The Trick to Old-School Advertising

Does advertising in newspapers, Yellow Pages and other forms of old-school media still work? It does if you know the secret to making them produce.

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By Roy Williams

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Which media is most effective? Newspaper, Yellow Pages, television, direct mail, radio, magazines and billboards all lay claim to being "the best." But which ones are right for you, and how can you take advantage of them best?

It's true that mass media is losing its mass as audiences become increasingly fragmented. But there's no "new thing" to take their place. Old-school vehicles of advertising may not work as well as they did yesterday, but for the most part, they're still all you've got. The secret is to learn to use them better.

Assuming that you have something to say that people might actually want to hear, these are the three criteria that determine which media you should use:

1. Persona: What's the psychological profile or "persona" of your customer? Is their primary fear that they'll buy the wrong one? Or are they worried only that they'll pay too much? The first customer is looking for an expert they can trust. The second is looking for credible desperation--a believable explanation as to why you're willing to sell cheaper than anyone else.

2. Product Purchase Cycle: How often is your typical customer in the market for what you sell? We buy milk a lot more often than we buy diamonds.

3. Psychological Environment: What will be your customer's frame-of-mind when they encounter your ad? We tend to think different thoughts when driving to work than we do when driving home. And we're in a different state-of-mind when reading a magazine article about a subject that's dear to us than when we're ripping open piles of mail.

With these three criteria in mind, let's take a look at the strengths and weaknesses of traditional media.

  • Newspapers. Newspapers reach customers who are currently, consciously in the market for what you sell. Newspapers work best when you're selling products with a short purchase cycle to price-conscious bargain hunters. What might you have to say that would qualify as "news"? This is the psychological environment.
  • Bargain Shopper Tabloids. Every region has these PennySaver, PennyPower, ThriftyNickel, BargainPost type tabloids distributed in laundromats, barber shops and convenience stores. Obviously, they target the low-income, bargain-hunting crowd. If you're selling used cars ("No Credit? No Problem!") or mobile homes ("No Credit? No Problem!") or vinyl siding ("No Credit? No Problem!"), they can work wonders. These papers are printed for the desperate seeking the desperate.
  • Yellow Pages. reach customers who are currently, consciously in the market for specific services but who haven't yet chosen a provider. Not a good vehicle for retail. Yellow Pages work best when you're selling services with a long product-purchase cycle. Some shoppers will be looking for the quickest possible response: "Time is money." Others will be looking for low-price credibility: "Money is money." Still others will be looking for an expert they can trust: "Price doesn't matter when the quality is low." A single ad can't speak convincingly to all three of these personas, so you must choose whom your ad will target and scratch the itch of that persona.
  • TV. TV reaches virtually every type of customer you might ever want to reach, but at different times and on different channels. Don't think of a TV station as having an audience, think of a TV show as having an audience. TV gives you high impact, but with low repetition. This makes it useful for products and services with short purchase cycles. But looking good costs money. How good do you want to look? Remember, your ad will be played side-by-side with ads that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to produce. Will you be able to stand tall in this psychological environment? Or will your ad look shabby and homemade? TV is like an oil well; it can be a gusher or a dry hole.
  • Direct Mail. This is delivered specifically to whom you wanted to reach. But how can you be sure they'll open it? And if they do open it, how can you be sure they'll give it more than a passing glance? Direct mail is a wonderful tool for selling products and services with a long product purchase cycle. It's also excellent for reaching highly specific types of customers. You can rent a mailing list for virtually any category and description of buyer. The downside of direct mail is that it's horrendously expensive to do properly. Typically, you can reach a hundred or more prospective customers using any other mass media for the price of one highly targeted customer using personalized direct mail. (Advo-type marriage mail packets are simply Bargain Shopper tabloids printed on 3x5 cards and mailed in a cellophane packet. Please don't confuse this with direct mail.)
  • Radio. This works best for selling to customers whose fear is that they'll buy the wrong one--those customers who are looking for an expert they can trust. Radio works best when used 52 weeks a year to sell products and services with long purchase cycles. Unless you sound truly stupid, use your own voice in your ads and speak directly to your customer about their fears and concerns. I know of one Ford dealer who five months ago abandoned newspaper and television, put all his dollars into radio, and has been trending steadily upwards ever since. His message, by the way, isn't about price. Robbins Bros., the World's Biggest Engagement Ring Store, began using late-night radio exclusively back in 1992 to sell engagement rings to young couples on dates after dark. This is the psychological environment: The two of you are together, you're in love, and once an hour a voice from the back seat says, "Hey, if you guys ever decide to tie the knot..." Robbins Bros. will do more than $100 million this year. Yes, radio is a visual medium.
  • Magazines. With these, you get all the psychological targeting of direct mail and much of the impact of television. And the psychological environment is perfect. Magazines work equally well for long and short product purchase cycles. The downside is that they're not a local medium. Buy an ad in Professional Photographer and you're going to reach professional photographers nationwide. Buy an ad in Scuba Diving Enthusiast, and it'll be read all over the world. One exception to the not-local rule: If you're targeting the local Junior League set, you can always use that low-circulation, full-color magazine with the name of your city on the cover. Every town with two country clubs and at least half-million population seems to have one.
  • Billboards. If you can say everything you need to say in eight words or less, and at least 10 percent of the population is a prospective customer for what you sell, give outdoor advertising a try. Billboards reach far more people for a dollar than any other medium. But keep in mind that the psychological environment is that your customer is in the car and headed somewhere. If you don't have a high-impact message that you can deliver with a single picture and eight words or less, try something else.

Now go make some business happen.

Roy Williams

Roy William's is the founder and president of international ad agency Wizard of Ads. Roy is also the author of numerous books on improving your advertising efforts, including The Wizard of Ads and Secret Formulas of the Wizard of Ads.

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