Marketing Expert's Corner

This article written in 2006

There's no doubt about it.  Advertising is the one really fun part of marketing.  It's the only part that can make you smile, and it's only in ad meetings that you'll hear really hearty laughter.  I have a humongous collection of TV and print ads which I'll look at just for the beauty of the work and the marketing craft. It's ironic that I so rarely recommend advertising for my clients.

Half the money we spend on advertising is wasted.  The only trouble is, I don't know which half.
-- John Wannamaker

Advertising is the most visibly recognized part of the marketing profession -- even Aunt Millie knows what advertising is.  And nobody confuses advertising with selling or engineering, the way they do with other marketing roles.  Advertising budgets can launch careers and provide political clout for marketers inside companies and agencies alike.

Beyond the visibility and fun of advertising, it has a truly important aspect:  even if younever plan to issue an ad, you still need to go through the exercise of creating at least an in-house one.  An ad forces you to think through your messaging with an economy and clarity that is truly healthy, and brings focus to your messages that is very hard to achieve any other way.


In the outbound marketing mix, advertising is unique in that you have control over every detail.  You'll specify what is written, how it's said, the way it looks, who will see it, and even the circumstances in which they see it.  The more precision you want in all this, the more you'll pay.  And companies do pay:  to the tune of $300 B a year.  That's Billion.  

In addition to control, advertising can give you virtually anyone.  If you have the message, the patience, and the bankroll, nothing else has the impact of advertising.  In the US, consumers are exposed to over 3000 ad impressions a day.  Dilemma #1 is, of course, standing out and punching through the commercial noise.  Dilemma #2 is, unfortunately, low credibility.  

One of the biggest impingements on credibility is the incoherence of what you say about yourself vs what the market already thinks about you.  If there is a big contradiction between your ad message and your reputation, both are cooked. 

For B2B marketing, advertising by itself is really only useful in gaining visibility, getting the word out that you exist and have a compelling offer.  Advertising gets awareness:  something which is useful, something you can measure, but not something that you can eat.  In B2B marketing, advertising almost never gets you leads, let alone sales.  (The exception to this is where your prospect already wants your product, and you are announcing a significant product improvement, new price, or temporary discount.)

In contrast, B2C marketers may have advertising as essentially their only form of customer outreach.  This goes double for everyday products.  If it weren't for the web and advertising, all kinds of consumer products would never make it.

Viral advertising has exploded in 2006, and it is really turning consumer advertising upside down.  The advertiser doesn't pay for placement -- they just create a really cool ad and viewers voluntarily propagate it through their social networks because the ad is so enjoyable / funny / novel.  You'll notice that there are no clever ads on TV anymore (at least in the US, land of Tivo).  All the best ad agency material is going straight to the web.  Apple is posting their entire latest TV campaign on their web site, and BMW has been doing this for a while with their sexiest ads.

Department of Redundancy Dept.

A couple of advertising rules have fallen apart of late, thanks to Tivo, podcasts, cable TV, the Web, and customer mental fatigue (it seems like we've all part of the Short Attention Span Theater now).

Here's the tough one for advertisers and prospects alike:  for an advertisement to make anyimpact, it must be repeated an amazing number of times.

  • An ad must be seen / heard 5 times before anyone will remember having seen it at all

  • It must be seen / heard 8-10 times before a person will remember its content

  • Even under the best of circumstances, your target audience won't be tuned in, paying attention, or reading when your ad appears.  Multiply the number of repetitions by 2 to account for these missed impressions.

This means you'll have to repeat an ad at least 20 times for it to really sink in.  At a minimum (and these are bare minimums, based on audience size) local Cable TV will be $100 a time, radio will be $200 a time, print $3000 a time, and network TV $20,000 a time.  It's pretty easy to burn hundreds of thousands of dollars before you'll see any measurable result.

In case you haven't noticed, we have recently exited the Golden Age of TV ads:  a 25 year period where ads were creative and funny enough to actually want to see them.  Thanks to MySpace, YouTube, and Tivo, all the best creative minds have been sucked out of TV ads. 

In the big picture, companies have been far too wiling to focus on repetition, rather than relevance, meaning, or impact.  Sadly, we're stuck in Stan Freeberg's lament:

The advertising industry does not have the right to bore the American public.  The public has been beaten about the ear with the baseball bat of hard sell for so long that it is difficult to get the message through the scar tissue. 

