What It Is: Individual pieces of printed advertising, usually providing a discount or special offer

Appropriate For: All businesses, especially those with special promotions during the year or with lower ticket items

Typical Cost: Prices vary depending on how the coupon is distributed, how many coupons are used, printing costs, and the geographic location of the business

How It Works: Coupons are versatile print ads that entice people to take advantage of a sale, urge them to visit a new location, or reward them for shopping in your store at any time. Restaurants use coupons to build traffic on a normally slow day, amusement parks use them to reduce the price of admission for people who buy their tickets in advance, and dry cleaners use them to lure business away from competitors. Get creative, and you'll find a way to use coupons in your advertising mix.

Your coupons can do whatever you want them to do and can be distributed in a lot of different ways: You can make them part of your regular newspaper ads, stuff them into customer's bags to give them an incentive to return, put them on your website for people to print out and redeem, insert them into publications, or mail them.

Coupon packs from companies like Valpak and Carol Wright are stuffed with up to forty coupons and mailed to residential locations through local and national campaigns (and they now also offer printable coupons online). This is a relatively inexpensive option, depending on how many ZIP codes you decide to cover, but it's a good way to go if you're watching your dollars. The downside of these cooperative mailings is that your coupon can get lost in the pile. To help avoid that, be sure your coupon is bright and intriguing.

Another way to distribute your coupons is to independently team up with other businesses that compliment--but do not compete with--yours. For instance, an amusement park can distribute discount coupons for admission at nearby fast food restaurants or grocery stores. As an incentive for agreeing to do this, the restaurants and grocers are included in the amusement park's radio and TV ads as places these valuable coupons can be found. By joining forces, you have a win-win situation and great distribution for your coupons.

Coupons are a slam-dunk when it comes to tracking your advertising. By placing different offers or different designs in different publications, you'll know exactly which ones are working for you and which ones aren't. If you're having your coupons printed, you should use a unique design or paper with watermarks to keep them from being easily replicated. And keep the coupons as people redeem them so you know just what percentage is coming back to you from each place.

A close cousin of the coupon is the gift certificate, and you should always have them available for shoppers who are unsure of what to purchase. When customers buy gift certificates rather than products, you're able to keep more inventory in stock during busy periods. Be sure to put an end date on your gift certificates and include disclaimers, such as "This gift certificate cannot be used to pay on account," "...cannot be used in conjunction with any other offer" or "...cannot be redeemed for cash."

Here are a few additional tips when it comes to using coupons to advertise your business:

  • Be sure and put an end date (a date when they're no longer valid) on all your coupons. If you don't, you'll have to honor them for as long as you run your business.
  • Be careful about your offer. A coupon offering something for free will get the people in, but they may not return. Lots of businesses find that when people come in to redeem a freebie, they don't even focus on what you have to offer and you lose the ability to sell them something else. Better to offer something free with an additional purchase or give a 50 percent discount on the purchase of one item.
  • Include your coupons on your website and keep that page up to date.

You'll learn along the way what to include and what not to include on your own specific coupons. But these basics will get you started.

Kathy Kobliski is the founder of Silent Partner Advertisingin Syracuse, New York. She is also the author of Advertising Without an Agency Made Easy.