Guest Post: To Advertise, or Not to Advertise

I am pleased to be hosting Cynthia Kocialski, author of Startup from the Ground Up: Practical Insights for Transforming an Idea into a Business, which I will be reviewing tomorrow, as part of her virtual book tour with Pump Up your Book

To Advertise, or Not to Advertise: 
That is a Question Faced by Every Business
By Cynthia Kocialski

At some point in any business’ life, owners everywhere consider advertising as a means of promoting their products or services.  The lure of more customers and more sales is too enticing to pass up, and there are always success stories touted in the press of businesses skyrocketing due to advertising.   Most business try it, at least once.

Who Is Advertising On The Channel Today?
When considering an advertising channel - roadside billboards, public bus posters, door hangers, supermarket cart ads, big screen ads at the local movie theater, direct mail packages and every other possibility – take a survey of who is using that advertising channel today. It can tell you a lot.
 I live in San Francisco and like most major metro areas, we have plenty of road side billboards. These billboards are filled with ads from either major corporations – Apple Computer, Verizon, Ford, IBM – and a very few well funded venture-backed start-ups. I once called to see whether the start-up I was working with could afford to advertise along the highway too, and I couldn’t believe the cost.  It was astronomical.
Likewise, there was a time a few years ago when the local movie theater was selling those pre-movie ads to local businesses and start-ups. The price was reasonable. Then the movie theater chain was sold to one of the large national chains, and the small advertisers disappeared from the pre-movie line-up. Now there are only have ads from major corporations on the big screen – translation, advertising at the movie theater is now very expensive.

Statistics When Used To Sell Anything Can Be Misleading
Advertisers love to tell you about the statistics about their audience – how many there are, how many are women and men, the neighborhoods they live in, their income levels, the industry segments they work in, and so on.  Remember what Mark Twain had to say about statistics, “There are lies, d*** lies, and statistics”.  An ad agency told me once - readers that pay for subscriptions are more valuable than those that don’t, readers that pay for subscriptions actually read the content they pay for, free readership does not. Newspapers, magazines, or trade journals often tout the demographics of their audience, but if the publication is given away for free then those ads won’t be as effective as those fee-based publications. Everyone in my town is mailed the local newspaper once a week for free, and the publisher claims the entire town in their circulation numbers. But that doesn’t mean anyone actually ever looks at the newspaper.
Membership in organizations is another loosey-goosey number. Who is a member? Is it someone who pays annual dues?  Is it someone who subscribes to a free email list?  Is the membership base those that are currently active or the total number of members over the past 10 years, regardless of whether they participate currently or not?

Trust the Advertising Channel but Verify the Results
Advertising is expensive, how do you know whether there’s a chance it’ll work for your business?  All advertisers will provide references, but you know if there are passing on their names, these will be happy clients.  What these clients will demonstrate is the best possible outcome, the maximum result, not the average or typical.  The great thing about advertising is the other references are obvious.  If someone is trying to sell you ads in the local newspaper or a direct mailing pack, see who advertised in it last year or a few months ago, and ask them what type of results they got. Don’t just check the references you are given, check others who have advertised with them.

Experimentation Is Necessary and Costly
Like it or not, effective advertising is the results of a series of experiments. Small businesses want to see results now, but that’s not realistic. Whenever you go to any advertising channel, it takes awhile to figure out what works for that audience. An ad agency told me that it easier to advertise on radio than TV. Why? Because most people only listen to 3 radio stations and switch between them, radio listeners are station loyal. TV viewers are show loyal and there are hundreds of channels and thousands of shows offered by broadcast service providers.  And it’s not just the audience; a commercial that works on the History Channel may be a dud on the Food Network channel. 
Every type of advertising media is different – Internet, TV, radio, editorial, flyers, direct mail, mobile, and so on. Tracking the experiments is important. How many responses do you get from the ads, how many are qualified leads, how many purchase your product, what they average ticket price, and so on? Beginner’s luck may prevail and the right ad works for the target audience immediately. In my experience, it usually doesn’t happen and building market traction can be frustrating if the business is prepared for the long process.

About the Author
Cynthia Kocialski founded three tech companies and has been involved with dozens of other startups. She has written a book about her experiences in start-ups companies, “Startup from the Ground Up, Practical Insights for Transforming an Idea into a Business”.  She also writes the popular Start-up Entrepreneurs’ Blog ( and has written many articles on emerging technologies. Cynthia can be reached at