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Small business advertising and PR: A starter guide

Advertising and public relations can be essential in helping a company gain new customers, keep existing customers, develop a brand identity, increase sales, grow the business and more - if executed well. A successful advertising and PR campaign communicates the strengths of your product/service to your target consumer in a compelling, memorable way. But done poorly, a campaign can alienate consumers and harm your brand image. This article will provide you a step-by-step guide to advertising and public relations so you can execute a solid campaign that will help you meet your goals.

Refer back to your marketing plan
Before you begin advertising, refer back to your marketing plan. Make sure you understand the needs and wants of your current and target customers. Thoroughly analyze the competition, and see where your product/service stands out from competitors. Make sure you know your product/service inside and out - from the tangible (what your product is/does) to the intangible (the status, subtle messaging, etc. that it conveys). This seems simple, but effective advertising and public relations messaging is built upon these items. Once you've thoroughly done your homework, you can begin to form your advertising message, which will communicate the benefits of your product/service in a way that engages your target audience.

Develop advertising and PR goals
It is important to develop advertising goals that detail the exact results you'd like to see from the campaign. Goals might include things such as gaining a more affluent clientele or expanding a certain niche of your business. Make the goals as measurable and detailed as possible.

Establish a budget
The general rule of thumb is that your advertising and PR budget adds up to about 3%-5% of your annual revenue, though this will vary depending on the needs of your business. For example, if your competition is advertising extensively, you might want to keep pace. Once you have a budget, you can allocate the money in a way that best helps you reach your goals.

Create your unique selling proposition (USP)
Your USP is the unique benefit that your product/service delivers to customers that they can't get anywhere else. Write out your USP in terms that your customer will relate to. For example, instead of saying, "We have more inventory than any other retailer," say something like, "We have more than 500 boats for you to choose from - more than any other boat store in the region."

Create an advertising message
Once you have your USP figured out, you can begin to craft your advertising message. There are thousands of ad agencies, specialists, consultants and experts that can help you write and design effective advertisements and campaigns. If you are new to advertising and can afford it, this is a smart way to develop your advertising campaign, as these people are experts in creating effective messaging. Whether or not you hire someone to work on the ads for you, here are a few guidelines to help you develop smart advertising:

  • Know what works
    It is important to understand what works, and what doesn't. So do your homework. To begin, study advertisements that are related to your product/service. Note which ones would move you to take action, and which ones wouldn't. On a broader level, do your homework on effective advertising strategies for your type of product/service. AllBusiness.com and Entrepreneur.com are great resources for initial research. Your local library may have books on the subject as well.
  • Don't lose sight of your USP
    Your message should communicate your USP - don't lose sight of that. Make sure that each and every ad gets the USP across in a compelling, memorable way.
  • Authenticity rules
    Stay true to your brand/image. Don't try to be all things to all people - this often dilutes your brand and confuses consumers.
  • Don't overpromise
    Consumers are generally skeptical of advertisements and wary of gushy language that promises a lot of things with one product. Use this kind of language sparingly.
  • Keep it simple
    Consumers are busy and bombarded with ad messages every day. Usually, if you try to do too much with a single ad, you end up losing the consumer. Keep it simple - get your USP across and a few other key points and then direct consumers to a Web site or another place where they can get more information or find the product/service.
  • Collaboration and feedback is key
    It is important to get as much feedback as possible. Work with your ad agency, your employees and others to get their honest thoughts about the campaign.
  • Catch your consumers' attention
    Consumers have millions of ads thrown at them each day. You have to make yours count. For a print ad, this usually means an eye-catching visual and a high-impact headline. The supporting copy and call-to-action are important, but those are usually not the items that catch a viewer's attention. The consumer wants to know what's in it for them right off the bat. So make sure your ad tells them that within a few seconds.
  • Word-of-mouth works
    Word-of-mouth - someone telling someone else about your product/service - is one of the most effective marketing tools out there. Treat your current consumers well, and they'll market your product/service for you. In addition to a great in-store experience (if applicable), you might want to offer to your current clientele rewards programs, special promotions and events to create goodwill among your consumers.
  • Give it time
    Advertising does not work overnight. You need to give each advertising medium you choose a fair amount of time to deliver results. For example, for print ads, the rule of thumb is often to run the ad at least five times. But, after a while, if you are not seeing results, stop wasting your money. Just remember, advertising usually does not work overnight.
  • Create ads with all the key elements
    The ad should:
    oCatch your target audience's attention (for print and online ads, this is usually done through compelling visuals and a memorable headline).
    oHold their attention and pique their desire by letting them know what's in it for them (communicate your USP in a smart way).
    oInclude a call-to-action (tell the consumers where/how they can get your product or service or more information).
    oInclude identifying information for your company such as the name, Web site, address and/or logo.

Choose the right media for your message
To pick the right media, put yourself in your target consumers' shoes. What media do they use? What media do they trust? What media engages them and inspires them to take action? Not only do you want to choose media brands that your target market uses and engages with, you also want to make sure that the messaging of that media brand is relatively synergistic with your own brand. Finally, you will need to do a cost/benefit analysis. Are you paying for exposure you don't need? If so, would another (or multiple), less expensive options work just as well?

Think beyond traditional media
Public relations campaigns, events, putting your logo on promotional items like pens, guerilla marketing and Facebook advertising could be great ways to get your message out there. Again, just think what your target market does/engages with, and this will help you know where to direct your messages.

Tailor the message to the medium
Your message may slightly differ depending on where the ad is placed. For example, you might choose a different layout for your ad in Metropolitan Home magazine than the one you put in Forbes magazine. The ad should make sense for the medium.

Tailor the message to the different targeted consumers
If you have several different target markets, you may need a USP for each one that is slightly tweaked to their needs. The ads to each of these target groups will likely differ slightly as well.

Track your results
The best way to continually improve your advertising and promotions efforts is to look back at what worked and what didn't. That's why it's key to track your campaign results. There are many ways to do this, including putting unique 1-800 numbers in ads that allow you to see which media the customer discovered you in, asking consumers who buy your product how they heard about you, and many more. Remember to differentiate inquiries from actual sales when you track results.

Make your results work for you in the future
Now that you've tracked your results, you know what works and what doesn't. Change your advertising strategy accordingly. Look to new options, if needed.

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Small business advertising and PR: A starter guide