Communicating with your Customer

Communications options (not necessarily in order of effectiveness or cost-efficiency) include paid advertising, earned media, direct mail, and distribution.

Paid Advertising

Paid advertising in the primary newspaper in a community can be costly. Small businesses should take a return on investment approach to any advertising they are considering, be it print or broadcast. Put simply (numbers do not reflect actual advertising rates of any publication or broadcast outlet), if an advertisement for an upcoming event will cost a business $750, can the firm safely project more than $750 in revenues as a result of the placed advertisement? Or at least break even? Remember, many people who advocate paid advertising are paid to sell advertising - think about their vested interest in the deal they’re trying to get you to make.

Radio Advertising

In regard to radio advertising, always review the demographic and ratings information of any station you’re considering buying airtime from. This will not only let you know the audience they’re reaching, it will also help you decide what content to include in your ads. Basically the same thing applies (demographics and circulation base) when purchasing ad space from the trade press that covers your industry.

While we’re talking trade press, don’t forget trade shows. If they’re a big deal in your line of work, participate in them. You may not be able to afford every one that comes down the pike, but you may not be able to afford not going to at least one or two every few years.

Outdoor Advertising

Outdoor advertising is another option; again, take the return on investment approach.

And, don’t forget The Real Yellow Pages - how many times have you yourself flipped to the back of the phone book to find a product or service? In this case, you’ll also want to weigh the option of a display ad in this section; again, remember the return on investment rule of thumb.

Finally, many businesses both small and large are finding themselves a niche on the World Wide Web. There are two options here: build your own Web site and promote it within other communications methods; or advertise on someone/something else’s Web site. You know what you’re about to read: again, take the return on investment approach, remembering all the while to think about your target market - are they out surfing the Web or are they walking the mall?

Earned Media

Earned media means getting newspapers, trade magazines and radio and television stations to “cover” your business. You thereby “earn” an article or a mention, rather paying for advertising space. One way to attract attention to your business is to send a press release to the media outlets in your community, or to the trade press that covers your industry (this is often used for targeting business-to-business customers). See How to Create a Quality Press Release (p. 24) for some basic tips on writing a press release.

Direct Mail

Direct mail lets you send material directly to your target market. It’s pretty cost-effective, and with the technology available on personal computers and at even small print shops these days, some nice pieces can be turned out quickly, and inexpensively. A couple of caveats, though: 1) Many people throw away lots and lots of “junk mail” without a second thought. Remember, you’re competing against 4-color slick pieces. Think return on investment. 2) A poorly-produced piece of direct mail is worse than no direct mail at all. Pay attention to spelling and presentation.


Distribution is a method of taking a piece you’ve already produced and taking it to places where you think representatives of your target market will be. Sometimes, businesses take pens, coffee cups, hats, etc. (advertising specialties/novelties) and distribute them. You’re not about to be surprised at our advice here: take the return on investment approach. Will you really gain enough customers and/or sales to cover the cost of 10,000 ballpoint pens (and don’t forget that one-time setup fee)?

Information provided by the University of Alabama Small Business Development Center

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