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Promote your business: advertising

We are surrounded by advertising in our every day lives. Viral online campaigns infiltrate the internet. Such is the dependence of some magazines on ad spend that editorial content is shaped to mesh with advertising it carries. Advertising supports whole radio stations. Few public spaces appear untouched by it.

You would imagine, then, that such is advertising's ubiquity, such is its alleged influence, that this is a marketing strategy of almost unconfined power and reach. In the main, this might be true. The cumulative effect of advertising is indeed pervasive if not always persuasive. Online ads, commercials, press ads, posters, radio commercials do make a difference to the way people consume. Successful brands are built on and sustained by intelligently thought-through, well-planned advertising.

But what you never hear about, however, are the individual ads that simply vanish unnoticed, unread, unremarked and unresponded to. For despite the omnipresence of advertising, much of it misses its target and drops harmlessly from view. So how can a business avoid such a fate for its advertising?

Advertise to grow

Unless it has a secure customer base already - one that won't desert it - or unless it can rely on word of mouth recommendation, a business will need to advertise even if it is in no more sophisticated way than a listing in the phone book or a sign on the side of a van. Otherwise it will remain invisible. The fact that businesses need to advertise doesn't mean, of course, that all businesses have to advertise in the same way. For some online ads will make sense; for others a leaflet may be enough.

In its most basic form, an ad is a firm's way of talking to and persuading its customers to buy its product. Advertising, whatever its form, must fulfill three fundamental requirements. It must promote the benefits of a product or service in a tone of voice that will appeal to its target audience; it must appear in an environment where it is likely to be seen and noticed by those potential customers; and it must do so cost effectively. Advertising that forsakes these three principles may be a waste of resources.

Deciding how to advertise

The size of a business and the spread of its customers are likely to determine how it should advertise. If its custom is localised, then obviously it should advertise in a localised way. An ad in the local newspaper or business directory; a bus side; door-drop leaflets; a local radio spot; an eye-catching van side. The greater the geographic spread, however, the more far-reaching the advertising must be. This usually means grabbing some online space, appearing in general or specialist magazines, or even on television (it's not always as expensive as is imagined).

Advertising and communications agencies

In the same way that a business would get an IT specialist in to help set up its computer system, so it makes sense to appoint an advertising agency to conduct its advertising. People whose profession is to conceive, put together and manage advertising campaigns are, if they have survived the natural selection of market forces, going to know better than anyone how to communicate with and reach a target audience. Not only will they have the requisite skills to plan and execute the advertising, they should also be able to buy media space at a lower cost than a business could negotiate on its own behalf.

Choosing an agency

A small business is far more likely to get an attentive, cost effective service if it approaches a similarly small, but hungry agency. Many smaller agencies are run by creatives and executives who have worked in larger agencies, so there is a reasonable chance that their people will be experienced as well as talented.

An agency will have a portfolio of past work. This will give a business an excellent idea of the calibre of creative thought of which the agency is capable. It is also important, however, to get a broader picture: the reasoning, for example, behind the creative approach and the tone of voice adopted; the media in which the advertising appeared; the overall spend; and the measured effectiveness of the campaign. The fuller the case history behind each campaign, the easier it will be for a business to judge the level of service it will get for its money.

It is advisable to see a number of agencies. Although past work is a useful guide, a more critical factor is going to be how closely the agency seems able to identify with the product it will be selling. Not having past experience of a particular sector may not be as much of a handicap as it first appears. Inventive, strongly conceptual agencies, well versed in research and media planning, are adaptable entities and can learn quickly. Intuition about an agency's feel for a product might not sound scientific but can be a surprisingly successful way of choosing the right one.

Agencies will ask about budget. This is not necessarily gratuitous. An ad spend will determine the sort of work an agency will think about producing for it.

Should the budget they intend spending justify such a request, some businesses will ask a shortlist of agencies to make creative and media presentations. If they agree - that is, if they consider the business is worth chasing - the agencies will come up with outline creative work and a plan indicating in what form the work will appear and where. This will offer a business as clear a measure as is possible of just how insightfully an agency is thinking about its product or service.

