From the October 1997 issue of Startups

The secret's out: You're probably better at promoting your business than any advertising executive. In the past, agencies seemed to have advertising production and media placement locked up, but now that's changing. Today, creating your own advertising and promotional materials means communicating more successfully than ever with your customers--at less cost.

"It's a time of great opportunity," says Tom Nickel, general manager of Adams Media Corp.'s new media division in Holbrook, Massachusetts, which sells advertising software. "Expensive production costs used to force small-business owners to use advertising agencies, but now electronic innovations let entrepreneurs create and place their own advertising."

With more varied production capabilities and media outlets available, Nickel estimates that half of small-business owners currently handle their own advertising. Adams Media Corp.'s CD-ROM software, Adams Streetwise Do-It-Yourself Advertising (for Windows or Macintosh, $29.99, 800-843-2489), makes the job easier by demonstrating, step-by-step, how to write and design print ads and other promotional pieces. "Our tutorial package teaches you how to write powerful phrases that can become headlines or taglines in ads you print and place yourself," he says.

Whether or not you use computer aids, creating your own ads and promotional materials will save time and money without sacrificing effectiveness. Consider the following arguments for creating for yourself:

  • You know your audience, business objectives and products or services best, so you needn't waste time educating a copywriter or fine-tuning off-the-mark copy from an agency. Larry Seaman, president of Vivid Publishing Inc., a publishing company that produces fishing maps and books in Montoursville, Pennsylvania, has worked with agencies in the past but now handles his own advertising. "With agencies, there can be communication problems," he says. "Getting them up to speed on your business can be tough, especially if it's a one-project deal."
  • The practicality, independence and organization that make you a good entrepreneur can make you your own best copywriter. "Managers are usually good at formulating ads and dealing with the media," observes Ray Apfelbaum, who, with his wife Judy, owns Wild Flowers Inc., two floral and gift stores in Spokane, Washington. "We're always thinking about what our customers may need or want."
  • The cost difference between handling a project in-house and hiring an agency can be considerable. Seaman figures he saved $1,500 just by writing and designing a company brochure himself. When Apfelbaum runs 30-second spots on the radio, however, he hires a local radio station to produce the ads. "If you offer them regular advertising, they'll give you a better rate," he says.

Instead of trading a fresh viewpoint for an agency's high overhead, get a friend's opinion on your copy. An outsider's opinion can be useful to add freshness or to help translate technical copy into layman's terms.

In Seaman's case, that second opinion usually comes from a former newspaper editor who is paid for his input. After Seaman writes the copy, the editor cleans it up and rearranges it--especially headlines. "The headline is the key to the ad," Seaman says. "I've tested different headlines, and it's amazing the difference in response that one generates over another." He also makes sure to proofread all materials before they're printed. "There's nothing worse than incorrect grammar and misspellings in copy that's supposed to make your business look good," he says.

Another important component of advertising is graphics. From a floral-industry wire service he's joined, Apfelbaum receives artwork to incorporate in company promotions. He also uses clip art. "I just scan line art or photos into my computer and choose a typeface," Apfelbaum says. "After Judy and I establish the basic design, the printer handles the mechanics." Although many printing houses accept only camera-ready art, the Apfelbaums pay their printer to arrange the type and create a final, camera-ready version to use in printing their promotional pieces.

Obviously, your PC is vital to composing ad copy and developing layouts. By using a desktop publishing program, you can even prepare a camera-ready product that you can duplicate at a do-it-yourself copy store or take to a printer for professional reproductions.

With the ability to go online, your computer also evolves from a production tool into a vast, multifaceted, new promotional medium. It allows for do-it-yourself marketing and puts your business on an equal footing with companies many times your size.

Ways to make promotional use of the Internet are explored in Guerrilla Marketing Online (Houghton Mifflin Co., $12.95, 800-225-3362) by Jay Conrad Levinson and Charles Rubin. "Even if you don't have a computer," Conrad and Rubin say, "you can still promote your products or services online by putting up a billboard on a Web site and directing buyers to your fax, phone number or mailing address." (See "Guerrilla Marketing" on page 70 for more information.)

