Advertising Do’s and Don’ts

ads_do_dontsHere we are in 2010 and the economy is still the hot topic. If you have been among the fortunate who have been able to adjust your business model to survive the ride, then part of your strategy has been to keep the money going out LESS than the money coming in.

It is also likely than that you have made cuts in areas that are often the first to go: sales and marketing. In an industry where you hope your potential customers don’t become DIY’ers, you have more than likely become one yourself and are wearing more ‘hats’ than ever before.

Advertising campaigns are done more on ‘the cheap’ now than ever. It seems easy enough. You can download software or run to an office supply store and find a tool that promises ‘professional results.’ The problem is that while you may excel in landscape or water feature design, it is likely (whether or not you believe it) that advertising, marketing, and graphic design are not exactly your forte.

My first piece of advice is the same for anyone in this industry: Hire someone good. Whether you are looking for copywriting, graphic design, or marketing and advertising advice, look to a professional first. It may cost money upfront, but if it is someone who is not only good at what they do, and understands your business and your target audience, that money will be an investment in the future of you company that will produce cash flow. That being said…

This is a pretty straight-forward, honest approach to developing an ad that may not be for the faint at heart. You may have already committed at least one, if not several, of the following blunders. If you are planning on designing your own advertising campaign then you may want to put on some thick skin before you read some of these helpful hints that can enable you to create a more professional looking ad.

First the ‘don’ts.’ I can spot a self-done advertisement nine times out of ten. Some of the telltale signs include:

Font Faux pas

I’m sorry but I have to say it, Papyrus is the most overused and out of date font in the landscape industry. When I see it, I actually feel nauseous. I know it has that earthy, watery feel and it was fine back in the day when it was one of the 20 fonts that came standard on your word processing or publishing software, but the options now are limitless! Dare to be different and at the same time…

Be careful about using fonts that don’t reproduce well, meaning that if they are enlarged or shrunk down they lose quality or expose flaws. This happens all too often. It may look great on your screen but when you print it at the actual size for the ad, it loses quality.

Graphically Gross

Please, please, please, don’t use drop shadows unless you have to! The application on most lettering makes it look like it was done circa 1990. Just because the tool bar is there, does not mean you have to apply every effect possible. Transparency blurs and gradients are somewhat dated when used incorrectly. We’ve all seen those ‘Saloon Photos’ where they convert the color to sepia to give it that aged patina and put a big, white, hazy ring around the subjects. It was fine for a 1986 gimmick, but to do it now in advertising does not make a picture attractive or intriguing, just bad looking.

Phony Photography

Use YOUR OWN photos. Here’s the thing. If you don’t have any work that you can take a picture of, and it looks good, than you need to consider another profession. I’m sorry, but it’s true. Here is an example: I created an ad for a local company who does not do any installation or design work. I used a stock photo to achieve a desired look in the ad. That is acceptable because in no way, shape, or form was I passing that photo off as work the company had done. Flash forward two months later… a landscape design company runs an ad in the same magazine using the same photo and which visually implies it was their own picture and work. What happens when a potential client says, ‘Hey, great picture! Tell me about that job and can you build it for me?’ See what I’m saying?

Once I even considered firing a client who had given me pictures of someone else’s projects for their advertising. Now, to avoid potential lawsuits, I put it in our contracts that all pictures must belong to the client or they have written approval to use those pictures. Using other photos to ‘represent’ your work is deceiving. Worse yet, if a potential customer or client recognizes that picture as a stock photo or someone else’s project (believe me, it happens), than you are also viewed as untrustworthy and incompetent to do the work you are advertising.

Content Crazy

Anyone who knows me will tell you that I am incredibly gregarious and verbose. But developing an ad is where restraint in content is very important. The popular theory by most business owners in this industry is that you have to put everything possible in the ad so they know what you do, how great you are, how you have worked for everyone who is anyone, all the certifications you have gotten since Boy Scouts, and that everyone else, well… stinks. If you can’t tell someone what you do (remember my rule about your 12 Word Purpose Statement in your Marketing Plan from my November/December 2009 article?) in a brief sentence or two, then you need to go back to the drawing board. Readers are looking at an ad, not reading a novel.

