Q: My wife and I started a nursery, garden center and brick-paving company more than 10 years ago. I have a few questions related to advertising our business, and I'm hoping you can help. First of all, during the last two seasons, I shrunk our ad budget from $40K to less than $5K. Sales have remained flat despite two rainy springs. So although we've saved thousands of dollars in ad revenues during this time, the lack of sales growth has led me to wonder if cutting back was the right thing to do. Second, can you recommend a systematic way of planning my advertising, and how can I measure its effectiveness? Lastly, we're approaching the Christmas season, and I'd like some ideas on how to best reach my customers.
A: Drastically cutting back on your advertising efforts will set up a cycle that can put you out of business. If advertisers suddenly get quiet, it spooks consumers. It's wiser to make other kinds of money-saving adjustments-like changing your inventory to better suit the current weather or economic conditions-than it is to cut back your ad budget.
Unfortunately, you've already lost momentum and the mind share of the public by dropping back so drastically. It may cost more money than you saved to get it back. Advertising is like pushing a ball uphill. You have to keep going. If you stop, the ball rolls back down the hill and you have to start all over.
Planning your future advertising efforts using a systematic approach is a great way to go. The best way to start is by identifying peak business weeks and months on a calendar. Some entrepreneurs argue that they don't need to advertise when business is good, but that's wrong! When it's your peak season, you must advertise to get the most business out of your market. You can lose a lot of money trying to generate business during times when it simply does not exist (such as pushing for home improvements in November and December). So make your money while you can. Every business-even those that operate year-round-has specific times of the year when business is just better.
Actually tracking the effectiveness of your advertising is a tricky matter. In fact, few business owners track their advertising results because they don't know how. Here are a few hints sure to get you on the right track:
- Mark print ads and coupons with codes so you know where they came from when they're redeemed.
- Advertise different products on different radio stations or TV programs. You'll know which is working for you by the amount of traffic generated.
- Keep records so you don't have to rely on memory the next time you want to place an ad, remember the rate you last paid, or show a media sales rep why you can do better advertising with his or her competitor.
- Stop asking your customers where they heard about you. People don't realize how important the answer to this question is, and they'll often give you the first answer that comes into their heads. Instead, ask them what radio station they listen to, what TV programs they watch and what sections of the paper they read. Make a list and use that. You should also get their ZIP codes to guide your direct mail. Tracking advertising means tracking your customers, too.
When the holidays roll around, it's a great time of year to really reach out to your customers. You don't have to spend a lot of money as long as you're creative. For instance, to lure customers to your store, get out there early with perishables like Poinsettias, wreaths and garlands, and cut back on expensive tree ornaments and others items that may be too expensive for customers who may be cutting back on unnecessary purchases this year. You can also hold special events at the shop-call a radio station that you've used successfully before and have them either come up with a promotion or perhaps broadcast from your location. Conduct a holiday drawing early for a free Christmas tree. Another idea: Hand out a free pound or two of birdseed with the purchase of every birdfeeder, and give each customer a holiday coupon for a certain percentage off their next purchase. The key to continued success is to keep thinking and keep going like it's your first year.
Kathy Kobliski is the founder and president of Silent Partner Advertising, where she oversees multimedia advertising budgets for retail and service clients. Her book, Advertising Without an Agency, was written for business owners who are working with small advertising budgets and can't afford professional help. You can reach Kathy at (315) 487-6706 (weekdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. EST), or visit her Web site at www.silentpartneradvertising.com.
The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author, not of Entrepreneur.com. All answers are intended to be general in nature, without regard to specific geographical areas or circumstances, and should only be relied upon after consulting an appropriate expert, such as an attorney or accountant.