And Then There's Google

Advertising in the 20th century was a one-way, broadcast medium.  At its worst, it assaulted the audience with uninvited noise.  The web really started to become an important advertising medium 10 years ago, yet it is still evolving faster than most marketers' ability to effectively leverage it.  Because the web can be an interactive medium and very tightly measured, the best online advertising vehicles are much more effective than traditional advertising ever was.  At its best, web advertising can meld with online communities (3 links here).

For the consumer audience, AOL, Yahoo, MySpace, and MSN are tough to beat.  But you can spend a fortune, so before you start make sure the yield in business makes for profitable campaigns.  Not to be a broken record, but the ultimate measure of any marketing action should be its impact on the cost of customer acquisition and the lifetime customer revenue.

For the B2B audience, banner ads, flash, and highly graphical placements just don't work as well as text.  Of course there are exceptions, but tool often your media people are pushing stuff that won't be effective with your audience.  Google has become the standard-bearer for short verbal on-line ads.  And it's not just for techies any more:  over 50% of all US web searches today are done through their engine.  (This varies a lot by country:  if you're trying to get noticed in China, you'd better be using Baidu.)  Google's AdWords, when properly used with conversion code and Google metrics on you site, provide a level of granularity and control that is almost impossible to beat.  But be smart:  it is easy to overspend on Google if you aren't being attentive.

With any online advertising, it is imperative to use landing pages and to frequently analyze your results so you can tune the ads, the keywords, and the calls to action.  Somebody needs to spend at least an hour a week on this, and if you're doing anything sophisticated it will be a lot more time than that.  Get to know the acronyms SEO as well as SEM.  There are a number of meta-advertising services that try to automate the minutia of managing Google, Yahoo, and other search engine networks:  most of these products -- even if they are hamster-ware -- make sense only if you're spending at least $5000 a month on the search engines.

Not really in the same category as Google are "sponsorships" of sites and newsletters.  These kinds of ads -- when placed in a community that really cares about what you offer -- can yield consistently strong results.  They may not be cheap, but they can be tightly targeted and measured.

Product Placement, Social Advertising, Infomercials, IM/Twitter/ Facebook/Game ads, and other exotica

Advertisements get burned out quickly:  the audience gets saturated and learns to tune out your message.  So several new fads -- listed in headline above -- have come into play.  These tactics can be phenomenally effective and cheap (everyone hopes for the viral success of the "Will It Blend?" series on YouTube).  Most of the time, these are not general purpose visibility tools:  they can work in special situations, and they probably won't work repeatably.  If they work for you, terrific:  unfortunately, their effectiveness is too unreliable or hard to measure to make them a good bet for most B2B companies.

One of the surprising exceptions is billboards.  Outdoor advertising has been in use for way over 100 years, and it is surprisingly popular for B2B.  Of course, your audience targeting won't be very tight, but a well-executed billboard will stick in the viewer's mind as they drive by on their commute day after day.

Watch Out!

Advertising is one of those areas where lots of people think they're an expert.  So many CEOs have come up with ad campaign ideas that make the professionals -- and the audiences -- cringe.  But the bigger issue isn't the specifics of a campaign:  it's the question "should you be advertising at all?"  If you're really tempted, add up all the money it would take... and then see if there's a better way to get the same measurable result.  A series of solid PR activities, contributed articles, speaking engagements, publicity stunts, or really good website tactics will probably be a substantially better value, even if they never have the sex appeal of a good ad.

Why You Should be Writing an Ad No Matter What

As I mentioned at the outset, you should be doing an in-house ad no matter what:  there's nothing like the brevity of an ad to force you to get to the point.  The in-house ad should be in the form of a poster or billboard, and it should be used as a morale builder for your team.  If it's really good, you might make T-shirts out of it.

The valuable part of the exercise is figuring out how to tell your whole story with an image and a 7-10 word headline.  To get your point across, you have to think hard about who your audience is, what they value, where they feel pain, and what imagery they can relate to.  Use the power of questions:  they are more provocative than statements. This is not just hard:  this is incredibly hard.  It's the reason ad creative guys make their money.  The feel of the graphics says a lot about you, and the kind of stories you can share with your audience.  For more on this, check out "All Marketers are Liars."

In the course of trying to boil down your message, the temptation will be to write a bunch of copy in the lower part of the ad.  Don't do it.  Focus all your energy on the few words at the top of the page -- and create a series ads with variations in the graphics and headlines to make your point.  For example, think about every billboard that Apple has had in the last 6 years:  essentially a picture with two words (either "think different" or "iPod").  The value of the exercise is figuring out all the things not to say.

"Well if less is more, think of how much better more would be!"
-- Frasier


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