I am going to say something pretty controversial: it is entirely possible to market your products or services effectively—with minimal advertising.

Now as the foundations and pillars of rational marketing thought come crashing down, please let me explain.

According to a recent Associated Press article, "the New Democrat Network has spent just over $3 million to buy air time for campaign ads in battleground states and expects to spend more than $1 million more before Election Day on ads emphasizing Democratic positions on issues such as health care, education and the minimum wage."

In response to this, the Bush campaign has countered with $2.4 million spent airing ads aimed at targeting specific ethnic groups in key states. Totaling the spending between the two factions tabulates into a hefty $6.4 million dollars—all of it spent on advertising within eight weeks!

In another article titled "Ad Wars," in the August 2004 issue of Health Leaders Magazine two leading hospitals in the same community are duking it out with pricey print and broadcast advertising campaigns.

One is an academic center; the other is a community hospital. Both are vying for patients. Unfortunately, the article does not discuss other marketing strategies that the two hospital groups might be using. However, it's likely that a significant portion of their marketing spend is on advertising.

In the 1950s, advertising was one of the ways to best spend marketing dollars. There were few broadcast networks, and most people received their news via radio and newspaper. The marketing professionals of 50 or 60 years ago were as talented as the marketers of today. But it was easier to sell products and services due to less advertising clutter, minimal competition and fewer channels in which to reach the consumer.

Fast forward to the year 2004, where media fragmentation is the norm. There's cable, Web, email, direct marketing and just about every marketing channel under the sun. One company has taken to putting advertisements on the foreheads of students! There is no shortage of ways to reach your target audience.

For the political campaigns of John Kerry and George W. Bush, surely their entire campaign budgets are not focused on advertising. However, with a careful eye toward 527 groups like Moveon.org and Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, it seems that the preferred way to get the message out is advertising.

Among them, millions of dollars are being spent on political radio, print and television ads—enabling station and media managers across America to sleep very well at night.

Perhaps in the world of political campaigns, spending $6.4 million dollars on advertising in eight weeks is chump change. But there are plenty of high-tech marketers who would be satisfied with that amount as their annual marketing budget.

Advertising can be effective when it's targeted in minimal doses, but perhaps someone should remind the Bush and Kerry campaigns that advertising is not synonymous with marketing.

Politics aside, it's a different world for high-tech marketing professionals. With message clutter and a myriad channels through which to reach a target audience, most high-tech marketers have neither the inclination nor the resources to spend millions on pure advertising.

Instead, a high-tech marketing mix should contain the complete arsenal of tactics, such as direct marketing, hosting targeted events, building communities of interest, engaging in thought leadership production, marketing and competitor analysis, community affairs, and media/analyst relations.

In the corporate world, marketers need to be judicious on how they spend marketing dollars and resources, especially since budgets are tight—and in some cases Lilliputian.

As for mass advertising, many marketing professionals reason that there are too many communication channels, too much clutter and too many people tuned out to advertising. Instead, marketers need to be targeted and focused, and need to engage in micro-campaigns—such as wooing 50-100 top prospects instead of hoping to reach millions with a few large ad buys.

Some will say that advertising is most effective for "building brand," and marketing tactics like direct mail are geared more for instant response and sales. I don't know too many of my fellow marketing professionals who have hundreds of thousands, let alone millions, to spend on "building brand." We're all focused on building relationships and revenue.

Others will argue that a careful mix of mass advertising is necessary along with targeted and focused direct marketing campaigns. Again, there are few marketing professionals who are not concerned with the latest quarterly numbers and helping close as many deals as quickly as they can.

Marketing dollars are just too precious to spend on mass advertising.

Is online advertising the best answer? At least with online advertising, there is an opportunity for measurement.

Banner ads usually have a 3-4% click-through rate, and while one can argue that the "brand impressions" will eventually lead to sales, it's much more difficult to prove that theory. Search engine optimization strategies are usually effective, but again this is a far cry from taking out full-page ads in tier-one publications.

