Advertising your services

You know that you offer the best services in town. But how do you let them know?

Advertising is really nothing more than communication. It is communication that takes many forms - the most public and widely used of which is to let clients know who we are and what we do.

Many years ago, there was an adage proclaiming that if you built a better mousetrap, the world would beat a path to your doorstep. That may have been true then, but today there are literally scores of people trumpeting and touting the advantages and virtues of their "mousetraps," using venues and techniques unheard of and even possibly non-existent even a few years ago.

Advertising is all around us Today's society is continually inundated with advertising messages: messages on radio, television and the internet; messages in newspapers and magazines; messages on signs and billboards; messages that come to us by the pound in the form of "junk mail." Some say we are getting messages we don't even know we're receiving - subliminally! It may be fair to say that many of us have been so conditioned by this deluge that we often consciously or sub-consciously tune-out, turn-off or "circular file" some of these messages.

It is imperative to recognize, however, that effective advertising can generate interest, create an attitude or even a strong emotion, and, in its most effective state, arouse a desire to buy. Good examples of advertising that stimulates people to purchase include such popular television venues as QVC, Home Shopping Network and scores of "infomercials" and other paid programming. How may times you have made "on the spot" purchases because of point-of-purchase advertising reminders?

Advertising vs. effective advertising: There is a difference

Effective advertising messages can be designed to do one or many things including:

- Promote the establishment and enhancement of your identity.

- Educate and inform.

- Create new relations by drawing attention to services provided by you that will satisfy a potential client's needs or wishes. Eventually, if you create sufficient interest, subsequent follow-up may arouse enough interest to buy.

- Nourish your existing relationship by repetitive emphasis of tangible and intangible traits that differentiate you from the competition.

A good advertising message is usually aimed at a specific, well-defined target group. There are numerous and varied groups or categories of prospects, but it is reasonable to say they may be divided into two primary groups: consumers and business-to-business clients, each being somewhat unique.

Business buyers Business buyers are buying for specific reasons. They buy for their firm as well as for themselves. They are less emotional and want their service providers to make their jobs easier. Remember, very often in business-to-business buying and selling, there can be multiple decision-makers or buying influences. Your message should be targeted to interest the ultimate decision-maker.

Business buyers purchase for specific reasons, which may include:

- Curb appeal. Make positive first impressions to:

- Help sell or rent properties.

- Contribute to a healthy, attractive environment for employees.

- Proclaim that they are good neighbors.

- Cost controls.

- Budgets may be established and the contractor is expected to operate within that budget.

- Increased value without unforeseen hidden or indirect costs.

- Special or improved service.

- This may readily be called "one-stop shopping." Business buyers are quite receptive to this concept as it may help reduce administrative, personnel and purchasing problems.

Consumers While consumers buy for some of the same reasons as business buyers, often their purchasing decisions are made for more personal or emotional reasons. For example, homeowners consider their landscapes an extension of their homes; and their landscape maintenance can be interpreted as an extension of their lifestyle. More often than not, the purchasing decisions are made jointly by both spouses. Therefore, the tone and tenor of your message and the appeal of your "word pictures" must reflect that fact. An appeal to only one spouse or the other, rather than both, could be considered "risky."

Each message you send should be particularly suited to a specific medium or technique. Only after you have decided what you want to sell and to whom, should you even begin to consider the "how" of doing it. The most widely used forms of advertising by newer contractors are usually flyers, direct mail, classified ads in newspapers or "shoppers," the Yellow Pages and the graphics on their vehicles. All can be used effectively.

Flyers Flyers or circulars are inexpensive and easily distributed. You can have them printed on colorful cardstock and die-cut them to work as doorknob hangers. Others may be folded and sent through the mail or just slipped under the door. It is easy to saturate any neighborhood you choose merely by going from door to door. Some contractors post their flyers in car washes, supermarkets or wherever a bulletin board is made available. The most effective flyers are brief, concise messages offering some specific or limited services usually designed to elicit an immediate response; often there is also an inducement to call.

Direct mail A sophisticated direct mail campaign is often implemented to send specific messages to select demographic groups. Form letters, faxes and postcards are both effective and economical and personalized letters may include coupons or return mail cards to help gauge the success of your campaign.

