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Note: This was first published in another form here.
Ninety-nine percent of the time, when a company is not getting the results they want from an advertising campaign, it is because they lack a clear strategy. This is true whether the ad campaign is digital, print, or both.
It’s helpful to think of an advertising strategy in terms of six stages: Nonexistent, Basic, Functional, Optimized, Integrated, and Strategic (credit goes to my friend Hazel Cobb for helping arrive at these terms). Think of these stages as general categories that overlap, rather than distinctly separated phases of business.
Stage 0: Nonexistent
Before entering the Basic stage your business exists, but a Google search would tell people little to nothing about it. Maybe you have a listing on Yelp, but it contains minimal information and no promotions. Depending on your business model, your company may be doing well enough in this stage, but if growth is your desired outcome, you should try to move out of this stage as quickly as possible.
Stage 1: Basic
Your business moves to the Basic stage when you create a website, start a Facebook page, begin handing out flyers, advertise in a print publication, join Instagram, or make a Twitter account. Preferably in that order. Your content should include things like:
You can also create advertisements and hand them out on sidewalks, particularly in areas frequented by your target clientele. Additionally, you can target your audience by placing ads in your local newspaper or industry magazines.
In the Basic stage, you are doing your best just to produce something that reaches someone. You recognize that your marketing and advertising isn’t what it could be, but you don’t have the bandwidth yet to make the necessary changes. To move to the next stage, you need to create the capacity and operations to maintain a regular cadence of content, with the goal of posting at least once daily on social media, and running print ad campaigns that make sense with your budget.
When you have a print piece ready, you can use the U.S. Postal Service to send it to every address within a precise zip code for under .20 cents a piece (plus postage).
Stage 2: Functional
Once you can consistently meet the requirements of the Basic stage (regular digital postings and print campaigns), you have moved into the functional stage. But, don’t stop here, you are still in the early stages of a strategy that is truly effective. Now it is time to start digging into your data and asking questions like: What kind of engagement are we getting? Are we reaching the right people? Do we need to tweak what we are doing to reach our target audience? For digital, you can gather this information through Google Analytics and by analyzing the interactions on social media. For print, you can use unique offer codes and URLs to track effectiveness. Alternatively, if you use an agency for print campaigns, ask them to provide you with the data.
When creating a marketing campaign, start by determining your product/market fit. Are you selling top-shelf products fighting for share in the luxury goods market? Or, are we somewhere closer to the bottom, competing for space at Walmart and the .99 Cent Store? Your answer to these questions should inform where you place your advertising and how you set your parameters. For print, you can hit your demographic by targeting zip codes. A good direct mail company can help you hit homes in regions where average income matches your prices. For digital, the same principles apply. When purchasing ads on social media, set the parameters around the demographic your brand best suits.
Stage 3: Optimized
Now that your marketing strategy is functional and you have begun gathering data, it’s time to optimize. What kinds of trends do you notice? Can you predict whether a print or digital ad will be successful yet among your target audience?
Ideally, you are running simultaneous A/B campaigns testing offers, subject lines, and graphics. However, even if your business isn’t capable of working at this level of complexity, you can still keep track of the type of content that works—that brings in customers, gets likes, shares, and comments—and create more of it. By optimizing your content, your ad campaigns will consistently hit your metrics. I like this flowchart for its simplicity (although it doesn’t include print, you get the idea).
Stage 4: Integrated
Integration means coordinating your messages across all platforms so that your target audience is hit with consistent, repeated messaging. Whether your ideal customer is checking email, browsing social media, flipping through their mail, reading the newspaper, browsing through a magazine, or walking past a poster in a storefront, we want them to be hit with the same consistent messaging and branding about your business. The goal is to plant an implicit, strategic thought in their mind. For example, you may want to brand your business as “The best place for dinner with friends,” “The tech product with the best value,” or “Fun events for every holiday.”
The most successful brands are those that have chosen a message that differentiates them from competitors, so pay attention to what other businesses in your area are doing and set your business apart. Hopefully, integration is not an entirely new idea at this stage. Ideally, as you have moved through the previous stages, you have used consistent messaging in your print and digital campaigns even though that has not been our focus.
Stage 5: Strategic
In the Optimized stage you learned how to create successful one-off campaigns, and in the Integrated stage, you began integrating those campaigns horizontally across channels and platforms. The Strategic stage is where everything comes together across time. It involves mapping out a marketing strategy over the course of at least one calendar year and identifying the messaging and the treatment stream that will allow you to hit your revenue targets.
Instead of creating successful one-off campaigns, you are thinking big picture: how does seasonality affect sales? Can we plan a special promotion during a slow month to drive sales? What kind of treatment stream will turn first-time visitors into repeat customers? Are there products or events that you should promote around major holidays?
In some ways, implementing an annual strategy is easier than running multiple one-off ad campaigns. Once you have created the framework, it can be repeated year after year with tweaks and changes based on your post-campaign learnings.