Nine Last-Minute Checkups for Print Ads

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While much of my business is creating direct mail, I have always had a special place in my heart for print ads. They offer a simplicity and elegance of form that are hard to match. But these very qualities often lead to problems in the creative process.


One problem is laziness. Compared with a direct mail package with all its bells and whistles, a print ad seems easy to write and design. It is tempting just to crank it out and move on to bigger projects.


An opposite problem is fixation. While direct mail is a disposable medium, people often keep publications. Print ads can stick around for years. The temptation is to tinker endlessly with every word, overwork the layout or force the ad to do things it was never intended to do.


So here are a few ways to get some perspective and to double-check an ad before you place it:


• Take a break. You cannot evaluate anything objectively the moment you create it. Set your ad aside and look at it again when you are fresh. Is it still as good as you thought? Have you forgotten anything? Is there a problem you did not see before? You will be surprised by how clear your vision gets after a few days.


• Use the five-second test. Show the ad to a few people who are not in the advertising business, preferably those to whom the ad is meant to appeal. If they do not understand it at a glance - in about five seconds - it will not work. Don't play with body copy - revise the big things. Make your headline clearer and more direct. Be sure the graphics convey your message. Highlight your offer.


• See how it looks as placed. After all, people won't see your ad tacked to the art director's wall; they will see it in magazines or newspapers. Mock up the ad and insert it into some of your target publications. See how the ad works in context.


• Try the stop or go test. You should generally speak in second person, using words such as "you" and "your." And you should avoid speaking about yourself too much, with words such as "we" and "our." With a green pen, circle all words referring to your reader. Then, with a red pen, circle all words referring to you. If you see a lot of green, your copy is a go. If you see a lot of red, stop and edit.


• Compare your ad with your objective. What do you want the ad to accomplish? Do all the elements of your ad lead to that goal? If something doesn't belong, delete it. If there's something missing, add it. Don't let the designer dictate the message or copy length. Words sell.


• Consider one other way to write the ad. Even if you have a successful formula, there are always other approaches that will work. If you keep an open mind, you just might find a better way. Or you may discover improvements you can incorporate.


• List all the negatives. What's wrong with the headline and copy? The layout? The illustrations? The coupon? The look or tone? Be brutal and honest. Don't get attached to particular words or images. This is not art, after all. It's not your personal vision. It's business. So if something needs to be changed, change it.


• Ask a consultant for a copy analysis. This gives you a level of objectivity you cannot get from staff. Since there are as many ways to write an ad as there are writers, you are sure to get good ideas. Even one small improvement can mean the difference between success and failure.


• Make corporate ads work. After all, if you are going to the trouble to position your company or products, why not distribute literature and give your salespeople leads at the same time? Offer a free fact kit, video, brochure, report or anything to generate a response. This does not hurt your image. It shows that you want to make a connection and that you want to help.
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