VSLs are one of the many forms of affiliate marketing used online, with one of the biggest networks running them being Bing. They’re something of an alternative to traditional PPC, combining the primary benefits of a sales video with a dedicated landing page.
A VSL is a Video Sales Letter. This is generally just a fancy way of saying a sales-focused video meant to pitch an offer, generally an affiliate offer of some kind. I guarantee you’ve seen these around. Any time you click a link and end up on a landing page that has a video front and center, you’ve found a video sales letter.
Unfortunately, VSLs are often used by all sorts of marketers, and that includes low quality spammers. Videos convert very well, and that’s a fact. That’s also a reason so many marketers adopt them. Everything that pushes a page to get more sales will be picked up on every level of the marketing spectrum, from big name brands to miniscule black hats.
I’m going to be honest here; VSLs and VSL offers are a difficult topic to research simply because everyone writing about them is selling something. They might be pitching their own VSL offers as “examples” or they might just be selling software or methods to creating your own VSLs. Either way, they’re certainly not objective or informative, they’re sales-focused.
That’s why I’m trying to focus this post on the informative side. You’re not going to find links to any offers I have here, nor am I trying to sell you software to create them. I’m in this to help you learn about them.
The typical way a video sales letter is used is on a landing page. In fact, that’s one of only two real ways a VSL is used. The other is on a single-page site, which is like a landing page without the context. In any case, it will look roughly the same regardless of the topic. The page will be long and vertical. It has a video front and center, right up top, with some surrounding copy and graphics pointing to it with arrows and text. “Watch this video,” they say, “you won’t want to miss it.” They claim it will change your life.
The video could range anywhere from 2 minutes to 30, though the ideal length is more like 5-10 minutes, maybe a little shorter. You don’t want a video that’s too long for people to watch, but neither do you want one that’s too short to give enough information or enough persuasion. Remember, that’s what their goal is; to persuade you to opt-in to the offer, whatever the offer may be.
One of the hallmarks of a sales letter, or a video sales letter, is a high degree of narrow targeting. A VSL is designed to capture the interest of one narrow segment of an audience, but to do it very well. Rather than trying to capture .1% of 100,000 people, it tries to capture 50% of 5,000 people. This means that anyone outside that narrow audience is going to ignore it, scoff at it, or decry it as a scam, but anyone right within that narrow cone of audience is highly likely to convert.
Video sales letters have a certain type of flow to them, and once you’ve had that look behind the curtain, you start to see the same items again and again within marketing videos, almost like the creators are working with a checklist.
First, they start off with content designed to establish their authority as the poster of the video. They’ll namedrop someone famous, either as who they are or as who mentored them directly in their success. If they have anyone in a high profile role that they can claim used their system, they’ll claim that as well. Their goal with this step is to make you believe that they’re trustworthy and that they know what they’re talking about.
Even if you don’t know who the person they’re namedropping is, the way they talk about him makes you assume he’s a millionaire or a super successful doctor or whatever it is their niche happens to be. In the shadier black hat cases, the person they’re talking about might not even exist, or might be a real person who has no affiliation with what they’re selling.
Part of this step might be accomplished by the text surrounding the video, so that it’s always there while you watch. At any time, if you take your eyes off the video, you see how it was endorsed by Mr. Famous Name.
After the authority establishment shot, they take a minute to talk to you about themselves and their own success. They tell you how they followed this program, they used this supplement, they did this training, or what have you. They tell you how they made their first million dollars in two months, how they lost 100 pounds, how they doubled what they can lift.
This is to establish that even if they’re not the creator of the program, they have used it to great and quick success. Then comes the first hit in the sales; they tell you that they’re willing to share the secret with you.
This implies that there’s a hard to get secret, and implies that it’s usually not something you would have access to. They’re breaking some kind of unspoken rule by bringing it to you, sharing a secret “they” don’t want you to know. They might tell you how the program cost them $5,000 when they paid for it, but they’re taking a loss and selling it to you for only $1,000, because they want others to succeed where they did with a lower barrier to entry.
