Big Returns From Small Advertising Budgets

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"I can't get an agency to take my money!" bemoaned a reader in response to my column on working with your interactive agency.

I hear him loud and clear. As agencies grow in scope and scale, smaller dot-com startups are squeezed by the dilemma of having a chunk of money -- but not the critical mass -- to spend on advertising. And most medium to large agencies face economies of scale that preclude engaging intriguing new start-ups, no matter how exciting those prospects might be.

Is there any good news? What can a promising start-up hope to accomplish with an advertising budget of $250,000 or less? Although you may struggle to convince an experienced agency to handle the account, you do have options for spending the money effectively and even making your account more attractive to the right agency.

Your first smart move may be to hire an inhouse online marketing director. Then augment that hire by engaging a small agency or independent designer for creative needs. Take advantage of all the creative power you can afford. It will be money well spent.

Small companies must constantly evaluate spending as online placement becomes challenging with fewer dollars. Depending on your locale and target market, a well-targeted off-line buy -- in local business media, radio or cable -- may afford substantial returns.

Consider hiring a small interactive PR/marketing firm to manage media relations, linkage campaigns or direct marketing efforts, which may be more affordable in the short run than media/advertising buys.

Your agency may be able to start securing placement in industry publications or arrange analyst interviews, which may lead to placement in middle-tier and eventually upper-tier publications. But building exposure takes time and patience. A major editorial placement is priceless, but your story must be compelling. The 45th online computer store or the 100th free e-mail provider will more realistically need to spend money establishing advertising/branding image.

If someone at your company has expertise in a particular area and great writing skills, consider offering them as a contributor to the opinion pages or other print avenues. Upstart publications, particularly online, continually seek strong contributions, and the only cost of this exposure is the time and energy to write an engaging article.

Search engine registration is a mundane necessity in the crowded online environment, and doing it right can amount to a full-time job. Hire a specialist to submit your site strategically to the leading engines and appropriate niche directories. Don't rely on cheap or automatic submission offers; pay an expert to do it by hand, and you won't be sorry.

The bottom line is that if I had $150,000 to spend, I'd hire an inhouse marketing maven and engage a small interactive PR firm to work closely with that person to define and execute affordable, but effective opportunities. I'd spend the balance on a good submission service and professional creative direction.

One more random thought: if you're a pure-play Internet startup with a truly unique product or service, consider offering a chunk of equity to your potential agency. If you choose this route, it is incumbent on you to sell the agency on your plans and offer a convincing argument for the potential profit. If the value for both of you is solid, this may be the dealmaker.

Regardless of your situation, starting a small advertising program can get you a head start on your market. Affordable buys in niche newsletters are one place to start to gain some exposure. General-interest oriented companies should buy in less-targeted, more broad-based newsletters, daily e-mailings, etc.

Yes, Virginia, small companies can make hay with a little money online by devising a careful strategy. As awareness of your business grows, the dollars to implement a full-strength advertising program may follow, and when that time comes, you'll have begun amassing the tools to do it right.

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