Freelancer’s Survival Guide: Advertising Part One

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Artwork donated by Pati Nagle.

The Freelancer’s Survival Guide: Advertising Part One

Kristine Kathryn Rusch

I have had this topic in my topics list for nearly a year, but it became relevant just last week when I got my third request to put an ad on my website.  For once, I didn’t dismiss the request with a polite note.  I actually considered it and as I did, I realized the reason I hadn’t written about advertising was that I was considering it from a very 20th century perspective.

A little background:

As those of you who’ve read the Guide for the past year plus know, I’ve held a wide and varied number of jobs.  Some of those included selling advertising and placing ads.  If you have a business, somehow you have to get word of that business out to the general public or to your possible clientele, which is even harder than it sounds.

If I were writing the Guide just for freelancer writers, I would call this topic self-promotion.  But I’m not and besides, my opinion on the whole writing/self-promotion thing is evolving as well.  It’s a brand new century, and nearly the second decade in that brand new century, and things they are a-changin’.  Rapidly, in fact.  So rapidly that I think I need a scoreboard to keep track.

Even my handy dandy dictionaries can’t keep up.  When I was growing up, everyone thought advertising was a dirty word, an occupation practiced by sleezeballs who wanted to manipulate you into buying something you didn’t want.  Somewhere, back in the dark recesses of my memory, I recall hearing about “subliminal advertising”—secret messages embedded into things like films that would force young innocent creatures like me to go into the lobby and buy greasy, fat-covered popcorn.

I knew a few ad execs back in the day. They didn’t have a lot of self respect.  In fact, they didn’t have a lot of respect for anyone.  (The TV show Mad Men captures some of this attitude.)  By the mid-1980s, advertising became a profession like any other—that whole smarmy manipulative thing was just accepted or tolerated or perhaps better understood—and more importantly, it became something in which seasoned professionals helped the little guy (read: us) improve or sell or grow a business.

Writers, artists, musicians all bemoaned the fact they couldn’t get advertising.  Store owners complained that advertising was so expensive and, worse, they were expected to design their own ads.  Local radio and TV stations had advertising departments that would write and develop your ad for their medium, but whoa could you tell the locally produced ad from a national ad.  The locally produced one was generally awful.  Cheesy, cheap, and unprofessional.

I guess we all learned how important the advertising professional was.

About ten years ago, we entered the brave new world of advertising on the internet. There was a big debate about whether or not websites for places like CNN.com should run ads from somewhere else. There was a concurrent debate about whether or not internet advertising was effective.  And yet a third debate about how to measure its effectiveness.

Then there was the age-old argument about whether or not the new entertainment form (the internet) would ruin advertising for the older forms. This debate happened as radio came in (“it’ll take ads from newspapers!”), and as television came in (“it’ll take ads from radio!”).   Ads have migrated to the internet, and they haven’t hurt the other forms.  Other things have decreased the effectiveness of advertising in those forms—the decline of local radio, the decline of the newspaper, and the advent of the DVR, enabling people to fast-forward or skip through commercials.

But here’s the dirty little secret about advertising that I learned back in the 1980s, long before the advent of the internet.  (She writes with some perplexity, feeling old.)  Not all advertising is effective for all products.

Yep, unlike the myth, advertising is not a one-size-fits-all proposition.  You see it with movies.  With the exception of a truly big budget film like the Tom Cruise/Cameron Diaz vehicle Knight and Day currently on the market, all movies from major studios get the same kind of treatment.  A big advertising campaign in all media for a week, sometimes two, sometimes three weeks before the movie’s release.  After that, the ads die off, and the movies rely on word of mouth.

The big blowout ad budgets used to bring the theater goers in during the all-important opening weekend, and those opening weekend numbers were used to calculate a film’s success.  It would take a week or more for the public to understand that stinker really stank and attendance would drop off. By then, the movie’s advertising had done its job and given that movie a #1 status or the biggest weekend for that particular genre or whatever—some kind of tagline that could be used to advertise the DVD when it came out six months or a year later.

Now the big blowout ad campaigns work less effectively because of Twitter and other social media sites.  The first attendees will often tell later attendees that the show is brilliant or it stinks.