Of course, the finale of the video entices you to continue reading the landing page and to follow the instructions to claim the offer, which is probably limited in either quantity or in time, if not both. The special sale might be ending soon, they might have only 1,000 available units – with a counter that ticks down – or any number of other pressure sales tactics.
That’s the general flow of a video sales letter and accompanying landing page. Now, the formula will vary from case to case. The spammier side of things will play up the authority of the source and the limit in quantity in order to get as many sales as possible before their site is nuked by Google. The best VSLs from high quality brands use their own brand reputation as the authority and have a more genuine approach, albeit still cloaked in sales.
Of course, most people running video sales letters aren’t doing it for their own products. They’re doing it for affiliate programs. All they need to do is set up the sales page and let it run. All actual sales and fulfillment is handled through the original provider of the offer. It’s affiliate marketing at its finest.
Some work on a PPC model, where the site owner is paid for each click through to the offer behind the VSL. Others are the typical pay-on-sale affiliate marketing, more lucrative but harder to get. Ah, but that’s where the VSL comes into play. Their narrow audience plus the persuasive nature of videos means they convert at a higher rate than traditional marketing, which eliminates the issues with affiliate marketing as it normally stands.
There are a couple of drawbacks to using VSLs. First and foremost, as I’ve mentioned a few times, they’re used by a lot of spammy sites. If you’re not careful with the way you put yours together, you can look a lot like a spam site, and people are slowly becoming more and more skeptical about those pages. Oh, it’s going to be a while before they completely fall from grace, and you will always be able to use videos for successful marketing, but right now it’s easy to fall on the wrong side of the line.
The second and perhaps most major drawback is that video content/verbiage is not indexable by Google, at least not by default. If you host the video on YouTube and you upload a transcript, you can sometimes get it indexed, but it’s not going to be as good as a page of content. It’s a tricky balance you need to strike, because your pages will need both text and video. The video is persuasive and sells more, but doesn’t provide as much value to search engines and thus doesn’t rank as high. The content purely on the page will rank higher, but because people skim and skip, they miss parts of your message and aren’t forced to consume it the way you want them to. They end up converting at a lower rate.
There’s also the issue of time, audio, and mobility to consider. Not all users will have the time to invest in watching a lengthy video. Even if they have the time, they might be browsing on a mobile device using a data plan, and they don’t want to use up their data limits on your video.
Possibly one of the biggest drawbacks of a video sales letter, for some marketers if not others, is that they’re a pain to produce. You have to write a script. You have to make sure that script is compelling. You then need to decide what kind of video you want. Do you want it to be a writing-on-whiteboard video? Do you want simple animations or sketches drawn in? Do you want people doing random, vaguely-related things in the background of your narration? Do you want a simple SlideShare-style deck of slides? Do you want to have a person narrating or speaking directly to the audience?
Once you have a script and an idea of the direction, you need to shoot or create the video, and that’s a skill people go to get college degrees for. Nine times out of ten you’re going to just go buy your video content from one of them, which is fine, but it sacrifices some creative control and it can be pretty expensive. Just take a look at the VSL providers on the freelance hub Upwork. You have people selling their video production services for $150 an hour, and you can bet they take more than a single hour to produce a video for you. You very much pay for what you get.
Then you have to put it up on your site and hope it works. Will it? You have testing and analytics to do, and that means you need to pay plenty of attention to what is and isn’t working. You can’t exactly capture the people leaving and ask them what part of the video turned them off, after all. You need to do some special analysis to figure it out.
What happens, then, if you need a new video, if you want a variant video for split-testing, or if you want more than one video? You’re paying for them all. VSLs don’t always come cheap, so you need to make sure your offer is capable of converting first before you invest too heavily in it.
That’s one thing you need to pay attention to before you consider a VSL. Does your current offer convert? If it does, a VSL will probably enhance your ability to convert and will boost your sales, and consequently, your income. On the other hand, if your offer is untested, you can’t afford to dump hundreds of dollars into a video before you’re sure you can convert. You’re very likely to take a loss.
Think of a good VSL as a multiplier. If you’re getting sales, it will make your sales better. If you’re not getting sales, you don’t have anything to multiply, so you don’t know if it’s going to benefit you or not.
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