CWB September 2003

Hitting Your Target

When it comes to advertising, the quality of your message and the vehicle you use to present it make all the difference.

By Anthony Noel

You have pounded the pavement. Worked your contacts. Called everyone you have ever worked for and even offered them a cash incentive for any referred customer who mentions their name. Still, it has been weeks since the last time the phone rang and you answered it to hear the voice of a viable prospective customer in your ear. What to do?

For many, the answer is obvious: Advertise.

Seems reasonable. But what is not so obvious to many is the importance of carefully planning their advertising message and strategy to ensure they reach the correct audience. A hastily assembled or poorly executed approach can actually do more harm than good.

A recent e-mail from a shop owner in Texas complained that he was going on lots of appointments, but most of his prospective customers turned out to be "tire kickers." He was wasting a lot of time going to see people who either weren't serious or couldn't afford to be. But the last line of his e-mail explained it all: "Granted," it said, "most of these shoppers are coming from a recent ad I ran in a local home and garden magazine."

Now, I don't know what this particular gentleman's ad said. But we have talked in this space before about qualifying customers, the practice of making sure those who contact you are viable prospects rather than prospective wasters of your time. Well, just as it is important to screen "incoming" prospects as much as possible, it is important to structure outgoing messages carefully and place them in advertising vehicles that are read by people who are most likely to require your services.

Your goal is to totally eliminate the "tire kickers." Doing so may take years of building a reputation and word-of-mouth "advertising." But when you do advertise in print, you can cut down on time-wasting prospects by writing your marketing messages carefully. For instance, how many times have you seen this line in ads: "No job too big or too small." It sounds nice and invites a wide range of people from a wider range of economic situations to call you. The problem is, it also allows a wide range of people to waste your time. That line implies you have plenty of time on your hands, time you are willing to fill with any work you can find. But you don't want any work you can find. You want high-ticket, highly specified work not everyone can afford; work that, in fact, very few can afford.

Another line that gets me is "Free Estimates." Maybe you offer them, but if you advertise it and are then surprised when every Tom, Dick and Harry calls, well, what did you expect?

Something else to think about is how you present your ad. I have often told the story of the small classified ad I took out in a highly targeted newspaper, 80% of whose readers live on Philadelphia's Main Line. For about $100 a month, my ad reached some of the wealthiest people in the market. Each appointment that ad produced was with qualified people who had given thought to what they wanted and were ready to buy.

Big glitzy ads may attract big numbers of people, but that is not what you want. You want a manageable number of highly qualified prospects. So avoid large ads. Keep it low-key.

Just as important is knowing the target audience of the vehicle you are using to get your message out. Every publication has a media kit with specific demographic information about its circulation and readers. As you study this information, remember: You are NOT looking for a vehicle that reaches a broad cross-section of the community. You want to reach the top income earners, and without definite proof that these are the vehicle's readers, you don't want to advertise there.

Remember, too, that such statistics are pliable. Also, an advertising sales rep will encourage you to use phrases like "Free Estimates" and "No job too big or too small." That's because his primary objective is to get you "results." But his concept of "results" is quite different from yours. Try telling the typical rep that you are getting too many phone calls from time-wasting prospects, and I promise you he won't even hear the second part, just the first: "Too many? What do you MEAN, too many?"

So if you are working with a rep, be sure he understands your goals and insist upon viable, unvarnished information about exactly whom his publication reaches. Don't make a buy until you are very sure that the publication is right for you.

However, if you have already taken out an ad and are heading out on countless wild goose chases, this advice does you little good now. Your next best tactic is to qualify potential customers as they call. Begin by asking directly if they have a specific project in mind. If they hesitate or say they "just want to get a few ideas," suggest that they contact an interior designer. If your caller refuses, be very polite and tell him the average cost of the projects you do. Ask him what he was hoping to spend. If it sounds reasonable and he still wants you to come out, at least he will know what he is in for.

If you do go out, you need to continue qualifying him when you arrive. Remind him immediately of your average job's price and tell him you do not provide drawings with estimates. Tell him that if he wants drawings he will have to purchase them, and be very blunt about telling him why: "I've been burned in the past by giving drawings to people who then take them to someone else who gives them a lower price, only because he didn't have to spend the time at the drawing board."

If he again raises the "Free Estimates" flag, calmly tell him the truth: "My estimates are free. My work is not, and drawings are work."

Of course, there are other advertising vehicles to consider. We will look at a couple of them next time.

Have something to say? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.