E-mail With new or existing customers you can actually employ interactive, addressable electronic media technology (e-mail). With a sophisticated database, you have the ability to treat each customer as an individual and concentrate on getting a bigger share of each customer's business as compared to getting a larger share of the market. (See "The One-to-One Future - Building Relationships, One Customer at a Time," by Don Peppers and Martha Rogers, Ph D., a Currency Book published by Doubleday.)

Classified advertising Messages can also be disseminated through the classified advertisements in a local newspaper or in the popular neighborhood "shoppers" or shopping inserts. Remember that everyone who looks through the classified ads is a potential buyer, otherwise they wouldn't be looking there. One possible drawback is that the responses may come from areas that you cannot serve effectively, whereas you can easily control the areas in which you distribute your flyers or circulars or send direct mail.

Yellow Pages At one time, using the Yellow Pages was fairly simple and straightforward. There was one local telephone company and two local phone books: one with white pages and a classified directory with Yellow Pages. Except for the size of the display ads in the classified directory, the playing field was pretty even. Not so today. You can have fine print, bold print, plain print or fancy print, blue print, red print, purple print or whatever-color print. You can have multi-color prints and you can have full color, glossy print inserts. Name it and you can probably have it, but it does cost - and you will have to pay for it. Many cities can have more than a single book (even if it is for only one telephone company) and, in many cases, competitors offer an alternative classified book.

Trying to cover all of the books and headings in each book is becoming extremely expensive. Before committing to significant ongoing expenditures for telephone book advertising, remember that you will pay for that advertising for 12 months while you are soliciting responses only during or before the season. Weigh your options carefully.

With some exceptions, the newest contractors most often have the largest or most colorful display ads in the yellow pages, while more established contractors may use much smaller but bold, distinctive styles that are easy to find. After many years of observation, I have found it fascinating to compare yellow page advertising from year to year. Very often, the largest, showiest ads from one year fail to appear the following year, especially if the ads proclaim "the fastest growing." From our own experience, we have discovered that the longer and more established you become in the industry, yellow page advertising decreases in importance; but you still have to make your number easy to find.

Image is everything I cannot overstress the importance of the name of your company and the content and color of the graphics, signs and logos you may employ. In our company, the color and condition of our vehicles is far and away our most effective form of advertising. Each vehicle is marked with highly stylized logos in blue, orange and white, outlined in black on a "bright" Fiesta-Orange colored truck. The telephone number is prominently displayed along with our tag line: "The Visible Advantage".

Rarely, if ever, does a week go by when someone doesn't tell me, "I see those orange trucks all over the place." Many years ago, we made the conscious decision to employ a highly identifiable and easily remembered color to establish our identity. While repainting every vehicle a bright Fiesta Orange is not inexpensive, the results are certainly more than impressive. You cannot imagine the stir caused by a new bright-orange Volkswagen Beetle (used by our Interior Division), when it appeared on the streets. Before the graphics were applied, radio stations were queried about the "Orange Beetle" and Volkswagen dealers had buyers who wanted one. If that isn't unique, what is?

Signs While we are on the subject of signage and identity, you can employ signs, job signs and even billboards quite effectively. This is especially true in smaller, more isolated, or local communities where, more or less, the same traffic is exposed to the message. Repetition and redundancy work to implant, reaffirm and enhance your identity. Then, when the need or desire to seek landscape services occurs, people are most likely to remember your firm and call on you first.

In larger cities or urban areas, in addition to your own vehicle or trailer signage, another effective technique is to employ signs that travel (on buses, for example), as opposed to waiting for vehicles to pass stationary signs.

Brochures As your business evolves, you may begin to employ other venues or techniques for delivering your message. Our industry lends itself quite well to the use of brochures, for selling beauty is an inherent part of our purchase appeal. This medium is well suited to include beautiful pictures to augment educational, informational text, and key selling points. A well-designed brochure may be incorporated with a presentation folder and augmented with individual fact sheets pertinent to a specific target market. One thing you may want to consider is keeping the brochure fairly generic and undated, using individual fact sheets to make or keep the brochure current.

