What It Is:
Various sizes of billboards posted along side streets, highways and superhighways

Appropriate For:
Almost any business, large or small, but particularly workable for businesses with a broad customer base, such as car dealerships, pharmacies, pet supply stores or even home improvement stores. Even small, niche businesses can find that billboards can alert travelers to their products or services. And every business can find a directional board helpful--that is, a board close to your location that literally points the way to your door.

Typical Cost:
$800 to $5,000 per month, depending on geographic location, board size, specific board location and number of boards purchased at one time

How It Works:
Outdoor billboards are a great place to advertise your business because rather than you having to find your customers, your customers will find your advertising! No matter whether you buy one board or a whole "showing" (where you have several boards up at the same time), billboards are a bold form of advertising. Your message is visible to anyone old enough to drive (or ride) all day long--and into the night, if your board is illuminated. Because you have just a few choices when it comes to board sizes, travelers won't be able to tell from your board(s) how large your company is. So with a sharp design and a meaningful message, your business can look as large as a national chain.

If you've decided you want to purchase billboard space, your first step is to find existing billboard locations you'd like to rent for your ads. There are two ways to do this. First, you can either spot locations you'd like to rent while you're driving around your neighborhood or city. If you find boards you like, look at the bottom of the board for the name of the company that owns it (the boards in your area will most likely be owned by several different companies). Or you can call billboard companies in your area and ask for maps pinpointing the available boards. In either case, you should provide them with the locations of the boards you like and the name of the current advertisers so they can give you the monthly cost for each board and tell you when each board will be available. (If you want to know how many people will see your board, you can contact the department of transportation in that area--they'll be able to tell you how many cars travel on those roads.)

When it comes to choosing locations for your board(s), it's important you drive by the actual spots you're considering--if at all possible--to make sure the board isn't covered by trees or other things that interfere with visibility, or that it doesn't come up on the driver too suddenly, which means there isn't enough time for the board's message to be to read.

Here's a tip when it comes to landing the best locations: Contact the billboard companies six months to a year in advance of the time you want your ad to go up. Many of the best locations are purchased on long-term contracts and only become available once or twice a year. And even boards with "good" locations rather than "great locations" are limited in number. You don't want to be scrounging for locations at the last minute.

Of course, there's a downside to signing a contract ahead of time to lock in a good location. If you later experience a cash flow problem, you'll have a devil of a time getting out of that contract. If your finances are "iffy," it's a better idea to wait until it's closer to the time you want to start advertising and choose from the locations that are available then. Here's a money-saving tip: If one board is all you can afford, move it to different locations from month to month to reach more of your target market.

Once you've purchased your boards, you have to decide what your message will be. Your outdoor company will have someone on staff to help you design your ad and will even have sample books of award-winning designs to get you started. Let them make suggestions, but be sure you're the final decision-maker regarding what your message will be--you know your target market, and what they'll respond to, better than anyone. It's best to include just eight to ten words plus your business name and location and a graphic of some kind, and that's all. Remember: The reader is moving at up to 70 mph, depending on the board's location, and just won't have time to read more than that.

Your design must be colorful to catch a driver's eye in the first place and stand out from any other boards that may be near it (small and medium-size boards are sometimes placed together in groups of three or four). The best thing to do is to put yourself in the mind of your customers: Get in your car and drive around to see which boards catch your attention, then use similar colors on your own. (Note: Neon colors are bright and very attractive, but they fade faster than non-neon shades.)

Paper and paint still exist for billboard production, but they're becoming more rare, even for small boards, as people increasingly turn to vinyl ads, which last a lot longer and can be re-used. Once your message is created on a computer, it's transferred to a large sheet of vinyl that's placed over the board like a tablecloth and then strapped down in the back (which is why you see wrinkles now and then on boards as you drive by).

It'll probably cost you more if you go through your outdoor company for vinyl production than if you purchase the ad directly through a billboard production company like Infinite Graphics. You'll need to provide the production company with your own design, but if you have someone in your employ who can do that, you can save some money.

Lately, more and more electronic boards have been popping up around the country. While these boards are flashy and the "latest thing" in that industry, you'll share the space with as many as eight other advertisers--all the messages rotate in five- to eight-second segments. Why would you spend the same amount of money--or more--each month to reach one-eighth of the total traffic that passes by one of these electronic boards when you can purchase a regular board and get 100 percent of the exposure?

The best news for this form of advertising? If the board you're leasing isn't sold to someone else when your contract is up, your design will most likely remain there until someone else buys the board.

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