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Yes You Can Buy Word-of-Mouth Advertising

Celebrity endorsements don’t work like they used to. Sure, some fanboys will buy a particular brand because their favorite star told them, but the general public knows these actors, athletes, and entertainers only promote the stuff they get paid to promote. We see right through the pay-to-say ploy and aren’t convinced to buy.

The idea behind celebrity endorsements, however, was a sound investment at one time because Word-of-Mouth advertising was and still is the best, most powerful form of advertising. You are far more likely to try a new brand or a new store or a new product because someone you know and trust told you than you are because that brand or store told you.

The majority of Americans see advertising as the hype that it is. According to an omnichannel retail study done by Euclid, only 53% of Baby Boomers are inspired by traditional advertising to try something new. Generation X is even more skeptical at 40%, and the Millennials are under 33%.

After spending the last two weeks trying to tell you how to use traditional advertising more effectively, I’ve just linked you to a study that says the majority of shoppers won’t believe your ads anyway. (Note: the real reason behind those paltry numbers is because Most Ads Suck and violate the six principles of effective advertising, but that’s a post for another day.)

As the trustworthiness of traditional advertising declines, shoppers are looking more to their friends and family for advice where to shop and what to buy. Word-of-Mouth.

The good news for you is that you can still buy Word-of-Mouth. That’s what celebrity endorsements really are—a company paying someone trusted and known to talk about their products. But I’m not advocating you buy that kind of Word-of-Mouth. The way you buy Word-of-Mouth effectively today can be done four ways:

  • By spending money on the design of your store to make it so fabulous and unexpected that people have to talk about it.
  • By spending money training your staff to the point that they exceed your customer’s expectations to the point your customer has to tell someone just to validate that it really happened.
  • By being so generous giving away the unexpected to your customers, that they have to brag to their friends..
  • By showing off products in your store so outrageous that people have to tell their friends what they saw.
32,000-piece Jigsaw Puzzle!

We sold jigsaw puzzles, over a million pieces worth of jigsaw puzzles a year. (I did the math once.) Mostly we sold 1,000-piece puzzles and 300-piece puzzles, but we showed on the shelf a 32,000-piece puzzle. The box alone weighed forty-two pounds and came with its own little handcart for hauling it away. The finished puzzle was over 17 feet long and over 6 feet tall. I spent $160 to put that puzzle on my shelf. I never expected to sell it. I never really wanted to sell it. In fact, I sold it three times and immediately ordered another one.


Because every week someone would take a selfie with that puzzle and post it on social media with #toyhouse. It was worth more to me for advertising than the profit from selling one every couple years.


I spent $200/board for three chalkboards on the outside of our building where customers could write their own answers to the questions posed on each board.


Because every time a scavenger hunt took place in the city of Jackson, one of the stops was to write something on that board.


I spent another few hundred dollars to create the mileage signpost outside our store.


Rarely a day went buy that someone didn’t take a picture of that sign with our logo conspicuously in the background. Those pictures invariably made their way onto social media.

I spent about a thousand dollars a year giving away helium balloons free to children of all ages. No questions asked. No purchase necessary.


Not only did it help with crying children who didn’t want to leave the store, it made it more likely that parents would bring their kids in the store, knowing they could get out the door with a free balloon (and on Saturdays with free popcorn). Many customers told me that was what they bragged to their friends when asked why they shopped at my store.

You can get your customers to talk about you to their friends and family. You just have to do something worth talking about. Spend the money to be fabulous, outrageous, unexpected, and over-the-top and then let your customers do all the advertising for you.

-Phil Wrzesinski

PS You can read even more by downloading from the Free Resources section of my website the pdf Generating Word-of-Mouth.

PPS In 2009 Toy House was featured as “One of the 25 best independent stores in America” in the book Retail Superstars by George Whalin. Every single business in that book got there because of Word-of-Mouth. Whenever George traveled he asked everyone he met about their favorite places to shop. The stores he heard the most made it into the book. In other words, it was worth it for us to spend so much time and money trying to buy Word-of-Mouth. Oh yeah, and it worked, too!

PPPS Here are the links to the posts on the other forms of advertising … Television, Radio, Billboards, Newsprint, Magazines, Websites, Email, Direct Mail, Social Media

Direct Mail – Do the Math

I like numbers. I like math. I even like algebra when numbers start fraternizing with letters. (I draw the line at calculus, though. I don’t understand why numbers have to go all lumberjack on me.)

It is a good thing because there is a lot of math in Retail. Some of my favorite math, however, was not the pre-made formulas like calculating inventory turns or cash-to-current ratios. It was the math used to figure out if something was working or not.

One of those occasions was trying to figure out the results of a Direct Mail campaign we used to do at Toy House. For several years I sent out postcards around Halloween for $20 off purchases of $100 or more redeemable by the end of November. I used to send out that type of coupon five times a year, but realized I was training customers to wait for the next coupon. When a customer called me to ask when the next coupon was coming so that she could buy a new car seat, I knew I was heading in the wrong direction.

The front of our 2014 Postcard

We weaned our customers down to just the one postcard in November. Now I wanted to know how well it was working and whether it was worth the money.

I kept track of the number of coupons redeemed and the amount spent per coupon. I knew what I spent to produce and mail the postcards. Now I just had to do the math to see if the campaign was worthwhile.

Here is the math from the last Direct Mail campaign in 2014 …


  • We produced 14,000 postcards @ .23 each = $3,220
  • We mailed 13,500 postcards to our mailing list @ .34 each = $4,590
  • We had 687 post cards redeemed (5.1%) x $20 discount each = $13,740

Total cost of promotion: $21,550


  • Average ticket (before $20 redeemed) was $117 = $80,379
  • Profit Margin was 48.7%
  • Gross Profit on coupon sale transactions: $39,144

Net Proceeds from campaign (after deducting costs): $17,594

The total sales of $80,379 represented about 29% of our sales for the month, so it was a significant portion of our business. The real question of the day, however, was how much of those sales did we get because of the coupon and how much was simply us just giving money away on sales we would have already had?

