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Sunday, August 24, 2008

The time to advertise

Our ongoing poll shows that most construction businesses find their new business through repeat clients and word-of-mouth. Advertising is right near the bottom at eight per cent. So where, and how, does it make sense to advertise for new business?
First I should distinguish that not all advertising is for new business -- in fact, most of the advertising our own company sells (and we earn almost all of our direct revenue from advertising sales) is to support/maintain and enhance repeat client relationships. This form of advertising correlates more with client service and brand maintenance than directly finding new business. It is valid and worthwhile, but the subject of other postings.
The advertising I'm referring to here is the type that actually causes your phone to ring or email to ping, and someone to say: "I'm interested."
Done right, this type of advertising is the most satisfying lead and business development system possible because you can directly measure the results, compared to the cost, an in some cases adapt and adjust the flow of advertising to your market conditions -- that is, you can decrease or increase it depending on your need for leads.
Usually, but not always, this type of advertising is reflected in seemingly small but repeated impressions -- you see the same Google Adwords listing, or the small print ad, or the routine direct mail piece. And until the Internet changed buying habits and behaviours, the Yellow Pages had lots of this type of advertising. I suppose it still does, and these directories work in some categories, but I expect a lot of money is being wasted from habit and inertia more than true effectiveness here.)
In my life, outside of selling things like cars, I've only had one instance where I succeeded with advertising in this model, and it is a revealing example of the relative value and utility of conventional advertising.
In the late 1980s, the U.S. government announced its first "non preference Immigrant visa lottery". At the time of the original lottery, the government set up some rather odd rules -- you could enter as many times as you wished, but you could only enter by sending an (unsigned) letter to a particular Washington, D.C. post office box. I deduced that I could take orders for these applications and bring them, in bulk, to Washington, for a modest fee per application.
But how could I get the word out? I decided to place a small ad in one publication. The phone rang, a couple of times, but nowhere near enough to justify the project. Then I assessed the results more carefully. Comparing the cost of advertising, the number of responses per ad, and the total potential, I decided I could make some money by advertising in several publications simultaneously. The phone would ring enough, I calculated, to justify the project.
Well, it did, but most of our business came only indirectly from the advertising. News reporters, seeing the ads, also called -- thinking I was running some kind of scam. However, when they checked the story out, they discovered indeed that the idea and concept were legitimate, so publicized the good news that you could truly increase your chances of winning a coveted "Green Card" by calling my little business. At the end, just before I left to Washington with my partner, things were going crazy. (We made some money in the two week project, and several of our clients actually obtained visas -- I received one myself, though I didn't exercise it!)
How can you achieve this type of effective advertising. Here are some suggestions.

  • Look to similar businesses to yours (non competing) in other cities with similar demographics. Call them. And copy.
  • Experiment gently with Google Adwords. Depending on your category and geographic targeting, this can be extremely effective and inexpensive advertising.
  • Be wary of anyone who calls you to sell advertising, cold, unreferred. And look at the nature of the referral if there is one.
Remember, most businesses don't find most of their new business through advertising. Allocate your time, resources and energy to conventional advertising in line with this important consideration.

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