Different media outlets work differently for different businesses. As a retailer, Apfelbaum relies on radio, small ads in local newspapers and fliers sent to his regular customers. "It doesn't hurt to mix media from time to time," Apfelbaum says. "Don't get too comfortable--try new things that come along."

In addition to his regular schedule of direct mailings, Seaman is trying something relatively new for his mail order business: per-inquiry newspaper ads. "Newspapers run my ad free of charge, and forward names and addresses to me when there's a response," he explains. "Then they get a percentage of my profits on all the requests that are filled."

Whatever the vehicle, several copywriting rules apply. Robert W. Bly, author of The Copywriter's Handbook (Henry Holt, $13.95, 800-488-5233), has good news for small-business-owners-turned-copywriters: "Sometimes, cheaply produced ads, written simply and directly without a lot of fluff, do the best job of selling," Bly says. Here are some of Bly's recommendations:

1. Write headlines that grab attention, address a select audience and draw the reader into complementary copy or graphics (choices include questions, commands and testimonials). "Have You Had Any of These Decorating Problems?" (Bigelow Carpets).

2. Instead of clever, pun-based headlines, offer benefits in direct sales appeals. "Lose 19 Pounds in Three Weeks!"

3. In your copy, speak directly to your prospects by inserting the word "you" and giving them practical information. "BankPlan can help you balance your books and manage your cash flow."

4. Break copy into short sections, using simple sentences and words that will be read and understood. Use "help" instead of "facilitate;" "get" instead of "procure;" "prove" instead of "substantiate."

5. Get to the point of your offer without forfeiting a friendly style. Use "The roof won't leak if it rains" instead of "Adverse weather conditions will not result in structural degradation."

6. End with a call for action and means to respond (coupons, reply cards, toll-free numbers or other devices). "Clip this coupon and bring it into the store."

"The copy should contain enough information--no more, no less--to convince the greatest number of qualified prospects to take the next step in the buying process," Bly says.

Can You Manage?

Teaming Up

By Suzanne Caplan

My heart began to pound as the sheriff walked in and handed me the legal documents announcing that we were being sued. Concern dissolved into disbelief as I realized that my small business was included along with more than 100 defendants in one of a multitude of asbestos-related cases. We never used asbestos!

A call to our company's attorney took this problem out of my hands and, in a few weeks, we were discharged from the case. The cost was less than $200 and the strain very minimal, all because we had previously found a good lawyer and, over a period of time, she had become familiar with our business.

In the 21 years I was CEO of a small glove-manufacturing company, I learned that having a good team of advisors--to handle our legal, accounting and banking needs--was an important ingredient for success.

When should a start-up company begin to build this team of professionals? As soon as its business plan turns into a reality. Don't be intimidated by the potential costs. Taking time to do research can result in finding talented advisors at reasonable fees. After all, just as you are a new entrepreneur, there are lawyers, accountants and bankers beginning their careers.

Here are some guidelines on forming and using a winning business team:

  • Ask for referrals from business associates. These firsthand recommendations are your best sources of finding reputable help.
  • Ask for a face-to-face meeting. You're hiring this person to support your business efforts, so you should have a good rapport as well as professional respect. You must be able to trust their advice.
  • Ask specifically about fees, including hourly charges, minimal billing amounts and payment terms. If you're short on cash, be honest. You are developing a long-term deal that may require short-term sacrifices on both sides.
  • Once you have chosen your advisors, use their time wisely. Here, time really is money. Prepare your questions in advance and have all necessary collateral material on hand.

Remember, you're the coach and you must motivate your team to work hard and win!

Cashing In With Coupons

By Leigh Schindler Powell

They're everywhere: in newspapers and magazines, in your mailbox and even on the sides of drinking cups. Chances are, you've got a few hiding in your junk drawer, in your wallet or pinned to a bulletin board. "They" are coupons, and they're just what smart small-business owners are using to boost their companies' sales.

According to NCH Promotional Services, the world's largest coupon information company, based in Lincolnshire, Illinois, 83 percent of consumers use coupons at least once per month. Smart business owners are targeting their promotional efforts to take advantage of this information. "The demands on marketing budgets mean manufacturers and retailers are trying to get the same `bang for their promotional buck' with more targeted, smaller coupon offers," says Charles K. Brown, NCH's vice president of marketing.