The better question was … “Do I have somewhere else I could spend $21,550 that will generate more than $39,144 in gross profit?”

The mailing was sent to our own in-house customer base of people already familiar with us, so it wasn’t like we were reaching new people. If all of those same people came in and spent only the average for non-coupon sales of $48 we would have been only slightly worse off (687 x $48 = $32,976, which equals $16,059 in net proceeds).

Once I did the math I knew that anything less than 5% return on my direct mail wasn’t worth the time and effort. We weren’t getting the return we needed. Plus, we were advertising for the short-term instead of the long-term. On top of that, we were training customers to wait for the next coupon.

That is the issue with Direct Mail.

On the plus side, you get to tailor a message specifically to the people on your mailing list, and you can do the math to see exactly how much money you made. The downside, however, is that it takes a fairly high response rate to make it worth your while. Unfortunately, response rates rarely get as high as what we were getting each November. (That 5.1% was our lowest. We had a high of 9.6% in 2007!)

We were getting those numbers, though, because we were sending the coupon to our own fan base during the peak shopping time of the year for toys. We never came close to those numbers with the coupons we used to send out at other times of the year.

According to this post on expected response, if you are using an outside mailing list, meaning people who don’t yet know you, your response is likely going to be between 1-2%

If I only had 1.5% response (202 of the 13,500 redeemed), my numbers would look like this:

  • Total cost = $11,850
  • Total sales = $23,634
  • Gross Profit = $11,510
  • Net Proceeds = -($340)-

With numbers like that, the math is pretty easy to understand.

Does Direct Mail have a spot in the world of advertising? Can it be effective? There is one more equation worth doing. What is the lifetime value of a customer? If finding new customers is difficult, but once you find them, they become a gold mine, then yes, Direct Mail can work.

You just have to do the math.

-Phil Wrzesinski

PS What I found interesting was how our response rate went down over the years. Some might attribute that to the numbing of the deal. Our deal never changed so it became less appealing to some customers. Some might attribute the declining response to the aging out of our customer base. While we did cull our list for bad addresses, we didn’t track ages of the kids and grandkids of the people we sent the postcards. As birth-rates declined, our list became top-heavy with older customers. During the same time that our response was declining, however, our market share didn’t change. I think in many respects, since we were more hyper-focused on our Relational Customers, our list shifted more in that direction. Most importantly, since we were doing the math, we could see the diminishing returns and looked for better ways to spend our money.

PPS We used to mail out a complete newsletter with our coupon. The newsletter went out bulk mail rate to keep costs down. Unfortunately with bulk mail it doesn’t always get delivered in a timely fashion. When I switched to postcards I also switched to first class mail to make sure our postcards got out in time for customers to redeem. We still, however, had several customers who never got theirs or got it too late. That’s why we had a few extras printed above and beyond the mailing list.

PPPS Check out my take on other media including Television, Radio, Billboards, Newsprint, Magazines, Email, Social Media, and Websites

Websites – The Silent Salesperson

Over the last few weeks I’ve given you my thoughts on how to use the different media types for advertising. So far we’ve covered Television, Radio, Billboards, Newsprint, Magazines, Email, and Social Media. All of these are choices. You don’t have to do all of them, or any of them, for that matter.

In fact, I would recommend that if you want to do any of the first five, you choose only one of them and do it incredibly well. You likely don’t have the budget to do more than one well.

Email and Social Media are more about time than money. If you have the time, do both.

There is one form of advertising, however, that I consider a must in today’s business climate—the website. You gotta have one.

Click on this picture to check out my sister’s web page for her art.

Whether your customer base prefers to shop online or shop in brick & mortar stores, he or she uses her smartphone or computer to look you up. You need to claim your business on Google so that you show up in their map app, but that only helps the people already looking for you in your area.

Your website is the tool that convinces people who don’t know you that you’re worth a visit.

First Rule of Websites

You don’t have to have eCommerce on your website to be successful.

Right now the buzz words in retail are phrases like “seamless omnichannel shopping” and BOPIS (Buy Online Pickup In Store). Those are important for big chains with multi-million dollar IT departments (and zero customer service training). If you have the means to do that, either through your industry partners, trade organizations, or your own team of coders, all the power to you. If you sell online through your own website, that’s a bonus. But it isn’t a requirement for having a successful website.

You can have a site that is purely informational, one that shows customers what you do, where you are, when you’re open, and (most importantly) what to expect when they visit. Just make sure you follow Rule #2 to the letter.

Second Rule of Websites

Every single page must have a clear and distinct purpose.

Before you create the content for a page, ask yourself why the page exists. Ask yourself who you expect to visit that page and how you expect they will find it. Ask yourself what is the single most important point you want that visitor to draw from the page. Ask yourself what action you want that visitor to take next after visiting that page. Your answers will shape the content and look of the page. The more clearly you define each page’s purpose, the more value you bring to your visitors.

When I was creating the Toy House website, my goal for the site overall was to drive traffic to the store. Phrases like, “when you visit …” peppered the site. But each page had its own goal in mind. For instance, our About Us page started with a series of “I Believe …” statements to show our Core Values and make an emotional connection with people who believe what we believe.

“The goal is not to do business with everybody who needs what you have. The goal is to do business with people who believe what you believe.” -Simon Sinek, Start with Why, TEDx Puget Sound

Third Rule of Websites

Your website is your silent salesperson. Make it your best.

It is the first impression a customer has of your store. It is the first step in creating that relationship with your customer. You need to put your best foot forward.

If I told you that you could only have one salesperson working the floor today, would you pick your worst or your best person? If I told you that you could only have one person in charge of greeting all customers, would you have your worst or best greeter? If I told you that you could only have one person answering your phones today, would you pick your worst or best phone answering person?

You rarely get a second chance to make a first impression. Your website has to reflect the best of you and your business. Put the time, effort, and money into making the best impression you can.

