Hey, You. Over Here!

Made you look. Now go ahead and get prospects looking at you with these tips for designing the perfect print ad.
Magazine Contributor
5 min read

This story appears in the October 2005 issue of Entrepreneurs StartUps Magazine. Subscribe »

When it's time for you to get your business in the papers, you want a witty, groundbreaking ad that tells readers all about who you are. Right?


Super-original graphics, copy that's packed full of information, a trick headline that's clever once you "get it"-advertising disasters are made of these. What works in ads doesn't always make intuitive sense, so follow these basic guidelines to create an ad that gets and keeps you in business.

1. Don't propose to strangers. Suppose someone you just met asked "Will you marry me?" Are you wasting your precious marketing dollars doing the advertising equivalent?

A print ad commands only a tiny slice of the reader's time and attention. Expecting it to represent your business, explain your offerings and instantly build a buy-sell relationship with your prospects is about as reasonable as asking your customers to accept a proposal from a perfect stranger.

The "Before" version of the sample ad is a tossup between a catalog, a sales letter and a press release, and it doesn't work as any of those. Treat your ad like an introductory handshake, and design it to get prospects to take that one vital first step toward becoming a client (visiting your website, coming in for a free consultation or just calling to ask a question). And don't expect to induce instant buying in people who've never heard of you.

2. Save the best for first. If you save the best for last, no one will see it. Your most important message is the answer to the question all your prospective customers will be asking: "What's in it for me?" So put it where people look first-in your headline or in a caption for your visual.

Customers won't call you because you have a nice name or logo, so don't splash these over the top of your ad. Customers don't care that you're one of three companies in America that carry certified organic cat food, so don't make that your central point. Tell them instead that their cats will live longer and stay healthier if they buy your cat food. Always focus up front on what they gain, not what you sell.

3. Write for eyes, not brains. You never read the ad sections of the paper word for word. Neither will your customers. At most, they'll skim over the page, and their brains will activate only when their eyes are captured by a key word, phrase or image.

A clever headline that forces your readers to think in order to make the connection to what you're selling is the kiss of death to your ad. When in doubt, show it to a few acquaintances for five seconds, then immediately ask them to tell you what you're advertising. If they can't, simplify it until they can.

Choose visuals that obviously relate to your product or service. Your readers won't stop to analyze metaphorical graphics for hidden meaning. No one glancing briefly at the clouds in the sample "Before" ad could be expected to guess it's about cat food. (Heavenly cat food. Get it?) Stick to simple imagery that will activate your target audience's "look here" reflex, like the big cat in the "After" version does for cat owners.

4. Speak a thousand words (the right way). Eyes grab pictures before words, so it's usually a mistake to have an ad with no visual. But you can't rely on a picture alone to make your point. If the visual is the bait, your copy is the hook. Make sure you have a good balance of both.

Use one primary image, not lots of distracting smaller ones. When in doubt, go darker with your main visual, because people instinctively glance at the darkest part of an open page first.

Keep visuals simple-fine details can get fuzzy in newsprint. Statistically, photos sell better than drawings, but only if the print quality is good. Look at ads the same size as yours in the publications you intend to use, and make sure the resolution is acceptable before you commit to a photo.

5. Tell prospects what to do-and why. Never leave readers asking "What now?" Tell them exactly what you want them to do, when you want them to do it, and how. If you possibly can, offer a limited-time and discounted or free something to create a reason for them to call right away. If you don't, they'll put off responding, something will distract them, and that will be the end of you. Make your contact information easy to see, and if you give a phone number, provide relevant hours.

6. Know thy limits. Are you perfectly confident in your own language and graphic-design skills? Remember, you're staking the future of your business on these. The most expensive part of hiring a professional to design an ad is paying for the time it takes to figure out exactly what you want in it and where. Consider using the tips in this article to piece together a rough ad (with the general tone of the copy, images and basic layout already in place), then hiring a professional just to polish it up for you. It should be downright cheap, quick and a whole lot less risky.

Isabella Trebond is a marketing consultant who specializes in startup business planning and copywriting.

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