From the January 2006 issue of Entrepreneur

For years, TV advertising was the bastion of big-business marketers. We learned not to "squeeze the Charmin" and that "things go better with Coca-Cola" from ad campaigns on the three big TV networks that reached us without cable hookups or satellite dishes.

But all that has changed since cable networks have lured audiences away with specialized programming. Let Anheuser-Busch and Ford spend close to $2.5 million to reach the masses by running a single Super Bowl ad. Savvy entrepreneurs are pinpointing their target audiences and reaching them locally, regionally or even nationally for a tiny fraction of the cost. Now, local commercials are the mainstay of cable systems--in some regions accounting for as much as 70 percent of their ads--and major cable companies even provide low-cost ways to produce commercials.

You can reach a wide yet qualified audience by creating your own cable TV ad campaign. Just follow these five steps:

1. Define your audience. There's cable programming to reach every target audience and suit any interest imaginable-from home and garden shows and 24-hour news to baseball and music videos. To make an effective buy, you'll need to create a simple one- or two-sentence target audience profile starting with basic demographics (gender, age, household income and any other important characteristics). If the product or service you're marketing is tied to a hobby or special interest, such as home improvement, be sure to include it in the profile. Next, consider geography. You can target prospects within a small radius, or on a citywide, regional or national basis.

Here's an example of a target audience profile: women; ages 25-54; with household incomes of $75,000-plus; who are homeowners, enjoy gardening and reside in XYZ areas.

2. Contact the cable systems. Even if you plan to advertise in multiple markets, start by contacting the cable system provider in your market area, since many cable companies have extensive coverage areas. Comcast, for instance, works with small-business owners in markets from Los Angeles to Miami through its advertising sales division, Comcast Spotlight. In South Florida alone, there are 19 different Comcast zones, and you can choose to advertise in as many as you want.

3. Identify the right programming. A chief advantage of advertising on cable TV is that specialized programming successfully hooks audiences. Whether they're watching a hockey game or a fashion makeover, engaged viewers are more likely to see your spot and less likely to pay attention to other tasks. Once you provide your cable sales rep with your target audience profile, you can request a proposal based on research from Nielsen Media Research and Scarborough Research showing the best-targeted programming to reach your prospects by using between 40 and 60 different networks.

4. Make your buy. It's a good rule of thumb to budget a minimum of $1,500 per month for your spot buy. For best results, negotiate for a combination of fixed-position spots, which are guaranteed to air during specific programs, and run-of-station spots on the networks you choose. Run-of-station spots cost less but may air at any time, such as after midnight, when they'll reach the fewest number of viewers. So it's smart to specify the hours (or parts of the day) during which your spots may air.

5. Produce your spot. Cable companies seeking small-business advertisers have jumped into the production business. Comcast Spotlight, for example, produces local spots from just under $500 to about $1,200, depending on the market, including scripting, shooting, post-production and a professional voice-over. Even spots with actors and custom jingles can be created affordably. These spots have a more "local" look than big-budget ads from McDonald's and Nike, but you can count on them to successfully capture the attention of viewers for a whole lot less.