Fourth Rule of Websites

Your hours, phone number, and address have to be prominent and easy to find.

If you want to drive traffic to the store, you have to let them know where and when. If your goal is strictly eCommerce, you can bury that information in the Contact Us section of your website. If your goal is to drive traffic to the store that info has to be everywhere. Don’t make your customer go look for it.

People browsing websites at home on their desktop the night before a shopping trip might take the extra steps to find that info. People browsing on their phones in the parking lot of their previous stop (or outside the school where they just dropped off their child) aren’t going to dive very deep to find the info they want.

Fifth Rule of Websites

It has to be compatible for mobile platforms.

If your website isn’t mobile-friendly, the font will be too small for anyone to waste their time reading it. You will have lost most customers before they even began. Nowadays it is hard to find a web-designer who doesn’t make a mobile-friendly website, but if you have an old site on an old platform, you need to look at it on your phone, your friend’s phone, a tablet or two, and a desktop to see how it looks on those devices. If it isn’t clean, easy-to-read, and simple to navigate, it is time for you to upgrade.

Follow those five rules and your website will be a useful tool for your business. It is a necessary tool. Customers expect that you’ll have one. Since you’re going to make one, make it a useful tool, too.

-Phil Wrzesinski

PS Just to overwhelm you a little bit more in thinking about your website, here are some other things to consider …

  • Post a video tour on your website. People only do what they have already pictured themselves doing in their own mind. Give them a quick visual of your store (two minutes or less, or several short videos of each department, updated regularly).
  • Make sure your Core Values and beliefs are evident on every page of your site. Whoever is writing your content has to know and understand your values.
  • Turn your About Us page into an I Believe page. Let people know what you believe. Here is an example from Toy House. Here is one from LauraJoyWarrior. Here is one from PhilsForum.
  • If you draw from more than five miles away (or are in a hard-to-navigate part of town) include a map and directions.
  • Make any “click here” navigation buttons large, self-explanatory, and easy-to-find.
  • Make sure your website is listed and linked on every one of your vendor’s “where-to-buy” lists, on your Google business page, and everywhere else someone might find you. The more inbound links you have, the better you will do in the search engines.
  • Update your site regularly with new information, new pictures, new content. (Blogs and links to your emails are one easy way to do this.)
  • If your hours change with the seasons, make sure they are updated across every platform including Google, Facebook, and your website.

PPS When you are interviewing someone to create your website, ask about those rules above. If they don’t have a thoughtful answer or opinion about those topics (even if they disagree), they are likely a “template” designer who uses the same easy template to make something fast and cheap that looks like everyone else. If you want to look like everyone else, go right ahead. If you want to be a destination that stands out in the crowd, find someone who wants to make that happen for you.

Shares, Comments, and Likes (How to Get Facebook to Work For You)

I remember when I first joined Facebook. I was connecting to friends I hadn’t seen in over twenty years. It was amazing! Reconnecting with old friends, conversing with current friends, and staying on top of who is celebrating a birthday today have made Facebook one of my pleasures. (I don’t call it a “guilty” pleasure because it is part of my life and also part of my business to understand how FB works for retailers—at least that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.)

I remember when we launched the Toy House page. The excitement from new likes was amazing. It was so new and shiny and free. I watched the numbers like a hawk to see what would move the needle the most.

The experts began predicting Facebook and Twitter and Pinterest to be the new darlings of advertising and that more typical media like Television and Radio would suffer. Heck, people wouldn’t even need a website if they had a Facebook page. That was the common thinking back then. It’s still the common thinking right now. And it is still wrong, and about to get worse*.

Oh, I’m not saying Facebook and other social media outlets aren’t effective as advertising platforms. They just aren’t as effective as they are made out to be. Let’s take a quick look at Facebook.

The upside to Facebook is two-fold:

  • You can connect to your current customer base and talk to them as often as you want for free.
  • You can pay to boost your posts or pay to advertise to reach more people relatively cheaply.

The downsides, however, will make you rethink your strategy.

  • Your free, organic reach is seriously throttled by the algorithms of Facebook because they would rather that you pay to get seen.
  • Even when you do pay, there is no way for you to guarantee the people you paid to reach actually saw your post.
  • Just like newsprint, Facebook posts are a passive form of media.

Think about all the businesses your friends convinced you to like. How often do they show up in your feed? Not very often. Yet you are constantly bombarded with “suggested posts.” Those are the boosted posts that make Mark Zuckerberg a gabillionaire.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have a Facebook page or use other social media outlets. They serve a far greater purpose than simply an advertising platform. That was the first thing most businesses got wrong when they got onto Facebook (myself included). We used it the way we used all other forms of advertising—to talk at you.

They are called social media for a reason. They aren’t meant for talking at people. They are meant for engaging with people and having conversations. They are tools for getting feedback and insights from your fan base.

Your first goal with your Facebook page should be to get feedback, to hear from your customer base. Ask them questions. Engage with them. Listen to their insights.

336 Shares and over 24,000 Views!

When we were getting ready to launch our Birthday Club I asked the Toy House fans how long the club should last. Some stores stopped at 10 years old, others at 12. One of my customers suggested 40. That suggestion was all I needed to say “no limit”. In the summer of 2016 we had a woman celebrate her 94th birthday by ringing the bell and buying a couple decks of playing cards with her Birthday Gift Certificate.

Another of my favorite engagement posts was taking a picture of two competing items and asking the question, “Which do you prefer?” I did that with Barbie and Groovy Girl dolls, figuring Barbie would win hands down. Much to my surprise the first nine people said Groovy Girls. The tenth person said, “I was gonna say Barbie, but now I guess I better check out those Groovy Girls.”