But let’s go back to the days before Twitter (she writes tentatively, feeling old). Just because movie A and movie B had the same advertising in the same markets didn’t mean that movie A and movie B had the same kind of opening weekend.

Some of that might have been the names associated with movie.  Theater goers used name-brand recognition just like everyone else.  Until the last decade, a movie with a bona fide movie star usually had a set opening number.  (Until too many stars made too many stinkers.)

Some of the difference in the opening weekend had to do with the audience itself.  No matter how hard movie studios tried, they couldn’t get single young men ages 18-35 to go to a romantic comedy even if those guys were on a date.  Nor could they get women ages 35-50 to go to a violent action movie or carve-em-up horror flick even if they were accompanying their teenage sons.

The advent of multiple TV markets made it possible to advertise the chick flick on Lifetime television and the horror flick on Spike TV. All of those ads might have been produced with equal care, and they all might have aired on the three major networks, but they’d air in different timeslots.  The chick flick ad would air during Desperate Housewives, the horror flick during Lost.  Targeting the correct customer base is all important in advertising because we’ve all heard the phrase “wasting advertising dollars.”

Advertising dollars are limited, no matter what business you’re in.  And each dollar spent on ads should bring in at least two dollars in revenue.  (I’m sure there’s a real formula for this that I am not going to look up.)

Big businesses like the movies have done studies of their demographics, the effect of advertising on those demographics, and an understanding of what kind of response each form of advertising has for its business.

You, as a small business owner, can’t do that.

In fact, some small business owners forgo advertising altogether.

And that’s a mistake.

Somehow you have to stand out in all the noise.  If you have opened a retail shop, you need to let potential customers know you exist.  If you’re a lawyer, you have to distinguish your practice from all the other legal practices out there.

Artists (and by this I mean writers, visual artists, musicians) have a two-pronged problem. We want people to buy our product—the stories, the art, the music—but we also want to let potential clients (publishers, design studios, music labels) know that we will do good contractual work.

Any business can do a lot of free advertising through networking.  (To see how to do effective networking, look at the multitude of posts on networking.)

But let’s talk about paid advertising for a few minutes.  When should you do it? Or should you do it at all?

The answer is yes, no matter what your business.  You need an ad budget and you need to know how to use it.

Advertising is, according to that handy dandy Encarta World English Dictionary so thoughtfully provided by my software company, “the promotion through public announcements in newspapers or on the radio, television, or Internet of something such as a product, service, event or vacancy in order to attract or increase interest in it.”  There are some sub definitions, but you know those.

Let’s take the main definition and look at it.  The key words here are “promotion” and “attract or increase interest.”

People can’t go into a store they don’t know exists.  They can’t buy a book they’ve never heard of.  They won’t attend a concert if they don’t know when and where or even if it’s being held.

I can already hear the professional writers sputtering.  I’ve had books published, they say, and no one spent a dime advertising it.

Really? Did that book get reviewed? Did the publisher produce galleys?  Because all of that costs money, and that money comes out of—you guessed it—the advertising budget.

It’s the rare book in the modern era that doesn’t have some form of advertising budget, however small.

It’s the rare business that thrives on word of mouth only.

So how do you go about advertising for your business?

1. Figure out who your target audience is. Do you need street traffic—strangers coming through the door to buy your product? Or do you need clients?  Do you need to appeal to a handful of big organizations (like some artists often do)? Or do you need to appeal to as many people as possible?

You can’t figure out advertising until you know who your ads need to reach.  Sometimes an article in a trade journal is a lot more effective than an outrageously expensive ad during the Super Bowl.

Do this work first or you’ll waste every single ad dollar you ever spend.

2. Set an ad budget—and stick to it. You might only be able to devote a few dollars toward advertising, but every little bit counts. And remember, free is good.  When my ex and I owned the art gallery/frame shop, we gave away free framing services (limited to certain inexpensive frames and mats) in exchange for promotion.  Local restaurants participate in cook-offs and other events sponsored by the community in the hopes of drawing in new customers.  Right now, our local businesses are doing a weird free promotion that has caught my attention.  They are taking a dressmaker’s dummy, putting a t-shirt or a sign around its neck, and placing it outside the business for two days.  That dummy has been all over town, wearing t-shirts for the local gym and for a local bookstore.  It’s a creepy looking thing, done up with a sense of humor, and it does catch your attention.  One business even gave the dummy an arm (it didn’t have one) and had it point at the business from the parking lot.

