Small Business

Ads and Minuses


By Karen E. Klein Q: Is there a set of guidelines that a small business can follow to make sure that it is getting a worthwhile return on its marketing efforts and advertising dollars? -- M.C., Elizabeth, N.J.

A: Can any marketing program guarantee a particular return on investment (ROI)? Doubtful. But a good marketing campaign -- one that includes well-designed ads that are placed in channels reaching the maximum number of prospects in your target market -- can go a long way toward ensuring success. Think about it: You can dream up wonderful, clever, arresting ads, and then spend a fortune having them designed -- but if they are appearing in places where your prospective customers won't see them, the ROI will be negligible. Similarly, you can spend all your advertising budget in all the right places, but if your message is just ho-hum, prospects aren't going to respond.

FIRST, THINK. So, before doing anything else, think about where to advertise. This will involve pinpointing your target audience, something a small-business owner should be able to do by answering one question, and answering it specifically: Who buys my products or services? Next, figure out the most effective way to reach them. Do the customers you seek read a particular publication or tune in to specific radio or TV show? Is there a place they congregate on the Internet? If so, you should be there and waiting for them with a compelling ad, one that explains how your business can solve their problems.

When it comes to designing an effective ad campaign, keep in mind a simple marketing truth, advises Rich Harshaw, CEO of Dallas-based Y2 Marketing: "Marketing's job is to facilitate the prospects' decision-making process and cause them to say, 'I would have to be an absolute fool to do business with anyone else but youegardless of price.'" Unfortunately, according to Harshaw, most advertisements, brochures, Web sites, and other marketing mediums and strategies don't achieve that goal.

The key to designing ads capable of persuading a potential customer to choose your outfit means understanding the prospect's decision-making process, says Y2's Brooke Fix. "Marketing's first job is to get your prospects to snap out of 'alpha mode', where they are performing tasks such as reading or listening without conscious thought, and into an active state of engagement, what I call 'beta mode,'" Fix says. "The way to do that is to find out what problems, frustrations and annoyances your target customer typically has when dealing with your industry -- their hot buttons."

For instance, someone selling advertising might grab a potential small-business customer's attention by bemoaning the high cost of ads, their lack of effectiveness, and the low return most ads seem to produce. The potential customer, who has likely experienced frustration with at least one of these hot-button topics, is now listening with rapt attention.

NOW, MEET OUR REP....?"Human nature dictates that people always want to make the best decision possible," notes Fix. "They want to feel like they're in control. You have to give information that allows them to logically understand how and why you solve that problem. Their problem is the itch...the information used to educate the prospect about what your company does to solve it is the scratch."

Once your ad has provided the education that makes your solution real and believable, follow up with a low-risk offer that entices prospects to take the next step in the sales process. Fix suggests a free marketing tool "such as a report, brochure, seminar, audio, video, or something to educate him/her with even more information to allow the prospect to control the final decision."

If your advertising does those things -- and does them in places where your target audience will notice -- you are most likely to get good value from your advertising-and-marketing budget. After that, it will be up to your sales force to close the deal.

Have a question about your business? Ask our small-business experts. Send us an e-mail at smartanswers@businessweek.com, or write to Smart Answers, BW Online, 45th Floor, 1221 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020. Please include your real name and phone number in case we need more information; only your initials and city will be printed. Because of the volume of mail, we won't be able to respond to all questions personally. Karen E. Klein is a Los Angeles-based writer who specializes in covering covered entrepreneurship and small-business issues.


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