Keys to Organic Reach

The best way to get past the algorithm that holds your posts back is engagement. If you have 1000 fans, your initial post will only go out to a tiny fraction of them, maybe 10-20 people. If they engage, Facebook will release your post to a few more fans. If they engage, you’ll reach even more, and so on. If none of the first 10-20 engage, your post is sunk. In the rock, paper, scissors hierarchy of Facebook, Shares beat Comments, Comments beat Likes, Likes beat yawns.

If you want to reach people on Facebook without paying for it, you need to post Shareworthy stuff. (credit Tim Miles for coining the word “shareworthy”) You need to post things people want to pass along. The Share is the gold currency because not only does it get your post released to more of your fans, it reaches people who aren’t your fans (yet) by reaching the friends of your fans who share.

People love to share:

  • Links to articles that are important to your fan base
  • Funny pictures & videos
  • Touching, heartfelt stories

If you want to reach people on Facebook without paying, you also need to get comments. People respond to:

  • Questions
  • Polls

If you want to reach people on Facebook without paying, you have to avoid certain triggers that throttle you back even more, like:

  • Dates and times
  • Exclamation Points!!!
  • Words like Sale, Deal, Discount, % Off, or Event

Yes, it is a game trying to figure out how to get more free, organic reach. In fact, one fun thing you can do is make it a game with your staff. Turn all of your team into Admins for your page, then hold a weekly contest. Allow everyone the opportunity to post twice per day whatever they think is appropriate for the business. At the end of the week give $20 to the person who got the most shares and $10 for the person who got the most comments. Do this for five weeks. It will cost you $150, but the research you’ll have will be priceless! It will also increase the number of fans you have dramatically.

Keys to Paid Reach

Whether you choose to boost a post or pay for an ad (here is a good link for the differences between those two options), the key to success is the same as any passive media like newsprint or magazines. You have to have a picture and headline interesting enough to grab people’s attention and compelling enough to make them want to click. Anything less and you’ve wasted your money.

Facebook and other social media platforms can be effective ways to reach customers if you make engagement your goal. The more people Share, Comment, and Like what you are posting, you’ll keep reaching more people. Otherwise, they are simply a digital form of the newspaper ad everyone seemed to ignore.

-Phil Wrzesinski

PS Twitter is even more about engagement and conversation than Facebook. Treat it that way. Pinterest is more about idea sharing. If you sell something used in a crafty way or for decorating, Pinterest can be a phenomenal way to share how to use your products. Find a clever way to include your logo and web address in each picture in an unobtrusive-yet-impossible-to-crop-out way.

PPS *Facebook is looking to remove organic business page posts from your newsfeed altogether, and put them into a separate tab buried deep in the lefthand column of your feed. They’ve already done that in some countries to “test” it. You only see your friends’ posts and paid posts. As a Facebook user, I don’t like that. I “liked” business pages so that I could hear from them. But FB doesn’t keep the stockholders happy that way. One way as a business to get around that problem is to make sure everyone on your team shares every post you make, even if they have to go find your page to do so. (Heck, you should be having them do that anyway.)

Why Email Works (And When it Doesn’t)

“Advertising is salesmanship mass produced. No one would bother to use advertising if he could talk to all his prospects face-to-face. But he can’t.” -Morris Hite

Morris Hite is in the Advertising Hall of Fame. He coined the word “slacks” and helped bring Elsie the Cow to life for Borden Dairies. He was a genius in the world of advertising who unfortunately passed away about fifteen years before the explosion of the Internet and email.

Not that he would have changed his thoughts above if he had lived during the digital age, but he might have looked at it differently.

That is the one true advantage of email. You get to speak directly to the people who most want to hear what you have to say. It is like bringing all of your best customers into one room for a brief presentation, but without the hassle of finding a room, without the hassle of meeting everyone’s varied and busy schedules, without having to pay for catering and getting an audio/visual person to handle sound and lights, without having to perform live with no edit button.

With email you can write it, edit it, proof it, and make sure it is exactly what you want to say before you hit send. It goes out to all your fans and friends who get to read it when it best suits them. And it is cheap, too. You can get an email service for a fraction of the cost of more traditional methods of advertising.

What’s the downside?

There are two downsides to email.

First, since sending out unsolicited emails is spam and turns people off, to do email well, you can only send your email to people who opt-in to being on your email list. In other words, you can only use email to advertise to your existing fan base. Unless you can convince people to share the email with their friends, you’re simply preaching to the choir.

Second, it takes time to build up a solid email list that bears fruit. Like any form of advertising, you’re playing a numbers game. How many people does the media reach? What fraction of those people actually see, hear, or read my ad? What fraction of that fraction takes action?

Image result for emailAccording to MailChimp, one of the email service providers, the open rate for a typical email ranges from 15-25%. So even if you have a good list of people who love you, three-fourths of the people on your list still don’t care enough about you to even open your email. Only a fraction that do will take action.

If you have a good list, though, it is still the most efficient, cost-effective way to advertise to your customer base and get that repeat business.

Here are my answers to some common questions about email marketing.

How often should I send out an email?

Some experts tell you to send them out daily, once-a-week, twice-a-week, or some other calendar-based number. They have data and stats to prove whatever number they are preaching is the most effective. My belief is that the optimal number is different for every business.

How often should you send out an email? As often as you have new, compelling content to share. If you don’t have anything new to say, don’t bore me with the details. The first time I click on your email with no compelling content will likely be the last time I click on your email.

(Note: the more often you have new content, the better. If you can do three emails a week, you are getting the frequency to keep you top-of-mind. Plus, you are sending a clear message to everyone on your list—including those that don’t open—that you are a hot, hip, new, current, growing business.)

Does the Subject Line really matter?

Absolutely! In fact, it is critical to your open rate. I was never good at writing subject lines. The best one I ever used was, “Toy House is Closing.” You need a subject line that compels people to want to read more. It can’t just be a tease, though. Many of your subscribers will only have time to read the subject line, so make sure there is enough info there to tell your customers what to do next.

Yes, click-bait is acceptable with one HUGE disclaimer … The first time I click on your email and the content doesn’t match the hype of the subject line will be the last time I click on your email.

