Mis-selling advertising to the innocent

June 2012

The on-going support side of my business and for companies which don’t have their own marketing person or team, means I’m often at the pointed end of marketing operations (rather than just the strategic bit behind it). I rather like such a position as it ensures I still have an eye on actual output, plus also helping to ensure I can more fully control my clients’ marketing budgets.

Since relocating to the north of Scotland though and now with a greater focus on relatively regional businesses, I find I’m making decisions on more press advertising than ever before – this also and logically being regionally focused. This has been an eye-opener to say the least, and I’ve now concluded that, in the absence of anyone in a regional or local business who has much idea about marketing, the policy of the owners of the news and other titles (e.g. tourist info) is to mis-sell in order to hit their targets. Let me give you some examples…

A client I’ve had for nearly two years is a fairly large visitor attraction in the Highlands. Its customer base is both tourist and non-tourist (with the latter often travelling 70 miles or more from their homes to get there – a measure of its popularity), though in the summer months the percentage split is probably 90/10 in favour of the tourists. So as might be expected, a fair bit of advertising and other activity is needed to ensure the tourists come – e.g. the sort of leaflets you see in those big dispensers in hotel receptions, plus in visitor guides from tourist information centres etc. The trick is to cover your bases – i.e. get your message in front of tourists whenever and wherever you can. And of course that includes digital, with SEO being especially important for tourists doing searches on mobile devices and looking for places to visit and eat out etc.

Because there are so many titles and publications to advertise such an offer, I get a whole lot of approaches from telesales people. Which is fine and I want that. But of course these people are typically used to dealing with non-marketing folk (perhaps a hotel owner, restaurant owner or visitor centre manager etc.) and, positioning themselves as ‘advertising experts’, spin all sorts of outrageous sales lines in order to get a booking. I have to tell you that I’m no such pushover, so when a particular regional tourist guide owner approached me to renew an advertising deal – which included online – I said no. The reasons? He produces a series of tourist guides, but not one for the region my client’s visitor attraction is in, though he previously got around this problem by positioning the attraction as a ‘day out’ from the nearest city (technically possible but unlikely anyone would do so in reality). Also fair to say that the guides were overtly homespun in look and feel, in fact to the point of bordering on a school homework project. Then there was the digital effort: a truly hopeless website which didn’t function properly and hadn’t even been optimised for organic search – and certainly hadn’t been for my client’s attraction.

However, it turned out that I couldn’t simply decline a further year’s advertising with him, because he had a contract signed by a previous manager of the attraction for a three year term – and with NO get-out clauses whatsoever. Putting aside the obvious stupidity of signing up to any advertising agreement for three years (or even one year and even if the title was brilliant), it’s clear that the manager of the attraction was mis-sold the deal and agreed to it simply because they didn’t know what they were doing.

The good news on this sorry tale is that the management of the business which owns the attraction (who didn’t even know about the three year deal) agreed with my firm line, backed me, and after some pressure on the owner of the publication he agreed to withdraw the contract.

The second story – which is far more significant because it affects so many more businesses – relates to regional news titles who, in a declining market for their products and a declining enthusiasm to advertise in them (obviously not mutually exclusive problems), are now mis-selling to the naïve and innocent on an almost routine level. However, the difference here is that I don’t blame the people doing the selling – for most part these are very decent people who have a very tough job to do. The people I blame are the senior managers in the media groups, who apply the pressure on the sales people and, I’m sure, in the full knowledge that advertising space is being mis-sold.

My example is a client who told me that they’d signed up for a one year deal which gave them an ad every week in two regional news titles. I was horrified and asked to see the paperwork. This turned out to include a clever marketing jargon-filled and official looking summary and set of recommendations, and all apparently based on an interview conducted with someone who works for my client. Of course what it actually amounted to was simply a standard set of words which had the client’s name copied and pasted in where needed. What did it conclude? Well surprise, surprise, that they needed to advertise every week. Frankly, it bordered on a scam.

So what was wrong with having a regular ad in the regional press every week? Probably nothing if my client sold double glazing, but they don’t; they’re a housing association.

And when I look through the various news titles owned by the same media owner, I see advert after advert which simply shouldn’t be there and for a variety of reasons – e.g. not relevant to that region or shouldn’t be in any news title at all.

My strong advice to any business owner or manager who doesn’t have a marketing background or employ a marketing person, but is being hounded by friendly telesales people offering ‘unmissable deals’ on advertising in news and other titles, is to ask themselves the following questions before saying yes:

  1. What value does such advertising potentially have to my business – e.g. brand building, sales or sales leads etc.
  2. If there does, on the face of it, seem like there’s value in a printed ad, what is the audience of the title (ask to see a breakdown) and is this aligned with my target market (e.g. if your offer is B2B then obviously no point advertising in something which is largely B2C, likewise if both are B2C but your offer is posh and their title isn’t).
  3. If after answering one and two and the offer is still looking appealing, ask yourself what the alternatives might be to the printed ad. For example, a £500 spend on an ad would alternatively buy you a fair bit of spend on Google Adwords.
  4. If after answering the last three questions the ad is still looking like a goer, then do a quick bit of maths and work out how much extra business the ad, or series of ads if that’s the deal, will need to bring in to make enough profit to pay for the activity (and that’s even before it increases your bottom line).

If you go through this very basic process, then chances are that you’ll be saying no to probably 90% of the offers which are made to you. So please don’t let me down, because the media owners are currently assuming that you’ll go through no such process, and will simply say yes to the charming telesales lady or the cunningly prepared printed sales pitch. Don’t do it.  

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