Ramon Williamson, a personal business coach in McLean, Virginia, attracted clients with coupons for free coaching sessions. Williamson now advises others on how to do the same. These are some of the tips he passes on to clients:

  • Give customers what they want. "The word `free' is very motivational," says Williamson, "but only if it is something of value to the client." What clients want depends on what you have to offer. A free consultation or a discount on their next order or purchase are potential enticements.
  • Tell them what it's worth. People love to get a deal. But they won't know how much they're actually saving unless you tell them. Don't be shy: Let them know right up front what the coupon offer is worth. For example, "Free consultation: a $75 value."
  • Make coupons part of the larger marketing plan. Coupons can't carry the marketing burden alone, but as a companion to brochures, print and radio advertisements and direct marketing campaigns, they're dynamite. Because they offer potential customers a chance to sample your product or service with little commitment--and at a discounted rate--coupons blow away the reluctance that potential customers usually have about trying something new.
  • Inspire them with a deadline. Give your offer a specific shelf life by including an expiration date on the coupon. Time-sensitive coupons move customers to call, shop or consult while they have the chance. Williamson says that clients redeem 23.5 percent of his coupons, which have a one-year window of opportunity, within the first 60 days. The next largest redemption period comes just before the expiration date.
  • Aim for your target. Knowing your customers' habits--what they read, where they shop and when they need your services--helps you decide how to distribute your coupons. Hand deliver them with brochures, fax them with a promise for additional information or mail them on a postcard to keep your name in front of inactive clients.

You can also swap coupons with complementary businesses--a wedding planner might hand out coupons for your catering business if you agree to do the same in return. Finally, always consider the timing of your coupon distribution: Don't give your product away when customers are already lining up at the door to buy it.

Guerrilla Marketing

The Guerrilla Marketing book series (Houghton Mifflin Co., from $11.95 to $19.95, 800-225-3362), by Jay Conrad Levinson, gives entrepreneurs an arsenal of promotional tactics to deploy in every medium.

For online ads:

* Create and maintain an order-friendly Web page devoted to your business.

  • Send short, informative e-mail messages to an electronic mailing list of customers who have already bought or shown interest in your products. Be sure to ask your customers for their e-mail addresses when you do customer surveys.
  • Niche market in topic-specific classified ad sections, billboards and newsgroups.

For print ads:

  • Get the most from inexpensive direct-mail advertising: Join forces with other businesses to send coupons to target groups; maintain steady communications with customers with direct-mail postcards; or prompt action with letters or reply cards.
  • Run and test low-cost classified ads in newspapers and magazines.
  • Reach a large general readership by using newspaper display advertising.
  • Gain credibility and reach a targeted market with magazine ads placed in consumer and trade publications in your industry.
  • Advertise in the Yellow Pages, especially if your competitors are listed there.
  • Print brochures to hand out whenever you want to represent your business with take-away literature.

For broadcast ads:

  • Reach your audience with radio spots on active-listening talk or news shows.
  • Speak to customers' eyes and ears by running TV commercials on cable and satellite stations.

For More Information

Copywriting by Design: Bringing Ideas to Life With Words and Images, by David Herzbrun (NTC Contemporary Publishing, $22.95, 800-323-4900), teaches copywriters to create materials that effectively use text and images together. Herzbrun explores the basics of both graphic design and copywriting to help you make your words and images grab your readers.

Contact Source

Adams Media Corp., 260 Center St., Holbrook, MA 02343, (617) 767-8100, ext. 303

Guerrilla Marketing International, P.O. Box 1336, Mill Valley, CA 94942, (800) 748-6444

NCH Promotional Services, 75 Tri-State International, #400, Lincolnshire, IL 60069-4443, (847) 317-5588

Vivid Publishing Inc., P.O. Box 127, Montoursville, PA 17754, (800) 326-9694

Williamson Sales & Leadership, 2010 Corporate Ridge, 7th Fl., McLean, VA 22102, (703) 749-1400, successcoach@compuserve.com