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Small business: How to buy your first television advertisement

TV advertisingFor years, your small business survived on print advertising alone. Then it grew with the help of radio spots. Now you're considering your first television commercial.

Are you ready for prime time?

For the small-business owner, TV represents the biggest advertising gamble. Still, if the ante is considerably greater, so is the potential payoff. That's why television is the advertising medium most in demand today -- and has the prices to prove it.

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Granted, as a small business you may not be able to afford prime time broadcast advertising, be it on the network, regional or even local affiliate level. That's strictly for the heavy hitters.

But there are plenty of other ways to pitch your product or service on the small screen to large numbers of your potential customers without mortgaging the farm to do so.

How? Stay tuned.

Is TV right for me?
Television advertising has the power to kick your business into the majors faster than any other medium. But it can also be your most costly gamble unless you have clear, realistic reasons for pursuing it in the first place.

TV typically reaches a broader audience than newspapers or radio. Great, you say? Not necessarily. If your average customer resides within 10 miles of your storefront, all that money you spent to reach those distant masses of viewers across the state has just evaporated into thin air.

Still, TV could be a good deal if your product has a wide appeal.

"Your product or service has to appeal to a mass market," says advertising and marketing consultant Dr. Kevin Nunley. "If it's something that you could advertise in the daily newspaper and hit a lot of your audience, TV fits. If you have a more specialized product or service, it's hard to reach a real specialized group with TV."

There's one notable exception -- cable TV. More about that just ahead.

Know what you're getting, and getting into
To determine if TV (or any form of advertising) will work for you, you first must know:

  • Your product or service: What are you selling?
  • Your audience: What are the age, gender, habits and preferred media of your target audience?
  • Their location: Where and when can you reach your audience?
  • Your offer or message: How do you plan to bring them in the door?
  • Frequency and reach: How often, and for how long, will you need to advertise to get a response from your target audience?

Start by becoming familiar with the local television advertising experience. Talk to local business owners of similar-sized companies who have used the medium successfully. Contact an advertising agency; you may decide to leave the nuts-and-bolts of commercial production and airtime buying to people who do it for a living.

Meet with sales representatives from your local TV stations and endure their spiel. Sure, they'll each explain why their station is No. 1 (they're sales reps, after all), but you'll receive a quick education in how they attempt to get you the most bang for your buck.

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You should come out of this information-gathering exercise with two knowns:

  • A rough estimate of what it will cost to give television advertising a try in your local market, and
  • A thumbs-up or thumbs-down on whether the medium is right for you.

Call now!
Gary Davis, owner of Gary Davis Media in Austin, Texas, says that unlike the big national advertisers who spend millions on brand or image advertising, small businesses must pay the freight for their costly TV time by eliciting an immediate customer response -- "Call now!" or "Come in today!"

He thinks television is a great place to do that.

"Everybody watching television has immediate access to a pen and a piece of paper and a telephone. Most radio listening is car listening, sometimes work listening, sometimes in the dental office," he says. "Television can be used locally by some advertisers on a very low budget to produce immediate response. Immediate response is difficult to get over the radio."

To get on the air, you'll need a commercial, usually a 30-second spot. In general, you can figure on spending anywhere from $300 to $1,500 to produce one of broadcast quality, either independently or through an ad agency. Some stations may offer to produce your spot free if you commit to a schedule of three months plus, but you probably won't be able to air that spot on competing stations.

How, where and when to buy
When you buy commercial time on a broadcast affiliate (ABC, NBC, CBS, etc.), you typically buy program by program. While your sales rep can readily steer you to the shows that match up best with your budget and customer demographics as determined by the Nielsen ratings, Davis suggests a simpler way to determine where to buy time.

"Look at the programming and see what kind of commercials are on it," he suggests. "If you're watching a particular channel every day and you see the same kinds of ads on there all day long, every day, every month, you can be sure that that particular kind of product or service works in that kind of program or they wouldn't be doing it."

Media buyer Leslie Speidel says ad rates reflect not only the difficulty of reaching particular audiences, but how much advertisers value them as customers.

"It costs a lot more money to reach men than it does women. It costs more money to reach young men than older men. If you want teens, that wonderful little demographic that everyone wants these days, that costs even more money because the media knows how much to charge for these markets."

If your target audience dominates during particular times of day (say the afternoon soaps or talk shows), you may save by buying on a rotating or best available times basis that gives the station greater flexibility in airing your spot.

Experts say the first quarter of every year is slowest in television and hence the best time to buy, followed by the third quarter and the end-of-year holiday season.

On a squeaky-tight budget? Ask your rep about remnant or unsold inventory, often available at bargain-basement prices, though it may require some media buying experience to get the most out of this approach.

The compelling case for cable
There is a way to have your TV cake and eat it, too. It's called cable TV.

You buy cable TV by the channel, much like radio, and by the county, so you can precisely home in on your target audience. Rates are low: as little as $25 for a 30-second spot on CNN, $20 for Nickelodeon, $15 for VH-1.

And because cable channels are highly specialized, it's a great way to combine radio's ability to target an audience with all the compelling visuals of a TV spot without the heavy costs associated with broadcast TV.

"Cable is an excellent option," says Speidel. "In some parts of the country, The Weather Channel is a big deal, and it's the least expensive thing out there. It would run anywhere from $8 to $200, depending on how many counties are involved."

Small-town cable rates can run as low as the price of a Big Mac, a great deal as long as you mind the number of counties.

Network ads may be worth it
If your business appeals to a specialized audience, cable may be your best way to reach your customers on the small screen. But Speidel says there are still good bargains to be had on the networks.

"'The Today Show,' in most markets, is the number one morning show and it gets young, old, male, female, black, white, employed, unemployed. It will cover the waterfront there," she says. "If you look at a market under 200,000 in population, they'll probably charge $80 for it. In a market of two million, you could probably get in for $275 to $300. The morning shows are a good buy."

Speidel says some businesses often have little choice but to dig as deep as necessary when they know their audience is tuning in.

"If your market is such that they're active, they're out, they're young, they're overemployed, whatever, and you're only going to catch them during 'Ally McBeal,' well, you're going to have to spend the money for 'Ally McBeal.' If that's where they are, that's where they are."

Davis suggests testing your TV commercial by running two or three spots a day on a couple of stations for two weeks to a month. In smaller markets, that could run you $1,500-$2,000 and up.

"It has been my experience that, if in the beginning you get nothing, you're never going to get anything. There is something basically wrong with the offer. Little tweaks are not going to do it," he says.

"That is assuming you're not doing something really stupid like trying to sell dentures on MTV."

Jay MacDonald is a contributing editor based in Florida.

-- Posted: June 4, 2001


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See Also
10 tricks for creating your first print ad
Tuning in the right radio ad
Advertising your business on the Internet
The SmallBiz Adviser says when advertising, think "effective," not "cheap"
Even the smallest business can afford to get the word out about itself

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