Have you ever seen an ad you thought was very clever and entertaining, and maybe even got you to laugh—but then later realized you didn’t know what product was being advertised? I’ll bet that ad cost a lot of money, and people at some agency were well compensated, but I wonder if the ad’s sponsor was truly well served. Whether you’re a business owner or the marketing director for a small or mid-sized business, one of the most important decisions you will make is how to advertise your products and services. You know that “getting the word out” is critical to your success, but given the deluge of opportunities that comes across your desk, it’s difficult to know where to spend your hard-earned cash most wisely. In my marketing career, I have seen all kinds of solutions to that problem, some of which were very successful, and others a complete waste of money.
Making this type of decision requires knowing the proper blend of science and art.
Many people think of advertising as some mystical process, where only the most creative types can safely venture. There is some truth to the idea that creativity plays a huge role in successful advertising. But first, there’s the practical or scientific part of effective advertising. As in the example above, just pulling together a brilliant creative piece isn’t enough if you don’t understand the product or the audience. Who, for example, would think it wise to develop a wonderful creative piece and then just send it out randomly to the first 10,000 names in the phone book? Maybe, if you’re very lucky, a handful of those recipients might by chance have an interest in your product or service. But the likelihood is small and the risk of wasting good creative copy—not to mention a tidy sum of money—is large.
The message here is that you need to know your target market, the best audience for your product or service. You have to do the research to understand how to find those people. Given the tools of the current era, when the purchasing patterns of consumers are tracked very closely, this is not as difficult as it once was, but you still need to find the sources of this kind of information, and then use it effectively.
Put simply, don’t waste your money by placing advertising in front of people who don’t want your products. Put the ad before people who have already clearly shown that they want what you have to offer. At a minimum, capture the email addresses of people who visit your offices or websites, because you know they’re interested; there are services that will, for a fee, obtain this precious information for you. You may see this as an expense; I see it as an investment that can only give you a high return. Advertising to an audience that is already committed to your product is much more effective than trying to sell to an audience that has only a marginal interest in your company or what you do.
If you don’t have the proper resources to do the research yourself, place your advertising in publications that have already done it for you. A key component of a publication’s business strategy is to identify industry targets for clients. This is sometimes done by using a list broker who is nationally recognized for the quality of their product, which they update no less than once each quarter, adding new companies and removing those no longer active, to ensure its accuracy and integrity.
Using this approach, as well as offering a variety of services to their clientele, publications feel very certain that they will get you in front of exactly the audience their advertisers want to reach. This is exactly the kind of market targeting that will ensure every dollar is spent effectively, and with the greatest opportunity for achieving a good return. Everyone needs to know who their audience is and how to reach them. Without that, you’re just wasting your money.
Once you’ve found your audience, how do you build an advertising program that will capture their attention and make them want to come to you? In my experience, the answer to this key question is not hiring some high-priced agency to develop a catchy image or memorable tune, but rather that you have to listen to yourself.
I have made a very successful career by listening when entrepreneurs and small business people tell me about their companies. They tell me how and why they started the businesses, and that story often builds an image in my mind that clearly delineates what their business is all about. It tells me about the character of the organization, how the founders intended the business to operate, what markets they intended it to serve, and how they expected to differentiate themselves from their competition. The story, and the heart of the business, is all there.
This is why I feel so strongly about the “art” side of the equation, because the passion in that story is what will really resonate in an ad campaign. A good marketing person will, first and foremost, listen to the business leader so that he or she understands what makes the business unique. From that understanding will come the taglines, the images, and even the colors representing the character of the business. Then, anyone who sees an ad or a marketing piece will recognize the nature of the operation, and realize more than just a product is being offered. A relationship between the business and its customers is being presented, which essentially becomes the “brand.”
Here’s an example of how this works. Not long ago, I found myself in an establishment into which I had never ventured before, which had long been in a commercial area of my hometown. I looked around and could see, through the clutter and unattractive displays, that this establishment had lots of high-quality products for sale. Since little about the way the personnel treated me said anything good about customer service or quality, I was intrigued. I got to talking with the owner, and soon a wonderful story about his father, who had run the business for a generation, began to unfold. I could see the pride this man had in his history and the commitment his father had made to this business, and a brand image celebrating the story began to emerge.
Not long after that first meeting, I was able to fashion a strong image for the business that featured images right out of the ‘50s—not to present the business as “dated,” but rather to reinforce the traditions of quality and customer service that were more prevalent in that era than today. As part of the realignment of the brand image, we changed some of the displays and also trained his staff in the customer service expectations that went along with the image, as no image can survive behaviors that undermine it. And, because we knew and could locate the target audience, we were fairly easily able to construct a marketing campaign that hit the mark quickly and got sustainable results. But the key to this story has everything to do with listening and going to the roots of the product differentiation. While the current owner knew and, in fact lived, the story, he wasn’t aware of its power and value in the market.
So this is the art. It is having the ability to recognize what differentiates a business from its competition, and then living the differentiation. This approach isn’t for everyone. Some businesses see themselves as providing a “commodity,” and for them, the “art” will not be a factor. But this model works for businesses that see a market value in their products, and want to provide value through their services. For them, with a good knowledge of their target audience and the right listener to crystallize their story, the blend of science and art can have a very positive effect on the bottom line. What more could any business owner ask? // LD
Contributed by Robin Wells