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When you think of advertising, most images are of what we call “the water cooler ads” – Super Bowl and other special events. We have opinions of whether they are “good” or “bad” but no real way of understanding if resulting sales (if any) were worth the time and effort. And for some, it’s easy to know what advertising is but not how to do it well.

A few years ago, I asked, “What does it take to get great advertising that works?” I was just starting my business, having wrapped up my work as vice president of brand marketing for a regional casino operator. I was trying to distill what made the advertising I co-created with agencies something I was incredibly proud of. I knew the formula was simple – honesty and trust.

How we rate the advertising our agencies produce is often the reason we stay with them or start shopping the account around. Or so we think that is the reason. I think it’s about the relationship we’ve created with our agency partners. That is often a little trickier than you would think.

This post, however, is going to focus on the mechanics of building great advertising, which are pretty straightforward.

First, there is the prevailing confusion in the terms we use. We often use these terms — advertising, branding, and marketing — interchangeably, but they are very different. So, as before, let’s define some essential advertising terms before we go any further.

Advertising is an attempt to influence the behaviors of target audiences with compelling messages. The goal of these messages is to change the behavior of these audiences. We use media to reach them. Effective means that our message not only reaches the target audience but also influences them to use our product or visit us.

HISTORY OF ADVERTISING

In a previous post, we noted that advertising might be the oldest form of marketing. As a field, it came into its own around the 1800s. However, advertising existed for far longer than that. Former Copyblogger Chief Content Writer Demian Farnsworth once described advertising as an ancient art. “In the Babylonian seaports, merchants hired barkers to announce the arrival of wine, spices, and fabrics. Citizens in Greece hung “Lost” posters in hopes of being reunited with children, jewelry, or slaves.” And elaborately painted signs (billboards) sprung up throughout Pompeii to announce plays, carnivals, and races.

Advertising has changed, and our transition to a digital world, makes the once heralded printing press feel like something from an archeological dig.

However, the need for advertising and the techniques and practices to create GOOD advertising have stood the test of time.

WHY YOU SHOULD ADVERTISE

Advertising can increase your awareness, boost your sales, help you stand away from the crowd, introduce new efforts, and establish your position in the community.

WHAT MAKES ADVERTISING EFFECTIVE?

There are likely as many opinions of what makes advertising effective as there are advertisers (or at least creative directors). Part art and part science, advertising continues to evolve, and best practices manifest as communication channels shift. The bottom line is that advertising can be considered effective only when it aids in reaching business goals.

BEST PRACTICES IN ADVERTISING

Simplicity takes a few words if any. Does she or doesn’t she? According to Time magazine, when Clairol first asked the question (in 1957), the answer was “does” for 1 in 15 women. A decade later, the answer was 1 in 2. Clairol understood that showing a woman could keep some secrets to herself was more effective than telling.

It must be memorable (and able to hold attention). A catchphrase for the ages was born and became the symbol of fast food when a little elderly lady stared at a burger, and brusquely asked, “Where’s the Beef?”

Dove’s Campaign for Beauty has been the hallmark for relevant and meaningful messaging. Launched in 2004 after a study indicated only 2% of women considered themselves beautiful. At the start of launching beauty products along with their famous soap, executives thought this could be the perfect start of a conversation about beauty. But, they stumbled a little at first. More on that later.

Being suggestive can be more influential than telling someone what to do. Nike’s Find Your Greatness campaign told us we didn’t need to be amazing; we just needed to do our personal best. By doing so, Nike pushed us to try something new, something we always wanted to. And, if we could do it in Nike shoes, that was ok, too.

HOW YOU CAN CREATE EFFECTIVE ADVERTISING

There are a few key elements you can rely on to create a memorable campaign that speaks to what your target customer is looking for.

Know what the business goals are and how you’re going to measure the impact of your advertising. Is it an increase in traffic from a particular demographic, zip code, or another measurable part of your database? Is it an increase in online purchases? It could be new sign-ups to your loyalty program or newsletter list. The goals must be tied to business outcomes. Let’s say you know that your newsletter subscribers spend an average of $10 each per email address per week. If you have 100 email addresses, your sales per week from the newsletter is $1000, but you want to increase your sales by 10% to $1100 per week. That means you need to have a growth of 10 subscribers. Now you have a measurable and specific goal that everyone can understand and work to achieve.

Focus on the benefits only you can deliver. Benefits, not features, drive purchases. If there are details that are unique to you, they can be a part of your ad, but for your message to be effective, advertising should focus on the benefits consumers will experience. This approach plays right into the what’s-in-it-for-me syndrome. Customers are more interested in what they will get from you than what you do. Additionally, product features can often be replicated or substituted. You don’t want to be replaceable in the shopping cart or the consumer’s heart and mind.