One other tip is to make sure your subject line is searchable. If someone saw your email, didn’t open it right away, and planned to go back to it later, make sure there is something in the subject line that makes it easy for them to find it. I get about 100 emails a day. It doesn’t take long for emails to get buried in my inbox.

Do I have to offer a coupon or discount with each email?

No! In fact, I wouldn’t ever offer a coupon or discount in your email, otherwise you train your customer base to wait for the next email coupon or discount before they go shopping.

There are plenty of other ways to get people to read your email. Famed author and retail consultant Rick Segal always included a joke at the bottom of his emails. He said that way he knew everyone would read to the bottom. You can (and should) include pictures, stories of customers (and staff) using your products, success stories from your customers, interesting and obscure facts about your products, details about upcoming events, and/or fun, shareworthy information.

Although email should only be sent to people who have opted in to receive your blasts, you can reach some of their friends if you include content people want to share (and ask them to share it.)

How can I grow my email list?

Have sign-ups at the cash register. Have a computer on a display in the middle of the store that only goes to one page—your sign-up page on your website. Ask. Every. Single. Customer. Have a drawing each email for a gift card and announce the winner at the bottom of each email. (I know some stores that upped their open-rate big-time with this tactic.) 

Is long or short copy better?

Yes! Interesting, compelling copy that tells a story, makes only one point, speaks to the heart, and speaks to your tribe is always good copy, regardless of the length. People will read long email posts if the content is worthwhile. Fortunately for you, there is no extra charge for longer copy. Just remember the Make Only One Point principle for effective advertising. Unless you are a fantastic writer, the more you try to say, the less people will read.

How do I find time to write all those emails?

You can hire people to write your emails. Even if they are a contract worker, you need to interview them like you would any member of your staff. Ask for references and samples of work.

You can empower your staff. There might just be someone already on your team who has the chops for creating powerful content.

You can ask your vendors for content. Some of them already have created great content that just needs to be edited with your own spin.

As with most everything in life, there is usually a trade-off between time and money. Email won’t cost you as much of the latter, but you’ll have to spend a little more of the former.

-Phil Wrzesinski

PS This is a series of posts to help you understand the upsides and downsides of the more common advertising media. Follow these links for my take on Television, Radio, Billboards, Newsprint, and Magazines.

PPS I know you probably have other questions regarding email. Either send me an email or comment on this blog and I’ll do my best to find you the answer.

Magazines – Speaking to the Tribe

I used to sell advertising for a local magazine. Every Thursday, on my day off from Toy House, I would hit the streets talking local businesses into buying ads for a monthly magazine my ex-wife and I published called Kids in Common.

Kids in Common Magazine Vol. 1 March 2003

We launched Kids in Common in 2000 as a weekly radio show designed to link families to the resources out there for them. On our radio show we interviewed a variety of guests including medical professionals, pet behaviorists, daycare workers, educators, and other professionals. We also highlighted family-friendly websites, upcoming family-friendly events, and parenting tips we received from our listeners.

Three years later we launched the monthly magazine. The highlight of the magazine was the centerfold, a full monthly calendar of all the events happening including recreation department sports sign-ups, vacation bible schools, special family events, educational programming, and other fun activities parents and children might enjoy. Many of our readers told us when each issue came out they would get a highlighter and circle all the events they wanted to attend. One parent even mentioned how it helped her son learn budgeting as he would have to add up how much money he needed to do all the things he wanted to do on the calendar.

The ads I sold paid for the printing and distribution costs of this free publication.

By the time we started publishing Kids in Common, I was well into my learning about how different ads work. I knew about the pitfalls of passive media like newsprint. I knew about the power of frequency and impact. Those are the two biggest arguments against magazine ads.

Not only is a magazine ad a passive one that only attracts those actively in the market, it has an incredibly low frequency. Two no-nos in the world of effective advertising.

We tried to overcome that by creating a publication people picked up several times in a month, a magazine they read more than once. The calendar in the centerfold was the kicker. On one side was the calendar, on one half of the other side was the “KIC Clipboard”—a handy reference guide of some kind. One issue it was all the local parks and their amenities. Another issue was Phil’s Top Ten Toys. The first issue, our “birthday” issue, had a list of all the birthday hot-spots where you could host your child’s birthday party. Even after the calendar ended people loved to save those clipboards. Therefore the premium advertising space was on the other half of the backside of the calendar. Page 14. I got a premium rate for that page and the back cover because they were the two pages most likely to be seen multiple times in one month.

So what are the upsides to magazine advertising? Almost everyone reading a niche magazine is actively in that niche market. You don’t read a magazine about model railroading if you aren’t already into trains. You don’t read a magazine about rock climbing if you don’t already own a harness. You don’t read a magazine about parenting if you aren’t a parent or grandparent.

The magazine is the easiest way to speak to your tribe because only your tribe are reading it. Sometimes, if your niche is narrowly defined, it is the only way to speak to your tribe all at once.

When is it a good time to use magazine ads?

  • When you have a narrowly defined niche (or tribe) and the magazine is the best vehicle for reaching that niche all at once.
  • When the magazine has built-in features that make it get picked up several times before the next issue or saved even after the next issue is released.

A lot of hobby magazines fit those two definitions.

As with other passive media like newspapers, your ad still needs an eye-grabbing picture and headline. It needs to make an emotional connection. And it needs to make people remember you. If you can do that, you can milk a lot of customers out of your magazine advertising.

-Phil Wrzesinski

PS For other best practices on other forms of media check out Television, Radio, Billboards, and Newspapers. Upcoming posts will include Direct Mail, Email, and Social Media. Look for them over the next couple weeks.

PPS The first issue of Kids in Common was only going to be 12 pages long. By the time I finished the first round of ad sales we had enough advertising to create a 16-page magazine. By the second issue we had enough to fill 24 pages with top-level content and enough ads to pay the bills. A few of my advertisers lamented the day we ceased publication as they found it the best bang for their buck.

