, and sales soon soared into the thousands. Logan was suddenly in business.
It's no surprise that an appearance on a popular daytime talk show can bring overnight sales fortune that surpasses most, if not all, marketing campaigns. There's even a term for it: the Oprah effect. Recently, for example, when Oprah Winfrey endorsed Amazon.com's Kindle portable reading device on her show as "absolutely my new favorite thing in the world," the gadget sold out in a matter of hours.
But for business owners, the hard work continues after the cameras are gone, and what happens before--and after--those precious on-air minutes can be just as important and, sometimes, more challenging than getting on TV in the first place.
For instance, making good on a tidal wave of post-show orders can be overwhelming. That's what happened to Patty West, who started Good Karmal in 2002 and sells handcrafted caramels wrapped with positive quotations. A gift sample she sent to a friend wound up capturing Oprah's attention and landed her gourmet candy a spot on the perennial "My Favorite Things" episode.
When the show aired, Good Karmal was only in its sixth month of operations, and was already pushing to keep pace with orders. Unfortunately, West wasn't entirely aware of how influential the program was on holiday gifting decisions. That same night, she had to put a "sold out" sign on the website.
"I was sitting at my desk at about 11:30 just watching [the alert] go ping, ping, ping, ping, and I just knew if we were going to make good on the people who had already placed orders, we had to stop then," she recalls. Unfortunately, that also meant losing sales and potential customers. "We got hundreds of orders that one day. Who knows what would have happened if we were able to keep orders over that next month?"
With sales far beyond staff capacity, West called every friend and family member she could, and worked 24/7 to get orders out in time for the holidays. "If I'd known more about the show," she says, "I probably would have pursued it a couple years later on down the line, once our business was bigger."
In the rush to get a company ready in 21 days, Baby Candy's Logan also experienced some dizzying side effects from her company's time in the spotlight.
She had no supplier, couldn't process credit cards and didn't know how she would mass-produce the shirts. So for the next few weeks, she worked around the clock. "I had a lot of people helping me," Logan says, but still spent a lot more money on the website and equipment than if she'd been able to work at a more leisurely pace.
Logan advises business owners with more prep time to build a network and use it often. "There are so many women entrepreneur groups and resources online. A lot of what I needed to do--like getting 800 numbers and credit card processing--had already been done." Looking back, Logan says she would have asked around instead of trying to figure things out herself.
Sometimes the demand catches you off guard, as Wendy Solganik of Luscious Verde Cards learned when she landed a guest spot on The Big Idea with Donnie Deutsch. Though she knew the show would promote her business, she also hoped it would be the first of many Big Idea appearances. Unfortunately, the talk show industry proved unpredictable.
Solganik and co-founder Chris-Anna Sterling started a custom invitations and announcements company in 2001, and were doing very well when The Big Idea put out a call for questions from business owners in late 2008. They happened to have a great one: If business was good even in a bad economy, should they purchase their own commercial real estate? (The answer: no.)
At first, things went according to plan. The producers called shortly after Solganik submitted her question, website traffic--and business solicitations--spiked after the episode featuring her interview aired. Being linked to The Big Idea's website also provided Luscious Verde a high ranking in search engines. "Every single day people are coming to our website from that link. It's very possible that it's the major reason we're on that first page of Google and Yahoo," she says.
But the pair's prospects of getting a return engagement on the show were dimmed when The Big Idea was shelved in response to the economic crisis. Still, with the experience she has, Solganik remains optimistic, and notes that they'll be developing new products this year while scouting out ways to get on other programs.
"You just need to be out there looking for these opportunities," she says. "If you use [the exposure], it just keeps pushing you forward and upward."
A business may fare even better when a TV appearance involves a contest, as Hometiquette Inc. CEO and president Annette Sanchez can attest. So far, it's been smooth sailing for Sanchez, who says that being on a nationally syndicated program meant the difference between having an interesting idea and being able to create a successful company around it.
In March 2007, Sanchez was selected as one of eight finalists on Oprah and QVC's "The Next Big Idea" for inventing the Veggie-Peel, a modified vegetable peeler that shaves peelings into an attached container. Though she didn't win the contest, she's since received a stream of free publicity, being featured on The Today Show, The Big Idea, and QVC.
"Oprah springboarded me," she says. "I was contacted by people from all over the world, and more doors were opened as I continued to walk down the road."
It wouldn't have been possible without QVC's connections, Sanchez asserts, noting her long list of inventions over the years that never went anywhere. "I've tried to make contacts and figure out ways that I could get my product to market, and it's like jumping into a black hole. It's an expensive endeavor. You can't see, you don't know what's around you and you don't know who to trust."
Going the contest route, Sanchez found the advantage of QVC representatives who put her in touch with the right manufacturers, product designers and worldwide distributors to set Hometiquette in motion. At the time of the finalist program, Sanchez was still using a homemade prototype, but she maintained her contact list as she moved forward and brought people in at the appropriate point in the process. That method served her well: 2009 is the first year the Veggie-Peel will be widely available, and given anticipated demand, the sales numbers will almost certainly be in the millions.
When publicity dies down, it's up to business owners to figure out how to maximize the boost from national exposure.
In Sanchez's case, she leveraged her contacts and worked with the best people to manufacture the Veggie-Peel and bring it to retail as efficiently as possible. "If you do the [publicity] but you don't have the right people working with you to get the product out, then you wind up going in circles," she says, adding that choosing companies with an established presence in the marketplace is key.
For Good Karmal's West, being a former publicity executive benefited the business. Sales have more than doubled since being featured on Oprah, but that hasn't stopped her from growing the company more each year.
West believes that retaining customers after a big launch means maintaining a high-quality, unique product and getting people excited about new products. She introduces new caramel flavors each year, and regularly sends out announcement e-mails to customers. "Those are extremely well-received and definitely drive new sales," she says. "We've been really lucky with word-of-mouth. Once we bring in a customer, they become a regular."
As Baby Candy's orders slowed, Logan turned her attention to marketing efforts, like partnering with bloggers, offering giveaways, celebrity gifting and maximizing online exposure through Twitter and MySpace. This year, she hopes to expand Baby Candy's retail presence in North America and Australia.
Ultimately, the "Oprah effect" didn't just drive sales for Logan. She says the appearance on Ellen was even more valuable because it played a major part in jumpstarting her life as an entrepreneur. "If this never happened, two years later I could have still been thinking about the business and working on a business plan. The appearance was a kick in the butt."