The agency approach

All good agencies begin from the same point. Before so much as a headline is minted, they will interrogate the product or service. They will ask questions of its market position; they will isolate its benefits and separate them from its features; they will assess it against the competition; they will analyse the market for its trends and the audience for its expectations; they will map out the most efficient route to that audience; they will investigate whether the company has a brand identity and how this may be created; and, most importantly of all, they will produce a proposition or series of propositions. Propositions are those points that best and most immediately exemplify a product's benefits. Only then will they set about turning those propositions into a piece of communication, the results of which they will measure and judge to the client's satisfaction.

Cost

Regarded by some as branches of the entertainment industry, advertising agencies have a reputation for profligacy and over-ambition. This is largely not true. Most agencies charge reasonably. But they do, of course, charge.

Entrusting an advertising budget to an advertising agency is usually the most sensible thing that can be done with it. If, that is, it is affordable. The problem for some smaller businesses is that while they have money to spend on advertising, they do not have the money to spend on an advertising agency. In which case, they may wish to manage their own advertising.

The right advertising

Advertising can help make a product. It can lift it above the competition. It can carry news of that product and its virtues to customers who would otherwise never have heard of it. It can boost sales and ramp up profit margins. It can establish a firm's brand image. But it can also achieve none of these things.

Why does some advertising work - and some does so very effectively indeed - and some advertising not? It is not a futile or rhetorical question. If it is to succeed in winning a business new custom, advertising should follow some basic rules. In themselves they are not a guarantee of success, but their absence or misapplication will make it much harder for a piece of advertising to achieve its aims.

Although an appreciation of the difference between good and ineffective advertising is often instinctive, it is important for a business to have some grounding in the creative and planning principles involved. This goes as much for a business with the resources to appoint an advertising agency as one that is considering producing its own advertising.

Hard work

It is a crowded, hectic media world out there, one in which ads have to fight their own corner. In order to capture someone's attention and hold it for long enough to get the message across, an ad needs to be very hard working. Not dull; not creaking under a weight of superfluous information; not unimaginative; but bent wholly to the purpose of speaking immediately and persuasively to its intended audience. Not only should it stop the reader (or listener), it should leave them either wanting what is being sold or recognising its value to them.

What comprises an ad?

Ads, and posters, usually consist of a headline, image, body copy, pay-off (or call to action) and logo (the visual identity of the company whose product is being featured).

A good ad must always offer a benefit; the benefit with which potential customers are most likely to identify. The benefit cannot be hidden: nobody is going to spend time excavating the body copy of a press ad looking for it. (Radio and television, since they depend on story-telling narrative forms which listeners and viewers naturally associate with the two media, offer greater creative freedom for delaying the benefit until the end of the commercial).

The benefit must appear in the headline, or in the relationship between the headline and the image. And it must be supported by a reasoned, though engaging, argument in the body copy.

Unless it is a purely branding exercise, the ad must finally lead the reader to a call-to-action, an instruction that tells them briefly how to go about buying the product or finding more information.

Leaflets or flyers or mailers generally afford the advertiser more room and, since they do not appear in an environment, like a magazine, filled with competing attractions, they can presume more upon the time of the reader. But they should follow the same precepts as an ad or poster: benefit, argument and call to action.

Identifying the benefit

A benefit should never be mistaken for a feature. A feature is a quality or attribute of the product; a benefit is the relevance that the feature has for the audience. The feature of a soap powder might be an added detergent; the benefit is cleaner clothes and happier families.

A benefit is best expressed when it aims for an emotional effect. An advertising brief for a top make of disposable camera chose not to focus on the quality of picture; instead it concentrated on the emotional needs which taking photographs can satisfy - that is to capture the fleeting moment. The camera, the creative team were told, is a social lubricant and they were briefed to sell it as such.

To isolate the benefit, a business should interrogate its product or service from the point-of-view of the customer or consumer. Some benefits are reasoned: build quality, durability, price. Some are intuitive: the pleasure (or convenience or prestige) that ownership will bring.

Dramatising the benefit

The next task of the agency - or business - is to present the benefit in a way that will appeal to the target audience. Here tone of voice is critical. The ad that not only extols the benefits of the product but also gets under the skin of the audience will be the more powerful. One way of standing out from the competition is not to advertise as they do, but to introduce a tone and style that is slightly tangential, unexpected while still being in tune with customer expectations.

