How to Find Your Advertising Sweet Spot

It takes time to find the right mix of promotional formats that will achieve your goals. If you’re interested in learning more but don’t know where to start, here’s a quick checklist to give you an idea of what the process will be like.

  • Decide on your annual budget.
  • Research options available to you in your area.
  • Envision and chart an entire year of ideal advertising.
  • Make a plan to start small and scale up to your ideal.
  • Experiment like a scientist with an objective mindset.

Even if you have a decent budget to begin with, starting small will allow you to experiment. This is especially important if you’re considering whether to advertise online. In fact, it might make more sense to wait until you have tried free or low-cost promotional activities before you make a financial investment in advertising of any kind.

I learned the basics of promotion at a nonprofit just before the dawn of digital advertising. Believe it or not, this was the best way to begin because I had no budget at all. I had to try out all the free options I could find to promote my services.

Is it still possible to promote for free? Absolutely! Here are the best ways of promoting your endeavor without spending anything but time and energy.

  • Build relationships in your community.
  • Write a professional blog about what you do.
  • Tell success stories and share photos from your work.
  • Become an active member of your local chamber of commerce.

You can also get positive mentions in your local newspaper through the opinions section or in feature stories. When you write an opinion piece, focus on the need you fill rather than the specific products or services you offer. In time, you’ll find that you’ve made an impact that people want to know more about. The idea behind a good feature story is that it appeals to human interests, and it makes everyone proud to be a part of your community because of the work you do there.

After I was successful with writing grants, I started experimenting with paid marketing. We weren’t allowed to advertise, per se, so it made sense to focus on other aspects, like graphic design and video production. The graphic design of a print flyer met a short-term need, but the video production added long-term impact. These investments led to higher levels of visibility in the community, which made it easier for others to help me promote my work.

Even small investments in your marketing strategy will exponentially multiply your promotional efforts and build trust. These are the intangible benefits that high-quality visual marketing can offer. Ideally, you’ll experiment with free promotion first, then invest a tidy sum in visual marketing. But how do you know when you’re ready to advertise?

Here are some milestones that indicate advertising readiness.

  • You have reached critical mass for visibility in your sphere of influence.
  • You have new expendable labor to serve more clients.
  • You have identified new audiences you know you can reach.

Whether you’ve earned enough to hire additional staff, or whether you have a fresh crew of volunteers who are trained and ready to help, this is a good point to start advertising. But you should also verify the need for your work exists and that you can reach your new target audience with types of paid advertising you can actually afford.

This is when research done with a professional can help.

When you’re ready, one of the least risky forms of advertising you can choose is a print/digital hybrid publication that gets delivered to every door in your community, or one that’s distributed to places with very high traffic. It might sound like a dream, but it’s not. Here are some examples:

These are safer choices than other types of publications because they are wide reaching and appeal to a broad audience that’s geographically close to you. Over time, you can narrow your scope to target people with a specific interest or you can focus on certain demographic groups. Often, these audiences pay to subscribe to publications like newspapers or magazines that affirm their interests and values—which is exactly where you want them to see your ad!

Big print brands are adopting a digital first mindset, and a few have discontinued the print version of their publications altogether. It’s reasonable to expect this trend will extend to local settings. Even without a print edition, people still subscribe online and admire well-crafted content—there’s very little about the paper product itself that lends credibility. Today, it’s more reasonable than ever to choose digital-only publications with a history of visibility and respect in your community.

There is also a greater variety of digital ad formats to choose from now.

Overall, an important thing to keep in mind about digital ads is that they rank lower in trustworthiness than traditional ads. This is owed to the credibility factor—even millennials see magazine advertising, for example, as more trustworthy than ads on social media, and television ads continue to rank higher than both across all age groups.

You can see how the trustworthiness of various ad formats stack up according to age groups in this most recent survey by Nielsen.

But just because television and magazine ads are considered more trustworthy does not mean you should avoid advertising on social media altogether. Social ads can help you meet short-term goals that might not be possible through other formats. Balance is the key.

A good thing to remember about the perception of trustworthiness in advertising is that it doesn’t automatically mean your ads will be effective. The only way to measure how effective your advertising has been is to design each promotion in a way that reveals where your clients heard about it, then measure how well your ad performed through the revenue it generated.

Designing the right promotion for the right time in the right placement is an art form that requires dedication and perseverance.

When I became a director in marketing, I had earned a sizable budget. I went from having no budget in the beginning of my career to having an annual budget of $50,000. In the two and a half years I served as a director, I revamped the marketing plan to save trees, save money, and address modern opportunities. The last grant I wrote was for $100,000 toward capital and operations, leaving the organization well-prepared for the year ahead.

You can achieve results like this regardless of the industry you’re in. If you remember to set a realistic budget, do some research, plan, and experiment, your advertising efforts will be every bit as successful in the long run.