Why Most Advertising is a Waste of Time, and What You Should Do Instead

Have you been feeling guilty about not advertising your small business?

Do you have advertising sales reps calling you, and you just can’t bring yourself to commit to running an ad?

Relax.

Until you have at least a four-figure budget to spend, advertising isn’t a good solution for your small business. Instead, let’s look at what you can do to attract prospects, convert them to customers, and build your business without having to spend your hard-earned cash on advertising.

Think Marketing, Not Ads

Placing ads strategically can be one tactic you use in your overall marketing efforts, but — as mentioned above — until you have serious money to spend, your advertising won’t make a dent.

Times have changed, and today we’re all bombarded by advertising messages. We’ve developed “ad filters” in our brains that eliminate the majority of these messages as a survival mechanism.

Rather than spending your hard-earned money adding a drop or two to the roaring stream of advertising messages, develop these two techniques instead. They both rely on the idea of pulling in prospects and not pushing out advertising messages.

Create Valuable Information

The first technique is to create valuable information about your product or service, and offer it for free. This doesn’t have to be daunting, and you can choose your venue according to the time you have to devote to it.

Fast and easy:

Create a Facebook Page for your business, and share resources. Share links to articles, videos and other material that will help your prospects with their challenges. Your posts can be scheduled ahead of time so you can put together a week’s worth of information in one sitting.

Use Twitter to share links. If you’re on Twitter and have built up some followers, share links to information they’ll enjoy.

Takes longer and is more difficult:

Start a blog. If you’re willing to commit to writing at least every couple of weeks, a blog is a flexible platform to share information. Plus, you own it 100%, unlike social media platforms where the rules may change from one day to the next. Your posts can share resources and knowledge that will help your prospects consume what your business offers.

For more on how to get your blog posts written easily, read about the technique I use on Copyblogger.

Create a weekly or twice-monthly email newsletter. Building an email list and sending out valuable information on a regular basis is a wonderful way to keep your business in front of your prospects without bombarding them with advertising messages. It takes commitment, but if you share both information and valuable links — like I do in my free Weekend Digest newsletter — it won’t take much time to produce.

One-time projects that pay off:

Write an ebook. I know, I know: writing an ebook is a massive undertaking! But ebooks don’t have to be elaborate to be effective. Plus once they’re done, they’re done, and you can offer them for years.

For ideas on what kinds of information you can share in your ebook, read 9 List-Building Gifts You Can Make This Month and watch the free Brown Bag Webinar I did with Kelly Kingman called 11 Unexpected (and Easy) eBook Ideas.

Create an email auto responder series. This is another project that takes time, but pays off in the long run. If you use an email marketing company (see my reviews of the best providers here) and they offer autoresponders, you can create a series of informational emails that go out every few days when someone signs up for your email list.

I do this with my Design 101 series, which I created two and a half years ago. Since then, thousands of people have signed up for and received this information. Except for a few tweaks, I haven’t had to touch it since I first put it together.

Make Word of Mouth Easy

For many small business owners, word of mouth is king. Your best prospects come to you already “warmed up” by glowing recommendations they’ve heard from their friends, colleagues and family members.

If this is your situation, why not make the most of it?

Find out who your “networking” customers are. Ask those customers who always seem to help you spread the word if they’d be willing to take it up a notch. Here are some ideas:

  • Give them a pile of business cards and ask them to spread them around
  • See if they’ll post about doing business with you on Facebook so their friends see the recommendation
  • Offer them a discount for each new customer they bring you
  • Give them exclusive coupons they can give to their friends

Take Your Marketing Into Your Own Hands

The next time that advertising rep calls with the “special deal” on the $600 two-line ad on the paper place mat, tell her you’ve found a better way.

Don’t spend money. Spend time building a referral network and creating valuable information that will be more effective than any ad could be.

Question of the Week

Have you ever bought ads for your business? How did it go? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

Comments

  1. says

    I have spent hundreds of dollars on advertising for my small business and did not get ONE CALL as a result. One purpose of advertising is to get your name out there, so when people do need your services, they will call you. That’s fine if you have a big budget and can afford to advertise in the “big” publications, but still, it is rather passive. I have decided to take the dollars that I would have spent and invest them in my own time to rebuild my website, start blogging and offer free information that will help build an email list of warm leads that might actually need my services!

    • says

      I’ve talked to so many small business owners who’ve had the same experience, Carol Ann. Back when there were three TV stations and the only place to find your news was in the local paper, advertising had more impact. But now we’re flooded with it on the Internet, cable TV, Hulu, and many thousands of magazines. One of our local grocery stores even puts ads on their carts, so as you’re pushing it through the store you get to see an ad. :-0

      There’s a better way, and the good news is that it’s within the reach of small business owners. We can be even more effective than large advertisers in reaching our audiences if we do it right.

  2. says

    Spot-on, as usual. Just about every time I’m giving a chat on the subject, the biggest obstacle to getting across is the “advertisement mindset”.
    It’s the people that understand that advertising is reactive, while marketing (specially content marketing) is proactive, that stand to benefit the most from online marketing.

    • says

      Agreed, Nando! That advertising mindset is pretty entrenched, but there’s a sea change happening. It’s up to people like us to help our clients along so they can take advantage of it.

  3. says

    Yup! Guilty as charged. The outcome was, terrible waste of money. I’ve tried print ads a couple of times. Once about 5 years ago in a trade mag in the industry I was shooting in at the time, and that one cost me $3,500. Then a couple years ago, I placed some small ads in an art and design magazine for my stock photography and my photo lessons. No joy there either. Do you know how ads that you buy on websites compare?

    • says

      Ugh: I’ve heard this story so many time. That’s why I wanted to write about it, Marlene. Can you imagine if you’d spent $3,500 worth of your time creating something like an ebook or autoresponder that could still be attracting prospects to your business?

      As far as web ads, like anything else the results vary. The good thing about web ads is the companies that sell them can back up their claims with numbers and demographic info, so if you’re thinking about investing there, be sure to study them closely.

  4. David Kenny says

    A post I will keep
    Love this:
    “Give them exclusive coupons they can give to their friends”
    I will use it.
    Thanks again

  5. says

    I’ve tried a few local newspaper ads, and all I have for my trouble and money are a few bits of paper to put in a scrapbook. IF I do it again, it will be in the form of a coupon to be clipped, or with a special coupon code that I can track on the website.
    Facebook ads didn’t really pan out, either.

    • says

      Hi Andrea,

      You’ve hit on the reason so many ads feature coupons: they’re trackable, and offer an immediate benefit to the reader. It converts the ad message from “give me something” to “here, I have something to give you.” The latter is usually received a little better! ;-)

      • says

        The only bit in the paper that does stick in people’s minds wasn’t an ad, but a piece the weekly Arts & Lifestyle insert did on me three years ago. People still mention it to me. Now THAT was worth my time and it was free! I was extremely lucky in that they called me out of the blue. However, it underscores a piece of advice I see all over about sending a press kit to your local paper. Do it.

        • says

          That falls under the category of PR … otherwise known as Free Advertising. Not so easy to get, but when it works it’s a beautiful thing. Thanks for sharing our experience, Andrea.

  6. says

    This article is so timely for me. I have been beating myself up trying to figure out how to advertise my business without having lots of money to spend. Thank you for the advice.

    • says

      I’m glad you found it helpful, Heather. I was inspired to write this after I talked to my hairdresser, who’s owns her own salon. She has ad sales reps hitting her up all the time, and she was trying to figure out if she should be advertising. By the time I left the salon she had a new strategy in place … and I had a new haircut. Win, win. :-)