Does Newsprint Even Exist Anymore?

I used to read the Jackson Citizen Patriot newspaper cover-to-cover every night of the week. It was a daily paper that was delivered in the afternoon and made perfect bedtime reading. It was also delivered right to my door. It was a sad day when they switched to a morning paper and I no longer had full stories on the late night games in sports (my favorite section). It was an even sadder day when they switched to three delivered papers a week. At least we still had a paper unlike many communities that had gone strictly online.

I don’t remember when I stopped reading the print version of the paper. My parents still get the daily Detroit paper and the Sunday New York Times. I might thumb through a section or two when I’m at their house.

I miss the print paper. I liked it so much better than the online news. I liked it for the very same reason why it was such a difficult place for advertisers. I could skim through every headline and picture quickly to decide what content I wanted to read and just skip the rest. Some nights I would be done with a four-section paper in mere minutes. Some nights the paper would have stories I was setting aside to read again.

It was part of my bedtime routine.

A Toy House newsprint ad from the 1950’s

Here is the scary part for advertisers. I could read the paper cover-to-cover every day and not remember one single advertiser in that paper.

That became incredibly clear to me the day we decided to buy a couch. That night I saw four large ads for couches in the newspaper including one from a store I didn’t even know existed. I quickly grabbed the previous day’s paper from the stack by my bed. Sure enough, all four ads were in that issue, too. In fact, at least three of the four companies were in the paper every single day! Yet I never saw one of them until I was in the market for a couch.


Unlike television and radio, newsprint and magazine ads are passive ads. You only see them if they are relevant to your current situation. You only see them if you are actively in the market for what they are selling. When I took over the advertising for Toy House in the mid-90’s the Jackson CitPat (there’s a name for you) had a circulation of over 30,000. If you bought an ad, you were paying for 30,000 people to see your ad.

The truth is that not all 30,000 read the paper beyond the front page. Only a fraction of the 30,000 looked at the page your ad was on. And only a fraction of those people were in the market for what you sell. And even then, only a fraction of those people noticed your ad because you likely built it wrong. Taking it even further, only a fraction of the fraction who saw your ad were moved to take action.

You paid for 30,000 people to see your ad. Only three took action.

If your community still has a print newspaper, is it worth advertising in that paper? Believe it or not, it still might be. Ask yourself these four questions …

  • Do the people who share my Core Values read the print newspaper?
  • Are there a lot of people in the market on a daily basis who buy what I sell?
  • Can I get their attention with a great picture and headline?
  • Can I craft a call-to-action that gets them to do business with me?

If you’re going to advertise in print, those last two bullet points are the kicker. You need to craft your ad to fit the way people read the paper. We are skimmers. We first look at pictures. Then we look at headlines. Then we read the first paragraph of the story. Then, and only then, do we commit to the full article.

Therefore, your print ad has to start with a killer, attention-grabbing, jaw-dropping picture of the product or service you sell. Better yet, your picture shows a customer using the product or service you sell. It has to be intriguing and attractive. It has to grab the mind of everyone actively in the market for what you offer. Then you need an emotional, mind-blowing headline to engage the reader to want to know more. Yeah, think click-bait here. Finally it has to deliver the goods. Tell the people what they expect to hear and give them a call to action.

Since newsprint only reaches the people already actively in the market for what you offer, it isn’t the best medium for branding, but it is a great way to reach your Transactional Customers or announce an event or sale. Make sure your ad tells them what you want them to do next.

If you’re going to do newsprint, here are a few other tips:

  • Never be on a page where less than 50% of the page is content (never buy anything larger than a half-page, either). People skim. You need to be on a page where they stop for a moment or two. If it is all ads, they go right on by.
  • Yes, the right-hand page is more visible (think about how we open a newspaper and where our eyes go first).
  • Inserts work if you’re strictly going after the bargain hunters. That is their domain. The largest circulation day for most newspapers is Thanksgiving as everyone wants to see the Black Friday circulars.
  • Use white space.
  • Pay for color.
  • Bury your logo and information in fine print. If the ad gets their attention and makes them want to act, they’ll find your info. Your info by itself doesn’t make people want to act.

Newsprint isn’t the best for building a long-term branding campaign and going after Relational Customers, but it can be effective when you craft your ad to match the way people read the paper.

-Phil Wrzesinski

PS This is one post in a series of posts about different advertising media and how they work or don’t work. Follow these links to read about Television, Radio, and Billboards.

PPS I miss reading a daily local paper. I pick one up from newsstands every now and then. I like it better than reading the news on my tablet.

Billboards – The Drive-By Advertising

When you’re too young to drive and born before portable DVD players existed, a trip from Michigan to Florida was a lot longer than it is today (not even counting the fact that the speed limit was 55 back then). I wasn’t the book reader in my youth that I am now, either. Mostly what I read on one of our trips south was road signs and billboards.

Image result for ruby falls billboard

I think I counted 37 of these “See Ruby Falls” signs on one trip.

The billboard that blew my mind on one of these trips to Florida was a sign just outside Orlando for Bronner’s CHRISTmas Wonderland, the famous Christmas store in Frankenmuth, Michigan.

Yes, Michigan! In Florida!

I had seen their billboards all over Michigan. That made sense to me. You’ll drive across the state to go to this 100,000 square foot extravaganza of everything Christmas. But Florida? All in all, Bronner’s has over 60 billboards in seven different states.

Like Wall Drug in South Dakota and Ruby Falls in Tennessee, Bronner’s uses billboards for two reasons. Advertising is only one of them.

When you see a billboard in Florida for a store in Michigan, your first thought is this is no ordinary store. You would be right. You wouldn’t be surprised to see a Disney billboard near Frankenmuth, MI because Disney is a destination. Bronner’s put a billboard near Disney for the same reason. They believe they are a destination.

