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Unmasking the Mysteries of Small Business Advertising - Part I

By Robert N. Lee and Margaret Anne J. Taylor |

It's the first day of business in your designer shoe store. The water fountain is bubbling in the foyer, your staff is dressed in the expensive uniforms you chose, and wine and cheese platters are on every table, waiting to be consumed by the rush of customers.

Wait a minute…where are the customers?

If you forgot to advertise, they aren't coming.

This column is part one of a three-part series on effective advertising for small businesses. This first column will offer advice on getting started. The two following columns will examine choosing a media outlet, the strengths and weaknesses of advertising in various formats and how to measure the return on your investment.

Small businesses must view advertising as an investment. As with any investment, it pays to do your research. There are a vast amount of advertising options available. How can you be confident that you have made the right decision on how to spend your advertising budget?

Before you get started on your advertising program, make sure you have covered the following areas:

Know your buyers. Create a profile of your target audience. Ask yourself questions like: where do they live, age, gender, ethnicity, income level, education, hobbies. Unless you have an unlimited advertising budget, you'll only be able to pick one or two audiences. Be specific. Don't waste your advertising on the metro area if your shop is in the suburbs. Spend an afternoon in the reference section of the library to get statistics on your target audience, or visit Stats Canada online at

Develop an advertising budget. The most common way to establish an advertising budget is to base it on a percentage of sales. The percentage of sales designated toward advertising is really up to you. However, many experts, including Guerrilla Marketing's Jay Levinson, recommend 10% of sales as a benchmark. You can also check trade magazines and associations in your field to find our what your competition is spending. If you want to expand your market share, though, you'll need to increase the percentage.

Compile a list of the advertising mediums that reach your target audience within your market area. Make a list of every advertising option out there, so that you can make the most informed decision possible. Decide what areas you can actually supply your product or service to and use this information to narrow down your advertising options.

Detail the benefits of your product or service. Be specific. What do you do differently or better than your competition? Develop key messages—three short, specific sentences that describe your company, what you do and how you do it. These messages should be ingrained in everything that you and all of your employees do. Consistent messaging will help to build your corporate identity and give your product or service personality.

Determine how you will produce the ads. Decide how you will create the ads. Most media outlets will design advertising for you at an additional fee; however, a fresh perspective will help your ad to stand out from the crowd. An agency or consultant can help you communicate your key ideas effectively and creatively.

Decide how you will approach media buying. Regardless of the size of your company, it is cost-effective to work with an agency. Agencies can offer you preferred rates on advertising space and are often presented with promotions that are not offered to individual advertisers.

Accept the dreaded 'C' word: Commitment. Do you have the willpower and resources to keep advertising, even if your plan doesn't appear to be working right away? The most common reason that advertising fails is that businesses give up too soon. Repetition and consistency are essential.

If you sponsor the drive home every day on your local radio station, people will become accustomed to hearing the advertisement. Eventually, your business name will spring to mind when people think about stopping to change their oil on the way home.

Be sure that you are ready to handle the orders. Are your systems in place on the front line? Have you determined how customers are handled by phone, email and in person? Every detail of the purchasing process should be ready to go. When you make a sale, you won't want to slow down to train your employees on how to use the new cash register.

As a small business owner, it's important to be educated. Pick up a book on the basics of advertising and familiarize yourself with advertising jargon. Good places to start are The Advertising Handbook for Small Businesses and Guerrilla Advertising.

Look for our next column, which will appear on in May, where we will examine the strengths and weaknesses of various popular advertising mediums, including print, television and radio.

Part I: The Basics of Small Business Advertising
Part II: Newspaper, Magazine, Radio and Television
Part III: Outdoor Advertising, Yellow Pages, and Specialty Advertising

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