Visually Vexing

It is taxing to look at too much. People today are already in sensory overload and, yes, it is possible to put too much into an ad. Unless you have a one or two-page spread, more than one picture is usually (not always) too much. I have seen quarter page ads with two and three pictures plus text (often with lots of drop shadows) and lots and lots and lots of color – and it is too much. It puts a burden on the brain to try and decipher so much information in such a small space and people don’t want to be burdened so in a matter of seconds they decide to completely ignore the ad. Give the reader a focal point and a call to action. If you need to do more than that, direct them to your website.

Enough with the bad and the ugly. Let’s move on to the ‘do’s.’

So, in a world full of messages calling for action from consumers, how do you create an ad that not only compels buyers to action but is also memorable?

First thing you do is your homework. Look at current design trends and what advertisements stand out to you. Most likely when you compare professional development to ones you have done, you will see huge differences.

Second, explore your options in terms of where you are placing an advertisement. If you are dealing with a sales rep., they should be able to tell you their demographics. Does the magazine reach the audience you are trying to attract to your business? If not, then there are lots of other fish in the sea, I mean, the pond.

Third, think of your ad like real estate. Location, location, location. A home buyer wants to be in or around a specific area and be near other prime real estate. Find out where your ad will be located. Are you in the front, middle, or back? Are you near any articles that relate to your line of work? What other ads will be near yours?

Finally, think about when your ad will actually be in the hands of the reader. If you submit an advertisement in January, it may not appear until April or May. Make sure that the information you are putting out is timely and will not be out of date when it is actually seen by the readers.

Starting the Process

When designing an advertisement, remember that first impressions are everything and that white space is (usually) your friend. Keep these things in mind as you start the process:

1. Define your goals for the campaign and how you will measure its success. If you want to drive sales for a particular product or service, make sure you track how many of those sales came from your campaign.

2. Determine what your message will be and remember to keep it brief and concise. This message often can and should be used as the headline or ‘hook’ to your ad. Avoid using your company name to headline your ad when possible, but make sure your name is there somewhere easy to see. The name should be in a format that is easy to read and does not take away from your message. It is not the focal point of the ad.

3. If using a picture, choose one that best shows what you do. Make sure it is a completed project, with mature landscaping if possible, and that the photograph is high resolution, or of good quality. Pictures really are worth a thousand words.

4. Use standard fonts as much as possible that are clear and easy to read. If you are not sure, print out what you are designing at different sizes to check for consistency.

5. Keep the design consistent with all your marketing materials and Website. All advertising should be part of a solid marketing plan and branding initiative. If your advertising is not consistent with all your other initiatives, you could be sending a different message than intended.

6. Ask people for their honest opinion. Don’t give it to a suck-up. Give it to the person who will also tell you that your jeans really do make you look fat. That is a person you can trust to tell you if what you are putting out there is a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down.

7. Do you have contact information on the ad? The single most important piece of contact information should be your website. The exception to this rule is not to send visitors to your site if it will do more harm than good. Your website should be an extension of your advertising, a place where they can get more information about you, your products, and your services. If your website is unprofessional, out-of-date, or just plain bad, then it may hurt you more than it will help you.

8. When you are ready to send your ad for print, make sure you have it in the right file format. If you are not sure, ask. If you want to be sure that your fonts and colors print correctly, print out a high resolution proof at a copy place near you. Same goes for picture quality. I’ve seen a lot of potential advertisements that could have been good, but grainy, discolored pictures overshadowed the message.

Developing and designing an advertisement is much like designing and developing a web site. For me the philosophy stays the same: K.I.S.S. – Keep It Simple Stupid. No, I’m not calling you names or making a generalization about the masses. I am saying that you shouldn’t over think the process and you shouldn’t make your audience over think the message.

The funny thing about advertising is that there really aren’t too many rules. What works is supposed to look good and get a positive reaction. It’s just that someone forgot to tell the Gorilla marketers that little tidbit. I guess what I’m saying is that the best you can do is your best, stay true to your company, and most importantly to your customers – past, present, and future. Happy designing!

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