Small Business

Why Your Advertising Isn't Working


The vast majority of ads don't register with consumers. Here are seven straight-up reasons why your message probably isn't getting through

Recently, an AdweekMedia poll of LinkedIn members posed this question: "Of the ads you see in a typical day, how many engage your attention?" A remarkable two-thirds of respondents said "a small minority of them." Another quarter answered "none of them." Together, that's 91%. Only one in 100 respondents said "most of them."

Ouch. While polls like these have their limitations (we often can't—or won't—tell the truth about our own purchase behavior), I suspect few us would doubt the overall conclusion that a lot of advertising doesn't work very well. Your own advertising may even fall into that category.

If you find yourself nodding your head and wringing your hands right now, keep in mind this simple business axiom: Companies get the advertising they deserve. If your advertising isn't working, it may be you that's the problem.

The good news is that you can take steps to fix it. Certainly the economic environment is playing a significant role in how well (and how quickly) prospects are responding to your advertising, but blaming the recession is ultimately unproductive. After all, you may not like the hand you've been dealt, but your competitors are holding the same cards. It's how you play your hand that counts.

With that in mind, I'd like to suggest seven reasons why your advertising may not be pulling its weight. Use them to evaluate your efforts, but don't rely on your judgment alone. Ask a trusted and objective colleague to give you his or her honest opinion as well.

1. It's boring. Yep, boring. Why do we watch TV, listen to the radio, read the newspaper, or go online? Three reasons: information, entertainment, and engagement. Ads that fail to offer at least two of these three benefits flop. Just as nobody reads every story in the newspaper, nobody pays attention to every ad. You have to engage your prospects with something that is interesting or entertaining before they'll give you their valuable time and attention. Creativity has always been the coin of the realm, but in our time-starved culture it's truer than ever.

2. It's boorish. You shouldn't think of your advertising as being about your brand, you should think of it as an extension of your brand (see "A Practical Guide to Branding"). If it's loud, annoying, insulting, offensive, or self-centered, people will think the same of your products or services (see "The Cocktail Party Test for Advertising"). Remember the first sentence in the best-selling hardback book in U.S. history, The Purpose Driven Life: "It's not about you." What's true in life is true in advertising; if you focus only on what you can get, you're not going to get much. Instead, focus on giving, and good things will begin to happen.

3. It's safe. The first time I saw a Ford Taurus (F), I took note, and I suspect you did as well. So did a lot of other people, and the Taurus went on to become the best-selling car in America. If the Taurus had been another in a long line of boxy sedans, it probably would have been just another car. Instead, it turned automotive design conventions upside down and made history. While being different isn't in and of itself a guarantee of success, what you do is a lot more likely to get noticed if it hasn't been done before. And keep in mind that when you do something different, people may not like it—at least initially. Most of us were shocked at our first sight of the Taurus' curved lines, but it went on to have significant influence on automotive design. If you worry too much about offending someone, you're likely to not attract anyone.

4. It's trying to do too much. As the poll results above demonstrated, most people don't engage with most ads. And even when they do, for how long do they pay attention? Thirty seconds? Ten? Five? The best an ad can do is communicate one single, compelling idea, and in the age of the Internet—when people know they can go online to get all the additional information they need—it's crazy to ask an ad to do more than that. Just because you have a lot to say doesn't mean your audience will sit still and pay attention. Do your best to make a simple, singular point. Do it with flair, and given enough exposure (see next point) it might just get through.

5. It hasn't been given time. You can't rush bread out of the oven. You can't hurry a seedling out of the ground. All you can do is prepare the ingredients properly, tend the garden with care, and wait for the loaf to rise and sprouts to appear. The same is true of advertising. If you expect too much too soon (especially on a limited budget) you're sure to be disappointed. Think about your own consumer behavior—how many times do you need to be exposed to a marketing message before you take action? Depending on your prospects' level of interest in the category and frequency of purchase, it could take weeks, months, or even years for your message to sink in.

6. You like it. O.K., this one may sting a bit, but you are not the best judge of your own advertising. You can't be, because you simply know too much about your brand and have too much affection for it to remain objective. Look at Burger King (BKC). Its advertising over the past few years has been quite successful in appealing to the company's core target audience of young men, but many Burger King franchisees could personally do without it. The smart ones recognize that they're not the target and leave it alone. Your advertising is not only not about you, it's not for you. Both points seem counterintuitive, but that's why this stuff isn't for amateurs.

7. It's not an advertising problem. A common mistake many companies make is trying to use advertising to fix another problem. It may be faulty or outdated product design, an uncompetitive cost structure, customer service letdowns, or any number of other things. It's not as if they do so intentionally; it's just that it's a whole lot easier to put on a new coat of paint than it is to fix the foundation that's causing the drywall to crack. No company executes flawlessly, but until you can maintain a solid track record of excellence, spend your money on internal improvements rather than advertising. Paint may mask the problem for a short time, but soon new cracks will begin to appear.

There are, of course, many more reasons why advertising underperforms, from poor media placement to bad strategy to competitive countermoves. But the above missteps are so common—and so commonly misunderstood—that simply putting them out to the curb would go a long way in making advertising better. Not to mention making television much more bearable to watch.


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