What's the ideal solution to reduce wasteful ad spending? Here are three options to consider:

  1. Continue to advertise, but get creative.

  2. Continue to advertise, but add a "call to action" within the advertisement.

  3. Reduce your advertising spend in your marketing mix to minimal levels.

Get creative

Juniper Networks competes with Cisco Systems by adding some creative spunk to its advertising, according to a recent case study published by MarketingSherpa. Christine Heckart, Juniper Networks' VP Worldwide Marketing, says, "Our competitor spends $150 million per year on marketing. Our budget is a couple of million. We can't afford to outspend them. We can't afford to buy full-page color ads in the Wall Street Journal."

The solution? Juniper decided to work up a cartoon series based on humorous situations that would attract the attention of their target audiences and get them to visit Juniper's Web site. The cartoons had a Far Side appeal to them and were placed in the same section of the WSJ for each ad placement.

When Heckart joined the company in May 2002, Juniper was a $500 million company. It launched its cartoon campaign in March 2003, and will end this year at about $1.3 billion, according to Heckart.

Create a call to action

What's the moral of the story? If you are a firm believer in advertising, it pays to get creative to break through the clutter.

If advertising is still the route you want to take, then perhaps a few lessons from Jon Spoelstra, author of the book Marketing Outrageously, are in order.

Spoelstra recommends a catchy headline to encourage the reader to continue looking at the advertisement, along with interesting pictures and captions to help the reader "get into the ad."

Also, Spoelstra likes copy in the ad… and lots of it. He says that the purpose of an advertisement is to inform and create action—get someone to call, write or buy immediately. He's had excellent results with advertisements, and his book details a pretty simple methodology to achieve similar results.

Remix the mix

The third strategy, "Reduce your advertising spend in your marketing mix to minimal levels," is my personal favorite. The key word here is "reduce"—not eliminate.

Advertising can be very valuable in focused situations. For example, ad placement in a key online industry newsletter around an upcoming webinar is one strategy for gaining more registrants. Driving your clients to attend, register, call or take some other action is an effective use of focused advertising.

Although many high-tech marketing professionals are spending less on "mega" events, they are still spending on focused and targeted events—especially those with a business association affiliation. With anti-spam laws abounding, many marketers are also re-examining the benefits of direct marketing to lists of current and high potential prospects. But they are keeping the lists down to under 100 individuals and focusing on perhaps their top 30 accounts.

Within an intense competitive environment, it's often also important to invest in marketing analytics and competitive information. A good research analyst who can compile data and turn into information—and then insight—is worth his/her weight in gold.

Often, a research analyst can uncover those hidden nuggets that might push your deal over the top, illuminate and expose actionable insights into your client's business strategies, or simply show that your account teams understand the client's pain points better than the competition.

Of course, there are other ways to invest marketing dollars and, without writing a treatise, it's important to look at all your options. Mass advertising, or at least the way that the political operatives engage in it, is a wasteful strategy. Look at the insurgent campaign of Howard Dean and his capable use of the Internet—one doesn't need a lot of money to get attention in the marketplace.

Most marketing investments are not fungible—some are better than others. Examine your strategies and then map your marketing investments to achieving the goals of the business. It need not be complicated.

The intent of this article is not to besmirch the talents and skills of those in the political field. Instead, it's simply an argument that in the high-tech world advertising may not be the most effective use of marketing funds. Rather, examine your marketing mix with less emphasis on advertising and more on targeted campaigns.

Marketing, like many other professions, is often a fusion of talent, intelligence, fortuitous timing and plain dumb luck. Dare to step outside your comfort zone, think outside the box (or bun, as Taco Bell says) and dare not to advertise!

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Paul A. Barsch directs the professional services marketing programs for one of the top 10 software companies in the United States and blogs about the intersection and impact of technology and marketing (www.paulbarsch.com). He can be contacted at paulbarsch(at)yahoo(dotcom).