Should I buy print advertising?

In my day job as a marketing manager, I regularly take calls from a variety of publications – the majority of them trade press – offering me a ‘great’ last minute deal because another advertiser has cancelled, or because they’re on deadline and “have to close the issue today”.  There’s nothing wrong with the good ol’ scarcity tactics – it’s tried and tested.  And after all, you don’t want to risk missing out, right?  Well, having worked on both sides of this particular fence, I have to admit I’m a sceptic… and I’m going to tell you why.

Is print advertising worthwhile?

This is far and away the most important and fundamental question you need to ask yourself.  But you can only answer this question if you’re truthful with yourself about what success looks like.  If you’re hoping for the phone to ring off the hook in response to your advert, that’s fine.  But to some, success may simply be the appearance of the advert to increase awareness of your brand in your target market.  Understand what your goal is, and you’ll be better able to judge whether something has been successful later on.

Targeting is vital.  If you’re a barber and a sales rep from the local rag calls you offering last minute space in their Horse & Country supplement going out next week, you might well be tempted if the price is good, but ask yourself this: are the customers you want to see your advert likely to be reading the supplement?  You might get one or two, but the chances are your advert won’t resonate with many.  There’s definitely a place for print advertising, even though doomsayers have long been predicting the death of the newspaper since the advent of the Internet.  We’ve seen many a newspaper or magazine decline, but they’ll never truly die and for a good number of people, they remain the primary way they prefer to consume information.  But making sure the publication is the right fit for the audience you’re trying to reach is vital.

Even if the publication is a good fit, ask yourself this: would you get a better response from advertising on, say, Facebook, or Google?  Online advertising enables you to be far more targeted than print advertising ever will, and that may yield better results if to you success equates to a load more page likes on Facebook or e-mail enquiries about your products or services.

Buying print advertising effectively

Let’s assume that you’ve satisfied yourself that the publication is a great fit for you and your target audience.  Now you want to make sure you get as much return on your investment as possible to give yourself the best chance of being able to say in hindsight it was a worthwhile exercise.  Again, if enquiries, leads or sales are tied into your idea of success (and let’s face it, they probably should be even if they’re not the number one priority) then you should have an idea in percentage terms of what return on your investment represents a fruitful campaign.

There’s a couple of approaches you can take to buying print:

Buying well in advance

Doing this gives you a significantly higher chance of securing better placement within the publication.  Prime spots include the back cover, inside front and back covers, possibly the centre spread (if the publication offers this as advertising space) and then top right corners for smaller quarter page adverts.  The problem with booking your advertising well in advance is that you’ll be paying much closer to the rate card for these spaces – demand a bargain basement price and the publication will likely refuse because they have plenty of other advertisers to approach who may be happier to pay the asking price.  However, you might get a decent discount if you are…

Buying print advertising in bulk

Depending on your budget, this can be a win-win situation for both you and the publication.  The publication is happy because it has sold that slot in multiple issues, meaning there’s less to sell next time around.  It saves them time, but more importantly it saves them money – from the sales reps making calls and visits to sell space, to the finance teams chasing up payment of invoices, bulk buying makes their lives easier.  You are happy because you’ve secured your desired (hopefully prime) position for multiple issues, giving you sustained exposure to your audience to build brand awareness and drive sales.  And because you’ve bought in bulk, you should have negotiated a healthy discount (citing how much time, energy and money you’re saving them in the process!).  But even if you’ve negotiated a healthy discount, you’re probably still looking at a sizeable outlay.

Buying last minute print advertising

This is by far the cheapest option because the publication HAS to go to print and they’d sooner sell space at a heavily discounted rate than it go unsold.  You’ve seen those adverts in magazines or newspapers saying “Advertise here and reach 123,456 readers every week/month”, right?  In almost every instance, that is space the publication has been unable to sell, and so rather than go to print with an empty white box where an advert should have been, they stick what’s called a ‘house advert’ in there to sell the benefits of advertising in the publication.  Trust me though, they’d much rather have sold the space to an advertiser, even for next to nothing – they’re making no money on a house ad.

So, with this in mind, the later you leave it before the deadline, the better the deal you’re going to get.  You do risk the space being taken by someone else holding out for a cheap deal, but if your advertising budget is tight, this can be a worthwhile furrow to plough.

Other things to consider when buying print advertising

So far I’ve talked mainly about cost.  This was deliberate, since most marketing decisions tend to come cost versus perceived benefit.  There are other factors to appreciate when buying print advertising though, and understanding these can be beneficial when it comes to negotiating on price.

Free advert design

Almost every publication who rings me up trying to flog me advertising space offers me free design.  Fair enough, they tend not to know that I’m also a graphic designer, or it would be a pretty daft service to offer.  But let’s think about this – if you’re taking last minute print advertising because the publication is about to go to print, where time does that leave their in-house design team to produce an advert of the sort of quality that’s going to deliver the results you expect?

I’ll give you a real example of something that happened to me when I was on the design team of a regional newspaper.  There were several editions of the newspaper printed daily, meaning there were strict print deadlines every day.  I regularly had colleagues from the sales department appear ten minutes before the paper was due to go to print, asking us to design an advert for a local dentist or a gardener, or whatever.  In those ten minutes we’d rattle out whatever half-reasonable design we could, and because we were on deadline it had to go to print without the client even seeing the design!  This was a regular occurrence for myself and my colleagues in the design team, and a cause of some frustration!

In this instance, was last minute print advertising worthwhile?  If the design wasn’t up to scratch, probably not.  It probably wasn’t on brand, probably didn’t include the client’s logo and probably didn’t even include the wording the client wanted – the sales rep might well have guessed because there was no time to ask and they were desperate to secure the sale and hit their target.

The smart alternative to free advert design

Get around quality issues by having pre-designed adverts ready to go.  Engage a designer (I can recommend one!) to design adverts in a variety of standard sizes based on A4 – full page, half page portrait and landscape, quarter page portrait.  These should be reasonably generic, so they’ll be good to go whenever you get offered a great deal.  This will cost you money however, for that expense you guarantee the design will be as you want it, with your brand and offer featuring prominently and in your corporate colours.

I would never question the quality of in-house designers at newspapers and magazines – I learnt more from my boss at that aforementioned paper than I could ever convey in 100 blogs and more – but they are often asked to produce miracles with one arm tied behind their back and barely any time to even open Photoshop or InDesign.  Your brand is incredibly important, and you need to protect it by ensuring it appears as you expect it to.

Having a suite of pre-designed adverts has further advantages too.  If a publication is offering free design, they still have to pay their design team.  So that overhead is built into the cost of what they’re asking you to pay for your print advertising.  But if you don’t need that service, why should you pay for it?  By supplying your own artwork you are again saving them time and money – so demand a further discount because you’re helping them out!

I’ve recently secured a full-page advert in a trade magazine for less than 10% of the rate card because I had the artwork ready to go and the publication was on deadline – big savings can be made, and the initial expense of having a professional designer put some adverts together for you will soon be recovered.

If what I’ve said is making sense, and you’d like to discuss the design of your own suite of adverts – which can of course be designed to be suitable for social media sharing as well – then I’m ready to chat, drop me a line!

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