Special opportunities are often bad decisions

It’s one of those calls most business owners and managers dread.  “Our newspaper has a special high school football preview, and we’d like to include your ad for just $100.” “We’re running a special commercial to thank veterans for everything they’ve done, and we know you’d like to have your company’s name mentioned for just $50.” “We’re producing a calendar to support the police department, and you can have a space for just $75.” Sound familiar?

You’ve already stretched your marketing budget beyond its limits, and you don’t have much discretionary cash on hand. But it is just $50. Or $75. Or $100. That’s not a lot of money, is it? And it’s going for a good cause, right?

Publishers and sales reps tend to call these opportunities by names such as “special sections.” I prefer to call them “guilt sections,” because that’s how many of those sales reps convince business owners to participate. “You don’t want to support the boys on our high school’s basketball team? You don’t think patriotism is important? Are you saying you don’t appreciate our firefighters?”

And then they add that irresistible twist to their dagger of guilt: “You know, your competitors are going to be in there.” So what should you do?

“I’d recommend that you avoid these opportunities like the plague.”

I’d recommend that you avoid these opportunities like the plague. Most are created solely to get you to increase your expenditures, and they are better at making money than your neighborhood counterfeiter.  Plus, most of them offer little in the way of real marketing value to your company.

Before you’re racked with guilt, know that your absence probably won’t be noticed by the group being honored. “Well, if Hometown Insurance had run an ad, Jimmy Smith would’ve hit that game-winning three.” Won’t happen. Come to think of it, the only people who are likely to notice your presence are your competitors. I convinced one client to stop advertising in a particular monthly feature, and within six months, four competitors who had been running ads there followed suit.

Sometimes, taking a closer look at an opportunity provides a reason to skip it. I once urged a banker to avoid the local paper’s special anti-drug page. A one-line mention of the bank’s name would cost $50, and the paper planned to donate 10 percent of the proceeds to the local school’s D.A.R.E. drug-education program.

The sales rep was downright furious with me, and fought back using guilt. “You mean to tell me the bank doesn’t care about keeping kids off drugs?”

After I gently suggested to her that the bank was as concerned about drugs as anyone, I added that they’d rather not attack the problem by making her boss wealthy. She didn’t quite grasp that, so I took her through the math. Say the actual production and the time it took to sell each of those lines of type costs the paper $5. The paper collects $50 from my client, gives $5 to the cause, and after expenses, pockets a nice $40 profit. If all 25 one-line mentions sell, the D.A.R.E. folks get a photo opportunity and a check for $125, while the publisher walks away with a healthy $1,000. By the way, a full-page ad in that paper normally ran $800.

There are many great causes out there, and local businesses are proud to help them. But if you want to support D.A.R.E., the Humane Society, the girls’ basketball team, or the local food pantry, either hand them a check, or call them to find out what they need. Supporting them indirectly by buying an overpriced ad is like offering a transfusion and spilling all of the blood. It really doesn’t do either of you any good.

Be particularly wary when someone from out of town comes to you offering something they claim is going to benefit the local high school’s athletic department, the police department, or another local organization. There are several companies that claim to do that, but send only a tiny percentage of the money to the group they name. It’s a good idea to check them out. I’ll always call or email the high school’s athletic director or someone at the police department to find out whether it’s a legitimate, officially sanctioned fundraiser. Most often, it’s not.

Now, there may be times when you’ll want to take advantage of things like special sections. Some opportunities may have a logical connection to your business, and may well be worth your investment. For example, the local newspaper’s Spring Home Builders Review tabloid might be a great vehicle for a landscaper or an appliance retailer. Conversely, their ads will probably go unnoticed among the caterers, dressmakers and photographers in the Bridal Section.

If you do decide to advertise, use ads that promote your services and products. Running a “Go Boll Weevils!” message with bad clip art of a straight-armed running back in the sectional preview section is the advertising equivalent of dropping your wallet in a trash can.

Approach your advertising expenditures with the same consideration you put into other business decisions. Start with a long-term plan and follow it faithfully. Take the time to review opportunities carefully and critically, and you’ll find that you’ll waste far less money. And, as all those sales reps start to discover that you’re not a pushover, you’ll get fewer of their calls, too.