Q: What do you think is a better advertising plan: $2,000 in direct postcards reaching roughly 3,500 people, or $2,000 in a newspaper ad reaching 750,000 readers?
A: It depends entirely on what you say in your ad. If your impact quotient is high enough, your best bet will be the newspaper. If the direct postcards are delivered precisely to "the perfect target" (which is not very likely), then the direct-mail route is preferable.
Based on the fact that I don't know the answers to either of these questions, my guess is that neither the direct postcards nor the newspaper will work for you. My advice is that you keep your $2,000 in your pocket until you come up with an actual plan. These are the hard questions you need to answer:
1. What do you have to say that matters to your customer? I'm your prospective customer. I know you want my business, but why should I care? What's in it for me? Most ads are written under the assumption that the reader, listener or viewer has a basic level of interest and is paying close attention to the ad. But customers tend to ignore all ads that do not speak directly to them. Your first task is not media selection; it's message selection.
2. Can you say it persuasively? Most ads are ineffective because the writer was trying to say too much, include too much and be too much. Fearful of leaving someone out, these writers write vague, all-encompassing ads that speak specifically to no one. "We Fix Cars" is a terrible headline for an ad.
3. Are you speaking to a felt need? Let's say the "We Fix Cars" auto mechanic has a great deal of affection for older BMW 2002s. He knows that 2002 owners love their cars like few drivers on the road and that the only weakness of the 2002 is its evil Solex carburetor. Every 2002 owner knows this, too. So he writes the headline, "BMW 2002 Owners: Aren't You Tired of Fooling With That Solex by Now?" In the body of the ad, he talks about the fabulous new Weber two-barrel carburetor now available for BMW 2002s, raves about how it dramatically increases performance and reliability, explains that he keeps these new Weber carburetors in stock at his shop, then names the price at which he will install and adjust that carburetor for you. He closes the ad by saying, "You'll rocket out of here in a completely different BMW than the one you drove in." If a list of BMW owners in your area is available for a direct-mail card (such as the list from the local BMW club), then a direct-mail card or flier would be the way to go. But if no such list is available, the newspaper might be a second choice. In either case, you'd want to include a large picture of a BMW 2002 to serve as a recall cue and help gain the attention of your target customer.
4. How long is your time horizon? Some ads build traffic, some build relationships and others build your reputation. If you don't have the financial resources to launch a true branding campaign focused on building relationships and reputation among potential customers, you're going to have to settle for traffic-building ads until you can afford to begin developing your brand. To what degree do you have financial staying power?
5. What is the urgency of your message? If you need an ad to produce immediate results, your offer must have a time limit. This technique will simultaneously work for and against you. On one hand, customers tend to delay what can be delayed, so limited-time offers generate traffic more quickly since the threat of "losing the opportunity" is real. On the other hand, customers have no memory of messages that have expired; short-term messages are erased from our brains immediately. Therefore, it's extremely difficult to create long-term awareness with a series of limited-time-offer, short-term ads.
6. What is the impact quotient of your ad? How good your ad must be depends on the quality of your competitors' ads. A .22-caliber pistol is a weapon against an opponent with a peashooter. But aim that pathetic pistol at an opponent holding a machine gun, and you can kiss your silly butt goodbye. How powerful is the message of the opposition? If your competitor carries a machine gun, don't go where he goes. In other words, don't use the media he uses.
7. How long is the purchase cycle? How long it will take your advertising to pay off is tied to the purchase cycle of your product. Ads for restaurants work more quickly than ads for sewing machines, because a larger percentage of people are looking for a good meal today than are looking for a machine that will let them make their own clothes. Likewise, an ad for a product we buy twice per year will produce results faster than an ad for a product we buy only once a year. Remember, a customer first has to be exposed to your ad often enough to remember it, then you have to wait for that customer to need what you sell. How soon will he or she likely need it?
Not hiring a professional ad writer is often far more expensive than hiring one. If you'd like to read more about this stuff, most libraries and bookstores are full of books on advertising, including three of my own.
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.