I have no idea whose idea that was, but it works for anyone driving down the main drag of our little town.

Merchants often go together to buy ad space. The strip mall where the collectibles store that Dean started does group advertising every quarter, at a fraction of the cost an individual ad would have.  The ad is also bigger and more noticeable.

3. Be creative. Be different.

In the 1990s, Debbie Macomber was the first writer to make bookmarks with the cover of her novel on them and send those bookmarks to bookstores carrying her book.  Now everyone does it, and bookstores often toss out the bookmarks without ever setting them out. Talk about a waste of advertising dollars. But when Debbie did it, hers was a unique product, the only bookmark at the checkout, something for the reader to look at even if they weren’t buying one of her books.

Brilliant stuff.  She’s always been on the forefront of writer marketing, and her look is always creative and always different.

The worst thing you can do in advertising is exactly what everyone else is doing.

4. Get the most bang for your buck.  That’s hard because you’re going to lose some money as you start out.  Because I had sold ads for newspapers and written ads for radio stations before my ex and I opened our frame shop/art gallery, I knew that ads had varying effectiveness. We had an ad budget, unlike other retail stores in the same strip mall, and for our first foray into advertising, we placed two ads, one in the local morning paper and the other on a local radio station.  Then we quizzed every single customer who came into the store:  where did you hear about us?  We got two answers.

The first: I heard about you on the radio.

The second: I saw your sign as I drove by and decided to stop.

The newspaper ad was a complete and total waste of our advertising dollars and we never ran another. But we ran radio ads on various stations, particularly when we had sales, and those ads brought in a wide variety of customers.

One reason was my experience.  I wrote our radio ads.  Each radio station insisted on having their own disk jockeys read the ads, and we heard through the sales force (and I heard from the djs) that they loved our ads because they weren’t cheesy or hard to read.  There’s a trick to writing for radio and in them thar days (she writes, feeling old again) I knew it cold.

Obviously my skills at newspaper ads were less effective.

Keep track of the results of your ad buys.  I do that even now, even when I’m not spending the money.  Some years ago, my publisher ran an ad for one of my Smokey Dalton mystery novels in the New Yorker.  This was a quarter page ribbon ad, running next across from the letters column, where most prominent book ads get placed.

The ad made no difference in sales.  None.  No blip on Amazon.com, no increase in sales on my royalty statement.  A complete waste of advertising dollars.

My British publisher Max Crime sent out review copies of my novel Hitler’s Angel in June and that book got favorably reviewed in one of England’s largest newspapers, The Daily Mail.  Sales of that book jumped through the roof that very weekend, and so far those sales have continued at the greater number.

Even if no one else reviews the book (and other publications have), that single review was worth every single review copy the publisher sent out.  That was an effective use of advertising dollars—probably more effective than taking out a paid ad in The Daily Mail itself.

5. Don’t do the same thing over and over again.  Yes, continue with the effective advertising, but mix it up.  Debbie Macomber may still be doing bookmarks for all I know, but she has entire other promotion schemes for her books now.  A local mattress business here in Oregon has run the same TV ad for years now, and even though I can recite the damn thing word for word, I really don’t pay attention to it any more.  Why should I?  I know what it says, and it didn’t draw me into the business in the first place.  Why would it draw me after repeated daily listens?  I don’t patronize a business just because the ads have worn me down.  I doubt you do either.

6. Remember that advertising creates or increases interest in your good, service, event or company.  “Creates” or “increases”  “Creates” is important because in the beginning no one knows who you are.  But “increases” is equally important because after time, you cease to be the hot new thing.  People forget. Or they assume you’ll always be there.

Consumers and clients have finite reserves as well, and if they go to a new business that has “created” interest, they may forgo yours just because you no longer have their attention.

You need to recapture it in an interesting, non annoying manner.

How do you do that?

