Pick Up the Pieces

What to do when a good ad gets a bad response.

While watching a rerun of "Star Trek: The Next Generation" the other night, I was reminded of an important business lesson. In this episode, the android officer Data suffers a loss of confidence after losing a game of Strategema (a fictional strategy game) which he believes he played perfectly, without mistakes. To get Data back on the bridge of the starship Enterprise, Captain Picard tells him, "Data, it is possible to make no mistakes and still lose."

If you've ever placed your own advertising, you know it's a lot like high-stakes Strategema. When a perfectly good ad fails, it's hard to know what went wrong. Let's assume you've produced a terrific print ad: A benefit-oriented headline draws the reader in; you've used an intriguing visual and motivational copy; your ad is readable, clear and has an effective call to action (a reason and means for readers to respond). But you run your perfectly good ad and absolutely nothing happens, or perhaps just a few responses trickle in.

Here are five reasons good ads sometimes fail, and some solid advice on how to avoid future losses:

1. The ad is placed in the wrong media. Before placing your ad in any publication, examine the readership information in its media kit to determine whether it reaches your target audience with a reasonably small amount of waste. For example, if you want to reach teachers via a magazine that targets teachers, school administrators and librarians, check the readership numbers carefully to be sure that teachers, not the other two groups, make up the bulk of the publication's readership.

It's also important to select publications that are looked to as sources of information on your type of product or service. If you're choosing between advertising in your city-wide newspaper or in a neighborhood paper, for example, choose the one your target audience turns to when they're looking for information on what you're marketing.

2. The ad is run on the wrong day. Search corridor media are those people reach for when they've made a decision to buy. You've probably noticed how, on any given day, your favorite section of the daily newspaper becomes a search corridor for a particular type of product. All the local banks may run ads on Mondays in the Business section, for example, or all the ads for audio equipment may run on Fridays in the Weekend section.

If you place an ad for audio equipment on Thursday in Main News instead of on Friday in the Weekend section with the other stereo advertisers, you've removed your ad from the search corridor. Prospects looking for audio equipment simply will not be looking for your ad in Main News on Thursday.

3. There are barriers to sales. If it's too hard for prospects to get information or make a purchase, then no ad, no matter how well-produced, can work for you. When people respond to your ad, do they get stuck in voice-mail jail? Can they speak with a real person who is knowledgeable about the offer in the ad? Do they get a busy signal? If so, many prospects will give up and buy from someone else.

Often, an otherwise excellent ad will fail solely because the advertiser didn't provide a toll-free number. If you ask prospects to spend their own money to find out about your product or service, you're placing a significant barrier to sales in their way.

4. The offer is too weak or just plain wrong. Before placing an offer in your ad, it's important to determine how it stacks up next to competitors' offers. To find out, clip their ads regularly. And consider this: It's not always important to beat the competition on price. Instead, find a way to add value with additional services or products.

Once you've hit on what you believe is your best offer, you may have to test it to see if you're offering something your prospects want to buy. When a good ad with what you think is a top-flight offer fails to pull, strengthen the offer. Once you find an offer that improves your ad-response rates, stick with it until it stops working for you.

5. You aren't advertising frequently enough. Companies that advertise consistently, such as regional banks, build up "awareness" among their target audiences. So if your local bank offers in its weekly ad a new service, such as one-hour approval on auto loans, it will probably reap a significant response, even though it's the first time that particular ad has appeared.

If you're a new advertiser, however, you haven't yet built up awareness among your target audience, so you'll have to run your ad with some frequency before it begins to garner responses. The frequency required depends on what you're marketing, the complexity of your message, and how well your target audience understands your type of product or service. (There are exceptions: Ads placed in directories and some search corridor media, like classifieds, may require only one insertion to get results.)

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Kim Gordon is the owner of National Marketing Federation and is a multifaceted marketing expert, speaker, author and media spokesperson. Her latest book is Maximum Marketing, Minimum Dollars.
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