Emphasize your advantage to keep copycats at bay and to limit confusion in the consumer’s mind. Your words and your graphics should be unique to you and follow through on the advantage you and you alone possess.

Focus on your target customer persona. To be relevant and create the messages that will move your audience, you have to understand the customer motivations, needs, and how you can provide a unique benefit.

Create an emotional connection. Consumers assume they buy with their wallets, but they really decide with their hearts. Consider the Bounce example we previously discussed and the appeal of looking pretty. It is a higher-order connection than wrinkle-free clothes (which could have been achieved by any other number of ways, including competitors). You want people to love your brand because when they do, your profits go up. When consumers associate with your brand emotionally (happy, sad, or even achievement), they are more likely to remember your ad and your product and make a purchase.

Keeping it simple will continue to be a primary best practice. Advertising is usually a part of some sort of entertainment, such as television programming and podcasts, for example. Communicating a simple, focused message improves recall. Complicated multi-message ads can become over-blended, leaving the consumer wondering what you were trying to tell them.

Never overpromise. I have a friend who says that nothing kills a bad product faster than great advertising. Not only is overpromising a danger to the product life, but it can also erode your brand values. Additionally, if your product requires high-touch employee delivery, overpromising can undermine employee confidence and engagement, further eroding the brand.

Whenever possible, test your creative in advance. Even the best intentions can fall into ego traps, which is why we always recommend creative testing. The Dove campaign, which all know now as so successful, fell into that trap when the campaign was initially developed. When they first showed it to women, they were unimpressed. The campaign had initially taken the idea of beauty and wrapped it in its product rather than looking to the emotions women were experiencing. We can often fall so in love with our products (and our creative) that we miss the point our consumers are trying to make.

However, creativity does make a difference. Compelling headlines can make busy, multi-screening consumers stop and pay attention. In the days when print was a huge part of our advertising, a great headline could ensure someone would read your message. Even with our migration to online consumption of media, a great headline could be the difference between someone scrolling away and someone taking the time to see what else you have to say.

Key messages are those things you want your target audience to remember. When crafting your key messages, it is vital to keep in mind what consumers value the most (and why), not what you believe are the most important. Testing your creative often yields a goldmine of points that are important to your customers. With those comments, you can build your value proposition. From there, you can extract the key messages for your advertising. Keeping your message clear and consistent across all of your marketing channels will make your advertising even more effective.

Visual cues should be consistent with your brand and what your consumers value. Some say 90% of information transmitted to the brain is visual. Consider the ill-designed Powerpoint presentation. Faced with a slide full of words, we zone out or get lost trying to read everything. Yet, we seem to pay more attention when there is visual content. Humans have been communicating for nearly 30,000 years, but using the written word for only about 3700. Scientists claim this long history of communicating sans text has hard-wired our brains to process visual information faster and better. Strong visual elements in advertising can command attention, demonstrate a product or service, establish and anchor the brand and its personality.

Don’t allow a budget to overrule the message. While fiscal responsibility is vital to the life of a business, advertising is well worth the investment because it can attract new customers and additional revenue. Investing where it can make the most significant positive impact on revenue can guide you in allocating wisely. Always understand what the budget buys you and what you give up in terms of your goals when you consider reductions.

MEASURE AND ADJUST

Finally, measure and adjust as you go along so that you are maximizing the return on your investment with advertising that works.

Embrace technology that will enhance your ability to measure your efforts. Creating tracking codes for email and digital links is easy and free to do. Use them. Mobile offers readily available analytics. Even simply assigning phone numbers or URLs by campaign or media channel is easy to do.

THE FUTURE OF ADVERTING

As marketers, we are continually looking for better ways to allocate our budget dollars even as we attempt to manage all of the channels that touch our customers. While methods and channels continue to evolve, advertising will continue to hold a permanent place in our marketing plans. Additionally, given our learnings that companies that opted to continue advertising during the Great Recession performed better in the long term than those that chose to cut or cancel advertising during the same time.

It is hard to say what we will see once businesses fully (if at all) recover from the economic impact of COVID-19. Still, if we can agree that the purpose of advertising is to enable more consumers to know about us and our products and services, thereby stimulating sales, then we can agree that advertising is necessary.

Advertising will continue to shape consumer opinions about which products and services to buy. Effective advertising will raise your offering to the top of the consideration list. As marketers, it is our responsibility to create effective advertising that will help our businesses grow.

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