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Grow Your Business Sales & Marketing

Is Advertising Dead? (Op-Ed)

types of ads
. / Credit: Advertising Image via Shutterstock

Did you see the guy with the mattress-store sandwich board along U.S. Route 1 last weekend? Did you get your town's art-fair insert in your Sunday New York Times? Have promotions for Alaska cruises been showing up on your computer screen ever since you did your vacation research last weekend?

Since the 1700s, when Ben Franklin started including advertisements in his Pennsylvania Gazette, America's companies have been trying to get people's attention. They've been trying to connect with potential customers in big cities and small towns by advertising — paying to put stories of their products and services in places where the businesses hope their target buyers will see them.

But that hope may be a thing of the past, because now, advertisers are more knowledgeable than ever before about where to reach their targets, what stories to tell them and when they are ready to listen.

Advertising is living, breathing and evolving like never before. I would dare to suggest that today is a new golden age of advertising, for two reasons.

Targeting is better than ever.Ideally, the best, most cost-effective advertising would only go to the people who would be happy — even delighted — to see just what they were looking for at exactly the right moment. Advertisers are closer to achieving that now than they've ever been, because advertisers know more about audiences than ever before. Now, you can segment viewers, readers or listeners so you reach more of the right people.

If you're an Amazon customer, you've seen a perfect example of this. The books Amazon recommends for me, based on what its system knows about my past purchases, are pretty well on target. Sometimes, I delete them — but often, I see new books I didn't know about, and appreciate the insight.

Storytelling options are more varied than ever.My father, who incorporated William Altman Advertising in 1968 and sold it when he retired 20 years ago, produced the iconic Edward Gorey poster for the New York City Ballet. When we talk about marketing today, he often reminds me of the importance of storytelling. One example is the ad campaign he produced by taping the ballet's dancers telling their own engaging stories.

Just think of the new ways we can tell stories today. Print, radio and television are still excellent media, but the story can begin there and send you to a landing page that shows the advertiser how you got there, a Facebook contest that lets you write the next chapter or a website where you can watch video that extends the tale.

Like so many marketing mix decisions, the answer is — that depends.

By definition, advertising means you are paying to put the stories of your products or services in places where the right buyers will see them. So a free Facebook post about your company's exhibit at the boat show isn't advertising, but a Facebook ad targeting boaters in your town is. Which method is right for your business? How about a remarketing campaign that tracks people who have been to your website and shows them the boat they were looking at — with a special boat-show discount?

Ask yourself about these three key elements of successful advertising: audience, media and message.

1.  Define your audience.
Who uses your product or service? What do they look like — race, gender, age, interests? If you are not sure, you are not ready to advertise.

2.  Identify the right media.
Where are the eyes and ears of your customers? That's where your next customer may be as well. And maybe the better question is: where are the target audience's eyes or ears that no one has thought of capturing? They may be at a roadside stand. They may drive to work and listen to the radio. The best media can sometimes be the ones that seem quiet and old-fashioned, where other companies haven't saturated your specific market. Is your target audience watching, reading, playing or socializing somewhere where you can reach them — cost-effectively — and tell your story?

3.  Determine your message.
What is the story you can tell? Is it compelling? Is it intriguing? Is it sad or funny or dramatic? Is it engaging? Your story needs to grab viewers and leave them wanting more.

If you don't have really good answers to those questions, then the answer is no, you shouldn't waste money on advertising.

Advertising is healthy and strong. It might be a nice addition to your marketing mix. But if it's not right for you today, don't worry — by the time you're ready, it will probably be even more effective.

Janet Kyle Altman is the marketing partner at the accounting firm Kaufman, Rossin & Co.