Advertising on the cheap

Advertising can be a prohibitively costly proposition for small businesses. But here are some no-cash tips that can help you get your small-business foot in those big-buck doors.
Written by Kathy J. Kobliski, Contributor
Advertising can be a costly, often prohibitive proposition for small businesses. But home-based business owners shouldn't consider themselves to be the "poor second cousins" of big business, shut out of the advertising opportunities available to their rich relatives. Here are some no-cash tips that can help you get your small-business foot in those big-buck doors.

Radio and TV

Radio and TV advertising isn't out of the question for small-business owners; in fact, with trade and promotion advertising, you can pay for your advertising with products or services instead of cash.

Radio and TV stations may need your products or services as much as you need them, and they don't want to pay cash either! They will trade dollar-for-dollar advertising for office machines and maintenance, cleaning and decorating services, office supplies, delivery service, office furniture, news and station vehicles (and the supplies and maintenance that go along with those vehicles, such as fuel, cleaning, tires, oil changes, repairs, painting), printing, office and/or client party planning and catering... the list is endless.

TV stations will trade hairdressing, makeup services and often wardrobes for their news anchors; the stations often accomplish these trades with annual contracts, insuring that your advertising won't just be a flash in the pan but will reach their audiences consistently.

Contact the general sales manager at each of your local stations by phone. Ask the receptionist for the contact's name before the call is put through, and come right to the point when you get him or her on the line. Managers frequently field these type of requests, so don't be shy. If they're not in need of your product or service at the moment, send them your card or brochure and check back periodically.

Promotional advertising (found more often, but not exclusively, on radio) is slightly different than straight trade advertising in that you get produced commercials plus live promotional announcements attached to a special station event. Perfect candidates for this kind of advertising include catering companies, travel agencies, health spas, boutiques, specialty gift companies and bakeries - basically any business that can provide prizes suitable for on-air contests and giveaways. Come up with your own promotion, and approach a local station with the idea. If they decline, try another - there's always more than one radio station that reaches your target audience.

Before you agree to do trade or promotional advertising with any radio or TV station, be sure you'll be reaching the right audience. Otherwise, you'll waste your products or services, which you should part with as carefully as you do cash. And when figuring out trade amounts, use your highest unit price or hourly rate - they will.

Other freebies you should expect to receive:

  • Every radio and TV station will provide you with no-charge copywriting. Many actually employ full-time copywriters, and some provide the service through their media reps.

  • Production of your radio commercials should be free, unless you're taking a "dub," or copy of the produced commercial, to use on another station as well. You can even get around this charge by providing each station you're going to advertise on with a script and letting each produce its own version of your commercial.

  • You may be able to include the cost of producing your TV commercial as part of the trade or promotional advertising. If producing a full 30-second commercial takes up too much of your trade balance, have a 15-second ad produced instead. They're less expensive to make and run, so you should be able to have the commercial made and still run it with some frequency. Most trade deals like this are negotiated during the first and third quarters of the year when demand on radio and TV inventory, as well as on production time, is down.

Additional resources

Radioinfo. This site provides you with details, including format, contact information and the names of key personnel - for almost every radio station in the country.

Gebbie Press. Here you can find links to the Web sites and e-mail addresses of radio and TV stations throughout the country. You can also purchase the All-In-One Directory, a comprehensive listing of TV and radio stations, daily and weekly newspapers, consumer and trade magazines and news syndicates.

The design and layout of your print ads, whether for daily or weekly newspapers, free shoppers, direct mail or coupon inserts, will be handled at no charge through the publication or direct mail house doing the distribution. Your media sales rep will show you samples of award winning print ads to get you in the mood.

Weekly subscription papers add color to their pages for special editions and, since they're using it anyway, will sometimes add the same color to your ad at no charge if you ask. Tell your reps to notify you whenever free color, which under normal circumstances can be cost prohibitive, is available.

