(MoneyWatch) Many small businesses can't afford an ad agency, or prefer to do advertising and other creative work in-house. It makes agency people jump down my throat, but for many reasons (and after two decades of experience doing it both ways), I happen to think that "D.I.Y." is right for most startups and many established small companies.
I am not suggesting you try to produce your own TV spots or do major national media buys. I'm talking about creating the kind of print and online ads that are typical of most small businesses.
There are as many schools-of-thought and approaches to ad creation as there are agencies. But for most purposes and companies, following five classic steps is most likely to yield the best possible result:
Write the headline as if it's the only thing that will get read (because it may well be)
Convey a genuinely compelling message (strong claim, major benefit, irresistible offer). Purely creative "teasers" can be effective, but risky; what may seem clever or hilarious to you might not resonate with others, so tread carefully. And don't make the common mistake of making your name and/or logo the "hero" of the ad, as they tell the reader nothing. Finally, always keep it short and sweet -- imagine you have to shout it to someone on the street to get her to stop as she's walking by.
Use strong images and graphics
Like the headline, imagery is meant to pull people into the content. If your ad has photography or other artwork, make sure it's high quality, that it fits and supports the ad, and that it justifies the space it takes up. Keep the layout uncluttered and easy on the eyes. You may be tempted to proudly show off your whole product line, but a single product (or even a single feature of a product) or a person using it, is probably going to make for a better layout. Show them the rest when they go to your site, visit your store, or contact you for more information.
Use an effective subhead and tight copy
As the name suggests, the subhead completes or elaborates on the headline; think of it as winning five extra seconds with that person walking down the street. If you get her past that to the main body copy, making one powerful point is ideal, though a short list of strong benefits or claims can also be effective. Also gear copy to the size of the ad. Again, don't try to cram in your whole story, whether it's a classified ad or two-page spread. The goal is to get the hook in, and reel them into the boat later.
Make sure there is a call to action
This is a virtually inviolable rule. It may be getting the reader to take advantage of an offer, enter a contest, or simply visit your site. But ask the reader to do something. Ad professionals and corporate exec's often talk about the value of pure "impressions" (like seeing the Coke logo everywhere). But most small businesses don't live in that world, and -- especially with limited reach and resources -- an ad without a call to action is a wasted opportunity, like a salesman doing his pitch and leaving without asking for an order.
Use "keying" or other tracking
Advertising is as much art as science, and results are difficult to measure. Using a "key" (special web link, promotional code or phone number, etc.) is usually the most practical and effective way for a small business to measure response. It's never possible to fully know the impact, though ad reps will tell you about impressions and eyeballs and pass-alongs and all the other reasons you should be excited. But when you are a small business owner writing the checks, if you see that no one came to your special promotional link after running an ad for six months, odds are that's enough to decide that the ad isn't effective.
Obviously, going it alone presumes you have the basic resources and skills needed to do effective creative work at a level that's appropriate to your business, your image, and the type of advertising you're doing.
All of the technical tools are readily available to just about anyone, but they're useless without creativity and the ability to write skillfully. If you don't have people with those capabilities in-house and/or can't find them, ignore everything I've said and find a good, small creative agency to work with. But if you think you've got what it takes to create your own ads -- as many companies do -- beautifully, effectively and economically, then make sure you make 'em right. Avoid the temptation to get too clever (how many times have you thought an ad or commercial was fantastic but not remembered what it was for?). Never lose sight of your real goals, whether they be direct sales, inquiries, or wholesale/trade prospect acquisition.
Of course, this is a very boiled-down set of guidelines. Advertising is a complex endeavor, with countless philosophies, techniques and opinions. But it's good to know the basic rules before you break them, and for most small businesses -- and many bigger ones -- this framework is a good, time-tested place to start.