Q: I have used different types of advertising--including direct mail, coupons and newspaper ads--to increase my store traffic. I've recently been approached by a fellow merchant in a different product category who asked if I wanted to buy advertising space on the bottom of his store's receipts. I thought this was a great idea! What other types of innovative advertising methods should I consider?

A: Congratulations on your ability to think creatively and your willingness to explore alternative promotional efforts. Keep in mind that creative advertising is great, but it must be effective to be considered successful. Effective advertising can only be developed when your strategies are based on solid business practices, such as:

  • Competitive analysis: Who are your competitors? What are their target markets? How do they reach their targets? How do you differentiate yourself from your competition?
  • Target market: Who are your customers and what do they need and want? Do you have a broad market (like McDonald's) or a narrow one (such as Relax the Back stores)?
  • Competitive positioning: What market position best differentiates you from your competitors? Are you the lowest-priced? The highest value? Do you offer the best product selection? Your advertising message must focus on your value proposition--that is, what do you offer that no one else does?
  • Budget: How much can you spend to reach your target market? Budget will drive your choice of media, such as newspaper, coupons, direct mail, radio, cable TV and so on.
  • Brand building vs. selling products or services: Do you want to create brand awareness, so your customers ask for your product by name (think Coca-Cola), or do you want to drive traffic to your store or Internet site (such as Macy's or macys.com)? These are two very different strategies.

Most small to midsize businesses, particularly retail businesses, want their advertising to deliver a sales message and drive traffic to their location. Therefore, regardless of how creative or entertaining your message, you want your message to influence your audience to act (that is, come into your store and buy--or at least try--your products).

Creative Techniques
There are thousands of ways to generate creative advertising--including coupons, promotional items, on-hold messages, event sponsorships and charitable events. Highlight the benefits your products offer your customers to give yourself a distinctive advantage over your competition. Here are some ideas to start your thinking:

  • Retail cross promotions work with compatible products and services. For example, the local dry cleaners gives each customer a flower from the neighboring florist shop, and the flower merchant gives each of her customers a dollars-off coupon for the cleaners. Or the local veterinarian offers a stack of coupons for the local pet-supply retailer. This is where those sales receipt cross promotions can be really effective.
  • Local sponsorships increase awareness of your company's name and perform a community service. That local dry cleaners buys the Little Leaguers' uniforms and gets his name promoted at every ball game.
  • Floor graphics are a new point-of-sale technique. Design images or write slogans on the retail floor to stop customers in their tracks or lead them where you want them to go. Some merchants produce their images on adhesive, easy-to-remove film. Others use tiles that temporarily replace the regular floor.
  • Painted walls can be a canvas to creatively highlight your product or service, if your zoning and your landlord permit. A local retailer who sold a variety of gift items called her store Carousel of Gifts and painted all four walls to resemble a merry-go-round for shoppers, a not-so-subtle way to keep her store name top-of-mind with her customers.
  • Interactive product demonstrations lend themselves to local fairs, flea markets, parks, farmers' markets and picnic grounds for on-site advertising. Show your customers how your products work. Let them touch, feel or taste it. If you can, offer free samples.
  • Sponsored Web site links may drive traffic to your Web site and increase sales. For example, a recent Google search for designer purses brought up hundreds of online retailers. Contact a number of search engines for their listing options.
  • Yellow Pages may not seem too creative, but it is an opportunity to "out-advertise" your competition in a side-by-side venue. Here's your chance to set your business apart, catch your customer's eye and get him to call you, not your competitor. Put the most information about your product or service in the most attention-getting format (using headlines, messages, logos and graphics).
  • Cable TV is very focused to geographic areas (neighborhoods) and demographic targets (show selections) and is much more affordable than network TV advertising. In addition, your local cable company can produce your commercials cost-effectively.
  • Community special sections may be published by your local newspaper, but advertising in them is generally much less expensive than the daily edition. Often, the weekly or biweekly sections are delivered to selected ZIP codes, making the audience very targeted.
  • Free special reports or white papers are some of the least expensive and most powerful advertising methods. A well-written report validates your industry expertise and demonstrates to your target audience how much you know about the products they want. Your report should be completely free of references to your company or your products since you want to reflect your expertise, not promote your product or service. Credibility is the key.

Creativity is commendable. But effectiveness will build your business. With the right planning and focus, your advertising can accomplish both. Never lose sight of your audience or what they want and need. Be sure your advertising messages communicate that clearly, effectively and frequently.