From the November 1996 issue of Startups

As competition within the retail and service industries grows stronger daily, each small business must actively motivate consumers, thus bringing in more business. Advertising is crucial in attracting clients, but assistance from a full-service advertising agency can often be expensive.

Many business owners design their own print ads, since they are a popular and less costly form of advertising. Although some still rely on classified department staffs to design the ads, the minimal cost associated with advertising in smaller publications is often reflected in the quality of the ads. Ads may look easy to produce, but unless the creator has training in marketing, they are likely to be ineffective. Following are six valuable tricks of the advertising trade that will help you design professional-quality ads that will get noticed and attract customers:

1. Strategically place visuals. Include a relevant visual or picture in your advertisement and you will have an advantage. Since readers' eyes are attracted to pictures before text, studies show that ads with visuals are read more often than those without them.

Visuals (including photos, illustrations and graphics), which add interest and break up copy, are best placed above and to the left of the important information in the ad. Visuals should lead the reader's eyes through the text in a logical progression as we normally read, from left to right.

Visuals make customers notice your ad when they quickly scan through reading material. The Frank A. Edmunds Co. Inc., a needlework supply company in Chicago, uses a picture of a woman using a needlecraft frame in one ad. "We always use an illustration in our ads because we find that immediate recognition of the product catches a reader's attention before copy does," says owner Dennis Clegg. "We're even starting to advertise all our pictures in color to separate ourselves from other manufacturers in the area, so we'll stand out even more."

2. Stress the benefits. Suggest in your ad why it's beneficial to choose your business, and you'll effectively attract customers. Art Printing Co., a commercial printer in Mill Hall, Pennsylvania, states "We pick up and deliver" in its advertisements. "Since we are on the outskirts of town, and most of our competitors are in town, this helps to give us an edge," says manager Mark Weaver. "We're the only printers in the area who advertise a pick-up and delivery service, and once people call us, they don't bother to shop around and try to find a better price. Most customers are not interested in trying to save a few dollars when we provide this free, convenient service for them." Including a benefit gives customers a clear-cut incentive to use your services and not shop elsewhere.

3. Create urgency. Phrases like "These special offers won't last" and "Call today" prompt readers to take action. Just Cruises & Tours Inc., in Pompton Lakes, New Jersey, effectively incorporates "Call Today for the Best Rates" into their advertisements to entice customers before they visit competitors.

Using the word "only," as in "only until Friday" or "only $60," suggests that the special offer might soon be withdrawn. A sense of urgency nudges potential customers to act quickly to take advantage of the special offer before it expires.

4. Include all essential information. Often the most obvious information that belongs in an ad is forgotten, which can cost you customers. Few clients will try to decipher missing information--they will simply call someone else.

Include your name, type of business and address. Supply an area code and phone number so customers can get extra information if needed. Also, include your store's hours in the ad. You may lure a competitor's client to your store if your hours are better suited to their needs.

5. Avoid using all caps. Emphasize words by putting them in bold type or italics, making them larger than the rest, or capitalizing the first letter of each word. The Sterling Name Tape Co., a producer of printed fabric garment labels in Winsted, Connecticut, uses each of these strategies in its ad's headline, "Name It With Custom Labels!" Headlines that quickly grab the reader's attention entice him or her to read on.

It is rarely effective to put copy in all capital letters. Some people believe that text written in all capitals gives it importance or commands attention; in fact, the opposite is true.

When words are written in lower-case letters, the brain recognizes the shapes of letters grouped together and can easily scan sentences. When text is completely in capitals, however, each word is rectangular in shape. The brain must slow down and read each individual letter to recognize the word. Most readers will ignore such an ad written in capital letters and move to one that is more easily readable.

6. Strive to achieve unity. Use similar typefaces to give your ad a sense of cohesiveness. Including many different typefaces gives an ad a cluttered and disorganized appearance, making customers unlikely to read the entire ad, if any of it.

Allow a fair amount of white space to give your ad an orderly, easy-to-read presentation. When readers are confronted with too much information, they often skip the ad rather than try to read all the fine print. Simplicity is often best, enabling the reader to assimilate important information at a quick glance.

Finally, remember that the key to a successful advertisement is clarity. Study your ad and eliminate all unnecessary information to give it a crisp, professional appearance. When you only have seconds to capture a reader's attention, make sure your ad is ready for the challenge. The result can increase your clientele--an essential key to keeping your business one step ahead of the competition.