Unfortunately, it takes a lot of money (and courage) to put up billboards like that across the landscape. Plus, you have to be able to deliver when people follow the signs to your place. After seeing what felt like 543 signs for Mitchell’s Corn Palace while driving across South Dakota, I took the family on a detour to a tourist trap from hell. Wall Drug was actually a relief from the corn.

Billboards work well for reaching a lot of people. You don’t have to be on the highway in another state for them to be effective. Since we are creatures of habit, a well-placed billboard not only will reach a lot of eyeballs, it will be seen multiple times by the same people. Remember, frequency is a good thing.

The downside to billboard advertising is two-fold.

First, they are a passive media. You have to get people to look. In today’s distracted driving where even the passengers are looking down at their phones, getting anyone to look at your billboard can be a challenge.

Second, you only get about two seconds to make an impression. That’s one simple picture and six-to-eight easy-to-read words.

Can you tell a heartfelt, emotional story to your tribe in one attention-grabbing picture and six words? If you can, billboards are one of the best bangs for the buck for reaching a lot of people with a high frequency. One well-placed sign can move the needle. Buy as many signs as the budget allows and change out your boards at least once a month. (Or more, if they’ll let you. Even the good billboards lose effectiveness after about 2-3 weeks because they become familiar and blend into the background.)

If you can’t tell a heartfelt, emotional story to your tribe in one picture and six words, you’ve just added another boring, bland, meaningless blot to the mundane landscape everyone is already ignoring.

-Phil Wrzesinski

PS Pro Tip #1: When you create your billboard on your computer, it looks awesome. Before you submit that to your ad rep, print it on a letter-sized piece of paper and post it on the wall across the room. Does it still look good? Is it easy to read? Is the picture obvious? Computer screens distort what we see.

PPS Pro Tip #2: Your logo isn’t the “one picture”. Bury it deep in the bottom corner of your billboard so that it doesn’t detract from the message. If the message is good enough, they’ll figure out who said it.

PPPS Pro Tip #3: Humor is an emotion. Get people to laugh at your billboard and you may get some viral spreading of the word. Just make sure your humor is tied to the product or service you’re selling.

Radio – The Marathoner

I love my radio sales reps. Seriously. I have Linda to thank for turning me on to Roy H. Williams. I’ll never repay that debt. Scott and I still play golf. When I see Mike or Stacy or Fanny any of my other reps, we stop and chat like old friends. The good reps will do that. I was blessed to have some great reps.

The great reps also understand things like frequency. They know that for my ad to be successful, not only does it have to be impactful and tell a great story, it has to be heard several times by the same people in one week. The goal is for the same ears to hear my ad at least three times each week for as many weeks until they are in the market to shop for my goods.

Radio Ads, Toy House, JacksonThat is the beauty of Radio. Unlike Television, where viewers change channels faster than a butterfly changes direction, Radio listeners tend to stick with one channel through multiple commercial breaks. Sure, satellite radio and music services like Pandora and Spotify have eroded some of the ears on radio, but that can be said about every medium. The one difference is that the people still listening are “still listening.”

The advantage of radio is that people don’t fast-forward through the breaks. They don’t look away, or run to the bathroom, or go get some food. Their ears are always open. They listen with some regularity, whether it is the morning drive, at the office at work, or while getting dinner ready for the kids.

The disadvantage of radio is that most people don’t actively listen to radio. It is background noise while driving, working, or cooking. Most people are doing something else when they listen to the radio. That means you have to say something truly interesting to capture their attention. Boring ads that sound like everyone else’s ads won’t get heard. They just blend into the background.

Because of Radio’s strengths, however, it makes a great choice for long-term branding campaigns because you can reach a lot of ears with a lot of frequency for a lot less than most media. The key is to make sure your schedule has that frequency of three per week, and that you run it at that pace for at least as long as half your purchase cycle before you can expect traction.

Now, please understand that many radio advertising salespeople don’t know about the frequency of three. I know this because I have sat through many presentations done by radio salespeople. In one such presentation, after the video they showed, you had to be on Valium to not want to sign up for radio. But the package they tried to sell me had a frequency of only 0.5/week. They were dumping their unsold inventory on me through this package, and it wasn’t going to help anyone but them!

You have to be adamant about getting enough frequency. Fortunately, because I had such wonderful radio sales reps, I got the chance to sit down and explore different packages to see what kind of frequency I could get. Roy H. Williams, aka The Wizard of Ads, taught me that running 21 ads per week ROS (Run of Station), I would typically get pretty close to the frequency I wanted. Unfortunately I didn’t always have the budget for that. I found, however, that if I ran ten ads, two per day in back-to-back hours, Monday through Friday, I could get my frequency. I didn’t reach as many people, but I reached them well enough. (Roy also taught me that you can try to convince 100% of the people 10% of the way or 10% of the people 100% of the way—they both cost the same, but have wildly different results for you.)

If you want to run a radio branding campaign here are some tips for making it more effective.

  • Buy a schedule that gives you a frequency of three per week for the same people hearing your ad. (Your sales rep can help you with that, even a bad one.)
  • Buy a schedule that is at least 50% as long as the purchase cycle for your industry. (Longer if you can. In fact, the longer a contract you buy, the better rate the station is willing to give you.)
  • Create ads that are far more interesting than whatever the person is already doing while listening to the radio. (Remember that radio is a background noise more often than a primary channel.)
  • Change your ads (but not the emotions or message) at least once a month. The more creative and impactful your ads, the more often you should change them.
  • Don’t buy a station just because it is the top ranked station in your town. The top-ranked station often charges the highest rate. Why? Because they can. The funny thing is that often the difference in the number of listeners between #1 and #4 is not that significant, but the rate card varies greatly. A good ad salesperson will tell you how many people you’ll reach for the dollars you spend. Find the best value. (Pro note: the number #2 station in a particular format in your town is always more willing to negotiate rates than the #1 station. Give them a one-year commitment and you’ll be surprised the deals they can offer. You’ll still reach a whole bunch of people—without spending a whole lot of money)
  • Don’t buy a station just because that station has “your demographic”. Your customer base is not a demographic. It is a psychographic. It is the people who share your values and beliefs regardless of age, income, or education. You’ll find them on almost every station.
  • Don’t ever buy a prepackaged deal until you know it has the frequency you want at a price you can afford.