The value of interns

Intern programs exist at virtually all colleges and universities and are one of the best freebie opportunities available to you. Juniors and seniors with lots of book smarts are anxious to get some hands-on experience, and instead of a salary from you, they receive class credit from their learning institutions for their work. Interns are available in almost every degree program, including advertising and design, sales and marketing, computer programming, business development and human resources.

As an intern host, you or someone who works for you must have some expertise in the area in which the intern will serve, so the student receives valuable guidance and actually learns something. You'll be asked once or twice during each semester to provide a written progress report to the university that will be central to the grade the student receives.

Rod Stanton, owner of The Art Farm, hosted two marketing majors from Syracuse University in New York, who served as consultants for Stanton's graphic art and design business. "I provide my clients with a highly sophisticated look for brochures and collateral material using fine art, oil paintings and original illustration, and I was frustrated by the fact that not everyone appreciated, or even perceived, the difference between what I offered and everyday graphic design," says Stanton, who runs his business from his home in Syracuse, New York. "These interns acted as consultants to The Art Farm, in that they studied the market and advised me on how to better fit in among my competitors. The experience was wonderful."

Interns can build your business Web site, put together media plans and place the schedules, write copy, and do market research for you. They can also write and present sales proposals, write press releases, study your competitors, look for opportunities to promote your business in the market, find ways to expand your customer base, and, in general, reduce your daily level of work to a somewhat manageable level.

Contact the Webmasters of complimentary (but not competitive) sites and ask if they'd be willing to exchange banner ads. You can find these sites by performing a search for keywords (try all of the search engines below) that are closely related to your own. The larger sites usually sell banner space and won't be interested in trades, but smaller sites may be.

Your business name probably isn't well known at this point, so don't rely solely on your logo to do the work in your banner ad. Rather, use a catchy or intriguing question or statement that will be more effective in tempting people to click on your banner. For example, "Do you hate your kitchen?" addresses a real predicament and will grab the reader's interest more than the logo of a kitchen remodeling company would.

Another method of generating traffic is to submit your site to search engines. But instead of paying a company for this service, submit your URL yourself for free to individual search engines.

Instead of paying a company to register your site with search engines, submit your URL yourself to individual search engines for free. It's as easy as filling out a basic form that you can access by clicking on the "Add URL," "Add Site" or "Suggest a Site" links usually found near the bottom of each search engine's home page. You can go directly to these home pages to add your site: MetaCrawler, Excite, WebZone, WebCrawler, Hotbot, Google, GO.com, Northern Light, Dogpile, AltaVista, Mamma.com and Lycos. And BBL Internet Media includes links to several more search engines.

Re-register every three months or so - search engines won't always pick up your submission on the first or even second time. Also make changes to your site frequently because search engines will perceive an inactive site as "dead" and remove it to make room for others.

Brains can be better than money

When Melissa Trombley, owner of The Barking Bakers Inc., was starting out, she wanted to find a unique way to bring her all-natural gourmet dog biscuits to her customers, rather than spending a lot of cash to get customers to come to her. Melissa knew that lots of owners exercised their dogs around Onondaga Lake Park in her upstate New York community.

She wanted to distribute product samples for the dogs along with information cards about her business for their owners. She envisioned a vendor wagon that would attract attention to her product in a unique yet professional way, but she didn't have the cash to build it.

So Trombley approached Home Depot and made them an offer: If they would donate the materials she needed to build her vendor wagon, she would display their logo on it. They agreed, she and her husband built the wagon, and it was so unique and successful, a local newspaper did a story on her company, which led to personal TV appearances on the local ABC, NBC and CBS affiliates in Syracuse, New York.

Free building materials and free newspaper and TV coverage - all because she came up with a creative way to present her company to the public.

Kathy Kobliski, Entrepreneur.com's advertising expert, is the author of Advertising Without An Agency, and owner of full-service ad agency, Silent Partner Advertising, in Syracuse, New York.

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