Small business: How to buy your first television
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.
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
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
- 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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
"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
"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