If you plan to be in business a long time and have the budget for it, Radio makes a nice long-term partner to run that business marathon with you. If you’re looking to get on and off like a ride at the state fair, it probably isn’t your best bet.

-Phil Wrzesinski

PS While Radio is best suited for long-term branding campaigns, if you want to use it for an event or sale, do what Roy taught me. Schedule the ads beginning with one hour before your event, and then schedule backward in time running one ad per hour (two, if they’ll let you) until your budget runs out.

PPS Often times sales reps will throw in “live remotes”, special events where the deejay visits your store and reports back to the listeners several times an hour to tell them how much fun he is having. While fun to have that happen, unless the deejay is a huge celebrity, they rarely draw a crowd. And if they do, the crowd is there to see the talent, not you. That’s okay. Just make sure that what they say on the air to the 99.99% of the listeners who didn’t stop by is on point with your message. That’s the true value.

PPPS Thanks, Linda! You are the best!!

Television – The Super Bowl of Advertising

You watched the Super Bowl for the ads, didn’t you? That’s the trendy thing today. Whether you root for (or against) one of the teams in the game, you tune in mostly to see the ads. I have actually seen Super Bowl Parties where everyone gets a scorecard to rate the ads they see.

In fact, I use the Super Bowl ads and a Super Bowl party as the premise for my book Most Ads Suck (But Yours Won’t).

Television has been, from its moment of inception, one of the greatest media for advertising. Why? Because it combines the three most important elements—Words, Music, and Pictures.

“Use a picture. It is worth a thousand words.”Tess Flanders

Pictures are storytellers by nature. Storytelling is one of the most powerful principles for making ads more effective. With thirty seconds you can tell a powerful, emotional story just with pictures alone.

“Control the music and you control the mood.” -Roy H. Williams

Music is emotion. Music allows you to speak to the heart. Regardless of the words or the visuals, music can change the way people feel quickly and fully. Don’t believe me? Think about the TV Show M*A*S*H.  Can you hear the soothing melodies of the theme song? Feel-good music for sure. Now go ahead and Google the lyrics to this song entitled “Suicide is Painless.” If that isn’t enough to make you scratch your head, check out the lyrics to Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA and Bobby Darin’s Mack the Knife. Music controls the emotion. (I’ll bet the politicians who try to use the Boss’s song for their campaigns never bothered to read the lyrics.)

“In the beginning was the word …” -John 1:1

Words power the imagination. Words call whole worlds into existence. The right words in the right order can change history. When Abraham Lincoln gave the Gettysburg Address many people of that day felt it was the worst presidential speech ever, mainly because of its brevity. Most presidential speeches lasted an hour or so. But Lincoln knew the power of fewer, more tightly written words. Now we consider it one of the greatest speeches ever because he said so much in so few words. God spoke the world into existence. You speak worlds into the imagination of your listeners.

What this trifecta means for advertising is that Television Ads have the ability to make a much stronger impact than any other form of advertising out there. A well-crafted television ad can be impactful with only one viewing. Just last month I bought two different flavors of Pringles because of the Super Bowl Ad I saw. Once.

The downside to Television?

  • It is expensive.
  • It is difficult.
  • Fewer and fewer people watch the ads.

It is expensive and difficult to create a great television ad that moves the needle. Just look at how many flops and failures to move the needle we had from this last Super Bowl. And these are companies with millions of dollars at their disposal. Too many companies try to be too clever. You simply need to step back and look at the three elements—pictures, music, words—and make sure they tell the story, invoke the feeling, and implant ideas into the imagination of your viewers so that they think of you first.

It is also expensive and difficult to schedule a television campaign so that your not-so-impactful ad can be seen enough times to make a lasting impression. Unlike radio, where listeners pretty much stick to one channel and don’t switch, television viewers are not as station-loyal. Some stations such as ESPN and HGTV do have a loyal group of followers, but those viewers often have the station on in the background, making your ability to attract their attention even more difficult. Most viewers, however, never let the remote control get out of reach and are quick to change stations as soon as a commercial break begins.

People are using DVR’s, Netflix, and Hulu to avoid advertising as much as possible. I know I am guilty of taping shows to watch later, fast-forwarding through all the commercials. Part of it is that I don’t have time to commit to the full show. I can save about ten minutes an hour watching on my own schedule. Also, frankly, most television ads suck. I don’t want to watch them. Even from its first days as a medium, people used the commercial breaks to go to the bathroom, get more food, or take the dog outside.

If you want to use television to get your branding message out to the world, here are some tips to helps.

  • Choose the words, images, and pictures carefully. They need to tell a story, invoke a feeling, and spur the imagination. Period.
  • Make it about the customer and her life, not about you.
  • Say something memorable, powerful.
  • Have your images move/change slowly. This way your images are more visible to the fast-forwarding crowd.
  • Choose shows or stations that people watch repeatedly. News shows, talk shows, and specialized programming stations are usually best.
  • Change the story (but not the message or the feeling) every three-to-four weeks. Ads grow old quickly, especially when humor is part of the ad. The joke wears thin after several tellings.

If you have the budget, the creative talent, and the knowledge how to use it correctly, Television still works incredibly well for delivering your branding message and driving traffic to your doors.

-Phil Wrzesinski

PS This is the first post in a series of posts on the different forms of media and how they work best. As I said before, all advertising works, but only if you know how it works best and use it the proper way. One area that Television is becoming less and less effective is in the Hype ads. Not only are Millennials “hype”er-sensitive and skeptical, they are teaching the rest of us to view hype that way. Even though one television ad can be quite impactful, if you have an event or sale to hype, there might be better, more affordable ways of getting your message across than television.