Why Marketing Is Tricky and What to Do About It

“Contrary to popular myth, the world does not beat down the door of the better mousetrap developer.”

Once you’ve developed your great product or terrific service, you still need to lure the customer to you with marketing, and it’s often no easy task.

The Best-Kept Secret of Business

Businesspeople hate to admit it, but almost no one is ever really pleased with marketing results! In some of my earliest businesses, I published newspapers and phone books and personally sold advertising to thousands of small and midsized businesses—and it was very, very seldom that I came across businesspeople who were really thrilled with any of their marketing programs. At the same time, I found many businesspeople who thought there must be some easy “silver bullet” solution that would drive huge crowds of customers to their doors that they just hadn’t discovered.

Marketing is an art, not a science. There is no superman MBA or superwoman ad agency executive you can hire who can guarantee you marketing results! The experts don’t have all the answers—and this is exactly why business owners and managers need to give a huge personal effort to make sure their marketing is working as hard as it possibly can.

Marketing Is Finicky, It’s Tricky, and It’s Unpredictable

I’ve seen the exact same ad pull great one day of the week and get no results on another day. I’ve run ad campaigns on radio and gotten virtually no sales—and other times I’ve run radio campaigns and doubled sales overnight. I’ve run huge display ads in prestigious newspapers and gotten no results, and I’ve run similar ads in much less prestigious newspapers and gotten great results.

A lot of people tend to blame it on the particular media chosen when an ad doesn’t pull, but virtually every media can bring in some results. When ads don’t work, chances are that one of the many other variables is to blame. Is the offer attractive enough? Is it eye-catching? Is it believable? Is the timing right? Even the weather can be a factor!

So here’s a crucial rule of thumb: never spend a lot of money on a particular ad campaign until you’ve carefully tested it first with a very limited budget.

Don’t Leave Advertising to the Pros

Even when I had many, many years of experience, not to mention my MBA degree, I would still get into deep trouble with my advertising. For example, to jump-start the sales of the Adams Streetwise software line some years ago, I bought a full-page ad in a major business magazine with a pretty basic and not exactly award-winning ad design that we cobbled together in-house, and we got reasonable results. I was quite excited! Imagine what we could do with really top-notch ad execution, I thought.

So the next year, I took the plunge and signed a yearlong contract—our first six-figure ad commitment ever. We hired an incredibly talented designer from the ad agency world, and he created a much more attractive and impactful-looking ad. We got all excited and were confident that we could at least double if not triple our ad responses versus what we got with our more homespun design.

But when the new ad ran in the 500,000-plus-circulation magazine, we received less than five responses for this $25 software package—a fraction of what our old ad design pulled! I just blew more than $10,000! Worse, I had 11 more ads to go in the contract, and the next ad was already past deadline!

For the third issue, we switched back to the terribly cluttered, homespun ad that had worked for us the previous year, and the results shot right up again.

“Sure Bet” Advertising Media

Don’t just assume that because the latest ad trend on the Internet or anywhere else is red hot that it is going to be slam dunk for you!

Before the days of the Internet, Yellow Pages advertising was seen as the holy grail, the surest bet, for local service advertisers. It was roughly similar to how Internet search advertising is viewed today.

And you can bet that Yellow Pages ad sales reps were trained to fully exploit this. Yellow Pages ads were sold for a minimum of one year, but the sales reps were taught to get their customers thinking more in terms of how much it cost each day in order to sell larger commitments for the year. They were also trained to get customers’ competitive juices flowing by constantly reminding them that if they didn’t buy a bigger ad, their competitors would get much more attention and be stealing their customers left and right.

But even in its heyday, the Yellow Pages wasn’t a sure bet—nothing in advertising is a sure bet.

I remember making a call to sell advertising in one of my recently started advertiser publications for a small service business in St. Paul, Minnesota, that was just about to close its doors. The firm had bought an expensive ad in the Yellow Pages that wasn’t bringing them results, and the cost literally bankrupted them. The soon-to-be-out-of-business entrepreneur could repeat back to me the powerful sales pitches that the Yellow Pages sales rep had used to get him to buy a much bigger ad than he could afford: “It’ll cost only pennies every hour!” “Don’t you want an ad as big as your largest competitors?” “Think how much more powerful your message will be in a larger space!” As it turned out, the advertisement didn’t merely not increase his business—it totally sunk it!

Test, Test, Test!

So when it’s time to buy advertising, make sure you work up your strategy in advance, and don’t change your budget when the media sales rep is in the room. Test, test, test!

Also, be wary when any advertising media seems like the holy grail! What seems like it might be the “silver bullet” advertising solution today? Internet search advertising, maybe? Social media? Test them first and save your excitement until you start measuring results.

The “Little Bits” Marketing Strategy

Until you’ve found a really successful marketing vehicle, I think the most important rule of thumb is to spend a little money here, a little money there, and a little money everywhere, until you find the right media mix for you. In addition to trying the traditional media, be as creative as you can.

With my first business, Bob’s Rent-A-Bike, I advertised in local and daily newspapers—no results. Then I bought a 1/8-page ad in a million-copy-circulation tourist publication. I was so sure this would work; I didn’t wince when the ad rep told me they had a policy of requiring a minimum of four weeks of advertising. So I spent $200 on the ads—a good portion of my life savings at the time. But the ads brought in only two $5 bike rentals!

Not one to give up, I next tried attaching crude, Magic Marker–drawn posters at campsite bulletin boards offering mobile bicycle rentals. Bingo! A couple of cardstock posters sent my sales soaring!

It’s often very surprising in advertising what really works and what really doesn’t!

Takeaways You Can Use

  • Marketing can be very hard.
  • It’s an art, not a science.
  • Do serious testing before spending serious money.
  • Pros are not always the answer.

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About Bob Adams

Bob Adams is a Harvard MBA serial entrepreneur. He has started over a dozen businesses including one that he launched with $1500 and sold for $40 million. He has written 17 books and created 52 online courses for entrepreneurs. Bob also founded BusinessTown, the go-to learning platform for starting and running a business.