Buying advertising marks a grown-up moment in the development of a small company's brand. On the one hand, if you're buying ads, you're certainly making a bid to enter the big time. On the other hand, first-time advertisers are at risk for spending a lot of precious capital for exposure they are unprepared to measure and leverage.
So how can a small company start to advertise in a prudent manner? The good news is that the media landscape has changed dramatically in recent years, creating many more options for novice advertisers. Here is a look at some of the opportunities available.
Your First Advertising: Buying Print
Most small businesses start out buying print ads in their local, neighborhood newsweeklies. But that's no longer necessarily the only safe option, according to Tara Hartley, the former director of media services at Bose and now an independent advertising consultant in Franklin, Massachusetts. Hartley, who advises clients like TiVo and Newell-Rubbermaid on making their ad buys, says another smart way to get your feet wet in print advertising is to buy remnant space available through various dealers such as Novus Print Media in Plymouth, Minnesota. Remnant space is the ad industry's equivalent of last-minute super-savers—publications with an extra page or two to fill will sell it off at a much lower price.
You should also contemplate signing a long-term contract in return for a price break. Dana Korey, president of a San Diego company that organizes homes and offices, typically advertises in local lifestyle publications. Last year, she was able to get three months worth of ads free for agreeing to a year-long contract for a $1,300 monthly ad for a new home-organizing DVD. "For the publisher, it's all about the bottom line at the end of the day," Korey says. "They're going to do whatever they can."
Your First Advertising: Buying Radio Airtime
Radio broadcasters are open to creative arrangements such as bartering for airtime, Hartley says. In one deal she put together, for example, a client swapped $250,000 worth of excess retail inventory for $100,000 worth of radio advertising over a four-year period. She declined to name the product, or the companies involved in the deal, but says the station plans to use the goods for listener giveaways as well as for in-house sales incentives. "In broadcast – radio and TV – there are all kinds of opportunities to go beyond the rate card," she says, including free bonus spots, or commercials that use the on-air talent to endorse a product, which has the added benefit of getting union-mandated actor fees waived.
Buying remnant space is also an option in radio. Natalie Hale, CEO of Media Partners Worldwide, a radio remnant dealer based in Long Beach, California, says in the Los Angeles market she can get a 60-second spot that normally goes for $300 for somewhere around $50. But those discounts aren't for everybody. Hale says she won't work with a client unless they're willing to spend at least $5,000 to $10,000 per week.
Your First Advertising: Buying Online Ads
Online advertising is a great place to learn how to buy ad space, because it offers you endless options for targeting your message, a huge range of price points, and easy-to-understand metrics. Common formats include simple text links, horizontal leaderboards, square IMUs, and vertical skyscrapers. Ads with flash animation or other flashy graphics tend to perform well.
Websites charge clients on a cost-per-thousand or CPM basis; a site may charge a flat fee in return for a special sponsorship of a section or on a certain date of interest. Typically, ads for competitors will not appear on the same web page, so if a site has a slew of ads for your larger rivals, you may want to look for opportunities elsewhere.
As your campaign gets up and running, you should measure the click-through rate on each ad unit, and compare sites to see where your ads perform the best. (As in print and radio, you may also buy remnant space through online ad networks.)
Though you can certainly buy cheap ads online—including spending a few bucks a day on a site such as Facebook—you may find it hard to get cheap deals. As more companies have shifted a larger share of their budgets online, discounts have become hard to come by. Joe Schmidt, co-founder of Raleigh-based Canvas On Demand, says the recession actually worked against his company, pushing more advertisers into the digital channels in which it normally advertises. "We're seeing more competition online for ads," Schmidt says.