It differs from business to business, service to service, event to event.  It also differs from year to year.  I’d have given you different advice on where to advertise your business ten years ago than I’d give you now.  The world is changing, the way people find out about new products, services, businesses has changed, and the way advertising works has changed as well

7. Remember that time is a precious commodity—for you and everyone else.  If you want a minute of someone’s time, you’d better earn it.  That doesn’t just apply for televised ads. It applies to anything you do to promote your business or your work.

For example, I do very few book signings at bookstores.  Most of those signings simply aren’t worth my time. The bookstore puts out a few copies of my book, does no advertising outside of the store (and sometimes not even in the store), and I sign a handful of copies.  Some bookstores will return unsold signed copies for full credit to the publisher, so the books don’t even remain in the store as autographed copies.

But I will always say yes to a book signing at North by Northwest Books run by Sheldon McArthur here in Lincoln City.  Shelly used to run the Mystery Bookstore in Los Angeles; indeed that’s where I first met him, when he sponsored a signing for one of my Kris Nelscott mystery novels.  I was on a publisher-sponsored book tour, and even then, Shelly’s work stood out.  I signed fifty copies of my book, half or more of which went to affiliated bookstores in California. At other stores, even big chain stores, I only signed about ten copies.

Now that Shelly’s semi-retired, he’s opened a small bookstore here to keep his hand in. But when he does a signing, he goes all out.  He promotes it both locally and nationally.  He sends out a mailing to his most valued customers all around the world.  He writes reviews and pays for ads in the local paper. He puts flyers all over town.  And he contacts individual book buyers whom he believes might like my work, even if they’ve never heard of me.

Shelly has sold more copies of my books than anyone except my publishers.  And that’s not an exaggeration.

So when he calls and asks, I’m there. And when I need a bookstore to order books for me, I go through Shelly.  I also promote him on my website (note who got mentioned by name in this section of the Guide?) and I send tourists down to his shop whenever I get a chance.

My annual two hours in Shelly’s store are never wasted.  And I know, since he asks me back whenever I have a new release, that he feels he’s getting something out of my signings as well.

I’ll talk more about advertising next week, buying it and receiving it.  If you’re stuck in what other people have done for advertising or if you’re still thinking of advertising the way you thought about it ten years ago, then it’s time to re-evaluate.

Publicity is a good thing for a freelancer.  When the right people know about you and your business, they’ll knock on your door. The key is figuring out how to reach them. And that might take a t-shirted mannequin beside the highway or it might take a free download of a song off your album.  You need to figure that out.  And if the first thing you try doesn’t work, try something else.

Just remember: be yourself. You’re the best advertisement for your business.  And remember advertising is only effective once if the product is bad.  Once you get someone to try a bad product, no amount of advertising in the world will make them return to that product.  Word of mouth can be good, but it can also turn against you.  Make sure you do the best you can, no matter what.

That’s the best advertising of all.

“Freelancer Writer’s Survival Guide: Advertising Part One” copyright 2010 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.

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4 Comments

  1. The statement that you need an ad budget and you need to know how to use it reminded me of a recent economist article on changes in the fast-food industry. In particular, they discuss in this downturn Fast Food hasn’t been as recession-proof as usual. But the interesting point the article makes is that McDonald’s had same store sales improve but that unlike other fast food companies increased their advertising budget by 7%.

    http://www.economist.com/node/16432794

    Reply
    • Good article, Aidan. Thanks. Great points about active v. inactive blogs. I think because blog “start-ups” are so easy, we had a lot of them, but it takes time and effort to do upkeep. Your point about McDonald’s is also good. I wonder where they spent that extra 7%. Obviously to effective places. :-)

      Reply
  2. Yes, the 7% must have gone to effective places. As you state, it’s important to measure how well your campaign works.

    I may have missed this, did you mention measurement in the discussions on networking and in particular online? We have a wine & cheese shop with a Facebook page that uses a secret passphrase that gets you a discount (plus lets them measure & define a value for maintaining their Facebook presence). However, the concept of measurement can be applied more broadly than just advertising. It could be used to analyze search engine queries that lead to a blog, or visitor characteristics.

    Reply
    • You didn’t miss it, Aidan. I neglected to do it in the online & networking discussion. That’s the problem with doing this out of order. I’m really going to have to pay attention as I combine all of these topics. Secret passphrase? Really? You can do that?

      Reply

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