What Makes an Ad Work?

What Makes an Ad Work?

Before we see what makes ads work, let’s look at what kills them:

Too many business owners think

  • “I just need to get my name out there.”
  • “Anyone can write an advertisement.”
  • “The more people who hear or see my ad, the more business I’ll get.”
  • “Funny ads don’t work.”
  • “I need to get as much copy into my ad as possible to get the best value for the money I’m spending.”
  • Get your name out there?

    Every one of these is wrong and some of them will hamper or kill your efforts altogether. Your business’ name in and of itself means nothing to anyone. It is merely a marker to remember where they need to go to get what they want. Half or more of all print / broadcast advertisements begin with the name of the store or service. Since you have about 2-3 seconds to catch someone’s attention, using up that time with the name of your business is an almost certain guarantee that their mind will go somewhere else and not listen to / read your advertisement.

    Anyone can write an ad

    In fact anyone can indeed write an advertisement–one that does not work. You would not get into an airplane with a pilot with one hour’s flight instruction. You would not let someone treat your appendicitis who is not a licensed MD. You should not allow anyone to write your advertising who has not been trained to do so, which includes media representatives or media-employed copywriters. The media do not put stock into producing good advertising. They don’t know how incorrect they are, and they don’t know that they don’t know, so they cannot be blamed. But it’s the fact of their not knowing that causes so many business owners to say, “I tried newspaper (or radio or television or the internet or direct mail or billboards) and it didn’t work for me.”

    It was not the medium that failed. It was a bad use of concept / headline / copy / production done by untrained practioners. The media literally hires people with no experience, hands them fact sheets, and tells them, “Write a commercial.”

    The bigger the audience, the better — with this caveat

    Audience size is important. But far important is how many times within one week a potential customer hears or sees your ad. If your product or service has a fair amount of mass appeal, one hundred thousand people each of whom hears your commercial five times will not bring you as much business
    as five thousand who hear it thirty times. Reaching the audience of one hundred thousand will cost you ten times as much per commercial as it will to reach the audience of five thousand — and it will not work nearly so well.

    Now that was funny

    Funny ads work really well — if the humor is used to advance the message, and isn’t in the commercial just to be funny. How many funny ads have you heard where you easily remember what was funny but can’t remember the message nor the sponsor? Yet humor is one of the most attention-getting and -keeping literary devices there is. Go to YouTube and type in Fedex Castaway and you’ll see a really funny commercial where the humor makes the point quite strongly. I saw it with forty people at a friend’s home during a Super Bowl in the year the Tom Hanks movie came out. Everyone screamed laughing at the punchline. It convinced me that Fedex was passionate about making sure every package entrusted to them gets delivered, period.

    “Repetition is the soul of advertising”

    The number of times a given audience member is exposed to your message in a week is called frequency. A frequency of two over thirteen weeks is generally required to see an increase in customer traffic. For time-limited offers (such as sales), a frequency of five is desired. This will require fifty or more commercials to be run in that week, but that will be just for that week. No sale should run longer than a week, and an even shorter time is better. The shorter the time people have before the prices go back up, the more motivated they are to take action.

    Too many words

    Cramming copy into a commercial disregards how the brain processes information. It is called the ‘rain barrel’ theory: the more words the better. The opposite is true: the more words, the less likely anyone will recall a single thing that was said. Ouch!

    So what works?

    A radio commercial or print ad (the internet is different and is not addressed here) consists of a headline and copy. The headline for a broadcast advertisement is the first three-to-five seconds of the message, in which the listener is (or isn’t) given a reason to continue to pay attention. A print headline exists for that same reason. Ideally, it should address a problem the listener has. It is far easire to solve someone’s problem / answer a need than it is to get them simply to try something for its own sake.

    If it’s a broadcast ad, never let a radio announcer read it. The radio and tv “voice” we all know so well comes to us from the 1920’s, when radio was filled with static and announcers had to overpronounce just to be understood. Speaking in this way is artificial. It hasn’t been needed for seventy years, yet it remains. The problem is that listeners do not believe that the announcer believes what he is reading. You and I do not talk that way. So commercials must be delivered the way people normally talk. In general, the only people in radio who actually speak normally are on noncommercial stations such as public radio.
    Advertising agencies will not hire ‘radio’ voices due to the believability factor.

    And for heaven’s sake, if it’s your business, never read your own commercials! You do yourself more harm than there is room to explain here. The sole exception is that you are a professional actor as well. There is a lumber store in eastern PA whose owner voices his own ads. They are very well done. He is an actor.

    Most importantly, anyone who writes advertising must understand a good deal about the psychology of persuasion. He or she must be schooled in it. There are a zillion seminars out there to train salespeople to sell airtime, but very few to teach people how to write effective commercials. The media spends millions to send sales staff to learn to sell, and no money at all on teaching those same people — who are most often the people who write the advertising — how to write commercials that work. Again, I do not blame them. They are not aware of the importance of creating commercials that work. It’s ironic, because if their ads were really effective, they’d get far more business.

    Because they’d have happy clients.

    To sum up: advertising that works catches and holds attention. It gives the listener a single (not several) reason to visit a business. Broadcast ads, including television, should never have telephone numbers in them, because no one remembers them nor writes them down. The exception is when a phone number is the only point of contact, meaning there is no storefront or website. Apart from that, phone numbers take up time better used in the message.

    Ads that work stand out. Most advertising uses the same hackneyed words and phrases as every other, so much so that it is almost literally white noise in the listener’s ear. When ads come on, it is a signal for the listener to stop paying attention to the station’s music or talk and start thinking about getting the tires rotated or figuring out what’s for dinner. Seriously.

    When a really good commercial comes on, the listener is re-engaged. He listens to every word, because the copy and the performance grab his or her attention. He is rewarded for his attention by being entertained.

    And the advertiser is rewarded with more traffic.