A good ad campaign will find inventive ways of dramatising the product's benefit that resonate with the market and its environment. A door company that sold heavily on price also wished to reassure its customers that the real value of the product lay not just in its affordability but in its quality. So one of their headlines ran: "We sell thousands of doors, and you can't knock a single one of them". The line got across not only the popularity of the door (lots of people can't be wrong) but, more importantly, its durability. And it did so in way that imbued the door and the company with a recognisable and winning personality.

Supporting the proposition

However emotive, amusing or provocative the headline, customers will be lost if there is little or no substantiation in what follows. Body copy - the text that carries through the argument of the headline - should be engaging, uncomplicated by diversions and unburdened with unnecessary detail, plausible in its progress (no sudden leaps or non sequiters), written from the reader's perspective on the product, and simple. Every word should count and be accountable to the argument. It should always leave the reader feeling convinced by and better about the product. And, of course, it must always claim only what is true.

There is a temptation - understandable given that media space doesn't come free - to load an ad with as many benefits and as much information as the area will hold. Resist it. An ad is far more effective when it is getting across a single, but memorable message.

Other starting points

The product need not, in itself, form the central element of an ad. Testimonials from existing customers can be used, provided they serve the purpose of promoting a benefit. A price-led ad, too, can be co-opted to endorse a product benefit over and above its cost. The same applies to special offer ads.

Branding

However pre-occupied with the benefit, advertising should always reinforce the brand. This is not simply a matter of arranging the logo in an appropriate position. The tone of the whole piece - be it an ad or mailer or door drop - should ideally complement and add to the values and market position of the company. Advertising invites not just judgement about a particular product but about the company which is selling it.

Response

An ad should always enable a reader to respond to it. Sometimes mechanisms can be included in the ad or mailer to make this easier. A coupon, for example. Or a freephone number, although a freephone service is still expensive.

Position

An ad's positioning determines where in a magazine or newspaper it appears. More prominent pages - inside of front cover, the back cover, centre spreads - provide extra visibility but usually command a correspondingly higher price.

By and large the more room that is allocated an ad, the more attention it will win. Small ads - either by virtue of some combative creativity or repeat appearances or adept tactical positioning - can still, however, punch above their weight with careful planning.

Magazines and papers will often link editorial content to advertising sales. They might, for example, organise a run of features on a specific theme that will be relevant to certain types of advertiser.

It is invariably easier for an agency to buy media space. For a business conducting its own space buying, the golden rule is always to haggle over the price. Magazines and papers always have to fill their pages and secure income and, with copy dates approaching, might be amenable to some level of discounting.

Consistency

Ads rarely exist in splendid isolation. As with issues of branding, a well-designed ad will at least echo the tone of any materials that support the campaign. These might include in-store posters, leaflets, mailers and even exhibition panels.

Testing

Advertising might work for a series of unconnected reasons, or for reasons that are unpredictable or quirky. Although not an exact science, advertising will have an effect if it is properly and intelligently planned and carried out.  One useful way of finding out what sorts of message have the most effect is to test a variety of approaches against the same audience. Where testing comes into its own is in direct response marketing.

Local advertising

For many small firms, a national marketing campaign is usually beyond their means or, for that matter, their requirements. But local advertising can help to generate much-needed new business.

Local advertising may consist of no more than distributing leaflets through doors or buying advertising space in such public congregation areas as stations and centres.

On a more advanced level, a business may consider reaching an audience by advertising in local newspapers. Local papers come in a wide variety from freesheets, weeklies and dailies. There are different formats for advertising in the local press. Classified ads are usually very affordable but do not offer the advertiser a great deal of scope for making an impact.

Display and semi-display ads are larger and provide the opportunity to include pictures, graphics and logos. They normally appear among the editorial pages where there is a much better chance of attracting general readers. Another option is to place an advertorial, a piece that looks like editorial but is in fact a feature advertising promoting some aspect of the business. Most papers will also carry loose leaflet inserts.

A number of counties or areas have their lifestyle or listings magazines too. Local radio is often very popular as well, with many stations offering to help an advertiser put together a commercial.

Local newspapers, magazines and radio stations invariably have press packs which set out details about rates, circulation figures, geographic reach and the make-up of its readership or audience. It is important to remember that rates are usually negotiable.