Today I'd like to provide a little basic advertising advice to those of you actively trying to be your own boss. Too many "greenhorn" shoestring businessfolk are alternately fascinated and terrified by the "glamor" of advertising, probably because the "ad game" is one of the most misunderstood aspects of running an enterprise. And it's also the area where a first-time-out businessperson is most apt to make mistakes (usually costly ones), often due simply to a misconception of the purpose of advertising. An entrepreneur can get caught up in the excitement of seeing his or her name in print, and start an ill-fated ad campaign without understanding even the fundamentals of good advertising!
As a commercial advertiser (one who uses ads to sell a product), your ultimate goal is twofold: First, you want to discover the unique advantages) of your goods or service ... and second, you want to express that advantage, giving your customers one or more good reasons to try your offering. To help you achieve that aim, I'm going to present seven basic rules of advertising that should enable you to avoid the most common pitfalls.
The first principle is, strangely enough: Put all advertising off until your business has established itself. Now I realize that may seem a little self-defeating, but it's actually a sound piece of advice for the fledgling entrepreneur to follow. As I mentioned at the beginning of this column, it's all too easy to get hooked by the glamor of the ad game and crank up a massive campaign before even you are thoroughly familiar with your product. You need to understand, and be in close touch with, your market before you advertise.
Talk to your customers and ask for their reactions to your business. Such an informal survey will tell you more about their preferences than would any large-scale marketing research project. After you've been in operation for a few months, you'll probably be able to pinpoint the precise features of your product that make it unique in your area and that appeal most to your clientele. At that time, you'll be better able to catch the public's eye with a well-directed ad.
Remember, though, that advertising is not some sort of magical trick that will induce a consumer to buy (repeatedly) a product he or she may not even want, as the popular myth seems to suggest. Sure, lots of people, after seeing an ad, buy an item they normally wouldn't have tried ... but there's no advertisement in the world that could convince that same person to buy the product again if he or she wasn't satisfied with it. And that point brings us to the second law of advertising: The goal of any ad is to get the prospective customer to try the product or service at least once. After that initial lure, the quality of the goods themselves must keep the consumer interested.
Write It Yourself
My next rule may sound crazy — or maybe even suicidal — to most beginning entrepreneurs, but I firmly believe that it's good counsel: Don't hire an agency to write copy for your ad! Most small businesses can't absorb the expense of a professional advertising contract ... and agencies often turn out unsatisfactory ads anyway, since the employees of such outfits tend to concentrate more on entertaining the reader with "creative" approaches than they do on selling your particular product .
Since you know your customers better than anyone else, who could be more qualified to write an ad that's directed to those persons? So forget all the silly, nonsensical advertising gimmicks you've ever seen (like white tornadoes and little men who row around in toilet tanks) ... and write a simple, straightforward presentation of the reasons you think someone should try your product!
Artwork, on the other hand, is an entirely different story. In fact, here's my fourth precept: Hire an artist. I'm not trying to discourage you from doing your own illustrations (especially if you happen to have talent with a pen or brush) ... but I think you'll probably find that a professional artist can help you design a clear ad. The function of art in advertising, after all, is to enhance and reinforce the message that's being presented in words ... so the design must not overwhelm the copy. Beware, though, of allowing the art staff of a newspaper (or of the Yellow Pages) to design your ad (even though such publications may offer that service free of charge), or your presentation will end up looking like every other advertisement on the page.
Once you've formulated a good ad, you might be tempted to change it after it runs a few times. Well, try not to succumb to that temptation. Rule 5: Be consistent ! Even if you get an idea that you think is better than the original, or are worried that the public is getting bored with your ad, don't change it. Consistency is vital in an advertising campaign, not only to establish a strong identity (which, of course, is particularly important for a new business concern), but also to implant your message firmly in the readers' minds. An ad has to appear many times before it's fully "digested" by its readers. In fact, a number of potential customers won't notice even a full-page ad the first few times it runs; they may be distracted by another ad, they may just "tune it out" because they're not in the market for that particular product, or they may not have time to read the piece. Whatever the reason, most people need to see an ad many times before its message really sinks in.
How Much and Where?
The last two principles of advertising concern the expenditures for, and placement of, your ads. Some businesspeople say you shouldn't spend more than 10% of your profit on advertising ... but I don't particularly cotton to such rules. In my own dealings, I tend to be conservative, so I start by running small ads until the product proves itself. In contrast, other entrepreneurs try large, splashy ads right away. The thing to remember here is simply this: Know what kind of advertising risk you can afford, and then "go for it" !
Remember, too, that the physical placement of an ad is often the crucial factor that decides whether or not it will be seen. In fact, a small ad in a good position is usually much more effective than a large message that's stuck in a bad location. The top right corner of a right-hand page is generally considered the most favorable position for an ad. (If the advertising salesman insists that no such corners are available, tell him you'll wait ... and you may be surprised to see how quickly that space will open up!)
No Hard Sell ... Just the Truth
Finally, let me explain why the advice I've offered here probably seems a little ho-hum in contrast to the high-powered hype typical of Madison Avenue. I haven't revealed any razzle-dazzle, grab-your-reader-by-the-scruff-of-the-neck know-how ... simply because that's not the real key to advertising. If it's going to succeed at all, an ad for any small business must be good, honest material.
A few years back, the Avis Rent-a-Car company hired an agency to create a new national campaign for its faltering business ... with the single stipulation that all of the ads be honest. The agency isolated two facts about Avis: that the firm was number two in its field, and that the management claimed it was willing to work harder to satisfy its customers. Well, you know the rest. The ad campaign based on those two simple (although dull) facts was so successful that Avis began making a profit for the first time in 13 years!