If you use a presentation folder, include testimonials if they are available and you have permission to do so. Reprints about you or your company can be powerful selling tools. If you have had articles published, you also may want to include them as they have an ability to substantiate your knowledge and expertise. When contemplating the use of a brochure, I would advise seeking the help of a good professional or the program offered through the Associated Landscape Contractors of America (ALCA).

Display advertising A step above the classified ads are display ads in newspapers, magazines or city directories. Often, newspapers have a regular weekly "Home and Garden" section or large seasonal inserts. These are read carefully by people interested in our services and can be effective if your ad is clever enough to be noticed and read. Large metropolitan areas often have publications that have a circulation aimed at a specific demographic group. If it is concurrent with your target market, it may be an effective venue. Examples might include business journals or real-estate magazines catering to a higher income group. Remember that it doesn't pay to advertise to people who can't afford to buy what you're selling.

Radio and television Radio and television advertising may not be practical in some markets because of costs and variable demographics. However, in other markets, especially smaller markets with strong local stations, select radio and TV advertising can be especially effective merely by establishing and enhancing your identity. I know of a well-known contractor who hosts a question-and-answer show on a local radio station, and I'll confess that, while I'm not a regular listener, I will tune in during Saturday drive time. This contractor has obviously established and enhanced his identity as an expert. It has been a radio staple for years.

E-commerce E-commerce promises to introduce many changes in the way we will do business in the future. We have barely scratched the surface of its potential, but should not consider it as any panacea. Some might say it will make things simpler and more efficient, while others may say it is only faster but more confusing.

What's your specialty? Advertising specialties are another inexpensive way to keep your name before your customers. Contractors have used everything from coffee cups to calendars to baseball caps to whatever is simple and useful to keep their names in front of customers.

There are numerous other methods of advertising your company and your services, such as seminars, exhibits and participation in home and garden shows or fairs. Some contractors advertise free consultations with the express purpose of eliciting future business, while some send out videotapes. In local markets, sponsorship of a Little League team or a bowling team cannot only keep your name before the public, but it goes a long way in promoting goodwill.

Leave it to the pros While many of us are creative in our own right, effective advertising usually requires more specific expertise when we move beyond the basics.

Although most of our budgets preclude retaining large advertising agencies, you would be surprised to know that there are many one-person or small-shop agencies that are not only effective, but quite economical. Finding them may not be easy, but it certainly is not impossible. The best place to start is to seek referrals from your business associates.

A word of caution: vendors selling advertising media are not the same as an advertising agency. They want to sell printing, telephone advertising, signage or whatever they sell. Try to find an agency that is more interested in operating as your partner rather than as a vendor.

The "why" of your advertising is to ultimately increase your revenues. The "how" is by delivering a message. Only you, with possibly the help of advertising professionals, can determine what the exact message or messages should be, who should get these messages and through what venue or media are you most likely to have the most success. One last word of caution - don't advertise if you can't deliver!

If you're considering an advertising campaign, one of the first things you need to do in your message is to establish the premise that you are a service provider and your services are not commodities.

Services are usually sold by the person or the company providing or directly responsible for the service. This is different than selling a product manufactured by someone else who is responsible for the product's quality.

People who provide services need clients to trust them above all else to do what they say.

People who buy products or commodities are usually concerned more with price, especially if they can physically compare products.

This will probably become even more pronounced with the evolution of more e-commerce. Once a product is sold and delivered, that particular sale is completed. Service becomes a product or a commodity only after it is delivered. Service is not an inventory item, it cannot be stored on a shelf nor can you increase the "manufacturing cycle" to get more service at a lower or reduced price. In fact, most prices are not very flexible because, in most cases, our services are labor intensive and we need to recover those costs. There are no - or should not be any - "lost leaders" in hopes of getting future business. Be wary of "volume discounts."

Pricing of products is fairly consistent while pricing of service depends largely upon the services requested to benefit the client.

Last, but far from least, you need to inform and educate your client that you are different than your competitors.

Those messages may be told piecemeal or in entirety depending upon the venue or media employed; but all of them need to be told. If not, you are too susceptible to getting caught in what I call the "commodity trap." (See Grounds Maintenance, "Competing With Low Price Contractors," October, 1999.)

An advertising campaign that is well thought out, planned, coordinated and implemented in its entirety will be far more effective than random or sporadic ads.

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