There’s no holy grail in advertising

Bring any group of business owners or managers together, ask them the most effective way to promote their organizations, and you’ll get a host of definitive answers. Oddly, few of those answers will be identical.

One may insist on radio spots, another on direct marketing, a third on coupon envelopes, and a fourth may be adamant that billboards are the only logical choice. Each will have named a medium or tactic that he or she believes is the absolute best way to promote a business.

That comes as no surprise. From an early age, our minds are trained to pursue the single answer that’s best for any situation. Whether it’s a question on a math test, a color choice for our living room, a career path, or religious belief, we tend to assume that there is one single best choice to the exclusion of all others.

But when it comes to promoting a business, trying to find that single choice is rarely wise. You’ll see business owners and managers try radio advertising. When that doesn’t produce the results they want, they’ll switch to sending direct mail. When that doesn’t create a jump in sales, they’ll buy cable TV commercials. When that falls short of their expectations, they’ll try a new online strategy … and it goes on and on, all with an air of desperation.

The fallacy in that all-too-common approach comes down to two assumptions: first, that one channel is inherently better than the others, and second, that marketing investments are most effective when they’re limited to that single channel.

For most companies, the best approach is a mix of multiple channels, organized in ways that allows each to build upon the others. The channel that will work best in a given instance depends on a wide range of factors, including the company itself, its audience, the message being conveyed, the environment, and many more.

Just because radio worked well for a company’s last effort doesn’t mean that cable TV wouldn’t be a better choice this time. Or maybe the right channel is direct mail. There’s no simple answer, because there are so many variables. If your audience is broad and diverse, then maybe radio or newspaper advertising is the right choice. If you’re targeting a carefully defined group, such as former customers, direct mail or email will probably perform better.

There are two important lessons here. The first is not to focus on trying to find a single channel that will serve all of the company’s needs, because (with extraordinarily rare exceptions) it just doesn’t exist. You’re more likely to find the real Holy Grail. The second lesson is that before you spend the first dollar to promote your business, you need to do more than a little learning.  You’ll really need to understand your customers, your marketplace, your competitors, and the environments in which you do business. And you need a solid, objective understanding of what makes one marketing channel right for one situation, but not another.

Don’t make the mistake of relying solely on the sales representatives who call on you from each of those channels to help you develop that understanding. They’re among the nicest people you will ever meet, and most do want you to succeed. But you can’t afford to forget who employs them and how they are compensated. Ask a newspaper rep how you should spend your budget, and you’ll probably be advised to choose newspaper advertising, and shown research supporting that recommendation. Odds are good that you won’t hear, “I wouldn’t choose newspaper now. I saw a study saying radio works well, too.” It’s not a matter of deceit; it simply means they are loyal to their employer and the medium they know best. Never hesitate to ask for advice; just remember they have a stake in your decisions.

You may find these thoughts frustrating and suggest that marketing really should be easier. I agree, but I’ll also ask you what part of managing a business is simple? Taxes? Personnel? Complying with regulations? As with all those areas, the key is to learn all you can and use that knowledge to make the best choices. If you don’t have the time or desire to learn, find an expert who can help you, the same way you probably turn your income taxes over to a skilled CPA.

But if you think I’m wrong and keep looking for that magical marketing solution, rest assured that you’re only setting yourself up for disappointment.