September 30, 2023

You’re the Boss: Do You Still Use Print Ads?

Staying Alive

In the 25 years I’ve been in business, I have tried a variety of ways of reaching customers: print advertising, a retail store, a Web site in the days prior to Google and search-engine optimization, a Web site with extremely poor S.E.O. and the early versions of AdWords, and now a Web site with good S.E.O. and the current AdWords.

Back when there was no Internet, I ran an ad showing my tables and chairs every month in the local city/lifestyle magazine, and it did pull in customers. I did this from 1994 to 2004, after which it was apparent that Google was far more efficient and effective. My print ad (if I recall correctly, it was a 4-inch x 5-inch ad, in black and white) would generate on average two calls a week. Each ad cost me $2,500 a month, and never produced more than $350,000 annually in new sales.

Each new dollar would yield, on average, another 17 cents somewhere in the following three years in repeat business. (Keep in mind that I sell furniture, where the opportunity for repeats is limited –how many dining tables do people need? And word-of-mouth business in furniture sales is almost nonexistent.) This was sufficient for a while, but I could never get beyond that $350,000 ceiling. I tried running in other local publications, but the sales did not rise proportionally to the higher spending — most likely the same people were reading all of the magazines I tried, and the additional ads were redundant.

Now, using Adwords and an effectively designed site, I spend about $8,000 every month and pull in between $150,000 and $250,000 a month in sales. Higher spend but much higher yield. Also, I am reaching a different client, one who, in the days of print, would have been inaccessible to me. My corporate and government clients are widely scattered, and only interested in my products for a brief period of time. Google brilliantly connects this type of buyer with specialized producers like me. These clients are primarily interested in completing the transaction so they can resume their ordinary duties. This contrasts with residential work, where the sales cycle can last years, and the demands for extreme customization make production inefficient. Our margins for conference tables allow the business to thrive, while the margins on dining tables are barely adequate for survival. Consequently, I’m no longer interested in residential business.

I still get calls from people trying to sell me print ads — the local magazines and newspapers, various directories, charity-event programs, you name it. I politely decline, of course. I have better ways to spend my ad dollars. And at the same time, I do see advertisements in local and national magazines, and get all kinds of catalogs and junk-mail advertising. Our phone company drops off a heap of Yellow Pages every year that I promptly recycle. The local newspaper is still filled with ads, although the classified section is pretty much gone. There’s still a lot of print advertising.

It looks to me as though magazine ads make good sense if you are a nationally known, established brand. They act as a little nudge, saying “Remember me? I do this!” I imagine they work best when they are run continuously and ubiquitously. But wow, the price of a national print campaign must be enormous. The newspapers and magazines I read are full of that type of ad, but there are also ads for smaller, local concerns. These people couldn’t possibly be running a national campaign. It would be way too expensive.

Here’s my question: Are the people buying those ads simply caught in past habits? Or victimized by clever sales representatives? Or are there situations where putting your message on a dead tree is still the best option? For what type of business is this the best option? I’d love to hear from any small business who is using print media successfully, and please be detailed about the type of business you are in, the type of ad you run, and what kind of publication you choose.

Maybe it’s a local shopper newspaper, maybe you distribute fliers, maybe you put postcards in those strange packets one gets in the mail. In these days of Web and social media, it’s easy to assume that the old channels are dead for small companies. Can someone show otherwise?

Paul Downs founded Paul Downs Cabinetmakers in 1986. It is based outside of Philadelphia.

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