Be Your Own Boss: Advertising Advice

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ILLUSTRATION: MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
To be your own boss means you can go your own way, but there is a right way and a wrong way to handle advertising.

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.

Move Slowly

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.

Steady State

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!