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Buying Newspaper Ads at Discount/Creating Effective Ads
How To Create a Successful Newspaper Ad

    Big Discounts - and better direct response - are available in newspaper ads. Surprisingly, there’s not much buzz about direct response in newspaper space ads even in direct marketing inner circles. Yet ad placements continue to be profitable, and placements are on quite a grand scale.  I guess no one likes to divulge all their secrets, especially when they’re making big money at it. 
    With newspaper space ads, offers can be tested inexpensively, and successful venues and rollouts can be extremely profitable because the weekly circulation figures are surprisingly high.  Run of press can reach well over 50 million readers.  Each week.

Remnant Space
    The first key to successful direct-selling newspaper advertising is buying cost-effectively, which means the first words in buying are “remnant space”.  Also called “standby,” remnant space is the leftover blocks of space that remain unsold right before the newspaper’s final page composition.  Remnant space is also commonly found in magazine ad placements, where negotiated remnant rates can be as steeply discounted as 70% and 80% off list price.
    Testing on a smaller geographic scale can be as simple as calling your local newspaper space sales rep and letting him or her know you’re interested in remnant space.  After receiving their short pitch on the value of buying space at the list price of open rate, feel free to request the rep call you back when some remnant space is available.  Disconnect after letting them know you have an ad “ready to go” for immediate placement.  They’ll call back when the space is available - no one likes unsold space.
    You can buy this type of individual ad placement with any of the thousands of papers nationwide.  But what a pain in the neck: time consuming and lots of effort, and an incredible mess with individual newspapers billing you and individual checks to cut with each insertion.
    When you purchase remnant space in bulk and your buys are national in scope, firms specializing in “remnant space ad distribution” make your life easier.  They’ll transmit your ads over the Internet to the various papers who accept remnant space purchase orders.  When a newspaper has an opening, the publisher will strip in your ad in the last closing moments, right before the paper goes to press.  The publishers are happy to do it even at the steeply discounted rate you’ll be paying.  Here’s why...
    Like two day old fish or a seat in an airplane when the door closes, ad space in newspapers is perishable.  Once the paper heads towards the pressroom the ad space can no longer generate revenue and a house ad is used as a placeholder.  As the unsold newspaper space heads for these final unprofitable moments, the publishers take what they can get for the space, knowing if it goes unsold and the paper actually goes on press, they get nothing. At this point in time most offers, even heavily discounted offers, look good.
     Standby space ads can be a good consistent buy throughout the year.  Ads run at a cost of between 50% to 80% OFF list rates, and sometimes sell for even less, especially at low demand periods like late summer and pre- and post-Christmas (most direct selling ad offers are not gift oriented). 
    Standby space ads in newspapers may be placed through several national placement sources specializing in remnant space buys.  Some available space goes to the highest bidder in an open auction of remnant space on the web, but most space is sold by firms dedicated to just reselling standby space. 
    There is ALWAYS space available somewhere.  At one time or another all newspapers face the problem of additional white space left over at the last minute.  This ranges from stories that are cut or pulled, or not quite ready at press time, to bad credit checks on that new client who sounded so legit on the phone when he reserve the ad space.
    In addition, advertisers pulling out at the last minute and last second glitches in production not only make room for on-hand remnant space ads, but make printers and composition editors drink heavily - and if they’re good, die young.  Ask Billy Joel.
    Remnant space ads are purchased for clients in blocks of selected circulations, loosely outlined by either geographic boundaries or by selected individual newspapers.  Further demographics may be targeted by press runs in urban, suburban, or rural papers; and larger daily papers may be purchased — segregated out from smaller weeklies. 
    Besides newspaper, most magazines offer remnant prices at one point or another. You’d be surprised at some of the famous, huge national magazines offering 50%, 60%, 70% off their list rates.  I’d list these but I’m pretty sure none of the magazines would like their names associated with the severely discounted ad prices, and some of them feature my writing.  But I can tell you it’s ALWAYS good to ask for remnant space pricing.  Always.  
    Meanwhile, back at the newspapers: black and white ads - just like the predominance of the ads you saw when you were a kid - are still effective in this media.  While most - if not all - magazines are now printed in full color, newspapers still remain primarily a black and white vehicle. While exceptions occur, this isn’t the way to bet.  Even when printed in color, the predominance of black and white in other ads and the B&W of the editorial typography makes black and white ads OK.  This works to the advantage of the direct marketer: where good old black and white ad composition can be less costly. But, this doesn’t mean you should hold back on the creativity. Allow extra design time to make your ad jump out from the page, and not look like a used car ad.

Testing different demographics is easy - and a key factor.
    Media buys can be national in scope, but you can also buy newspaper remnant space across a platform of specific smaller demographics.  For example, you can specify that you’d like a million circulation in LA Times, in the hopes your offer will work for a strong urban demographic.  Or, you can test a dozen smaller papers from urban to suburban to rural to see which ones elicit the highest response to your offer.  You can purchase space in selected states or “test cities” that are known to be more responsive to new products and offers, or combine ad placement with product testing and price testing, or launches in retail stores. Additionally, advertisers generally get a good choice of geographic markets.
    Initial testing should be broad, with tight tracking of both calls per thousand dollars spent, and calls per thousand circulation reached. The closing ratio for these figures will offer insight as to which types of demographic works best for your offer.
    Sometimes specific newspaper sections may be purchased such as the movie pages or the business section.  Since it’s remnant space, there are no guarantees that your ad will be running in a particular paper or section or on a particular date.  There is usually a two or three week window given to newspapers to feature your ad.  At the end of this period, if the ad doesn’t run the contract is canceled. 
    Both the distribution bureaus and the newspapers try to accommodate their advertisers.  As with any advertising medium, all the players would like the ad to be successful: if the ad is successful and the marketer makes money, both the ad-space distributor and the newspaper enjoy the revenue from the advertiser’s longer insertion schedules. 
    When the ad runs and a response is generated, advertisers get a printout of names of papers where the ad appeared, usually referencing the section where the ad was run, along with the newspaper’s circulation.  These figures are used for tracking, and can be paired with the call center reports to see how the ad is pulling. 
    Reports then identify more profitable market segments, and ROI analysis.  When all the figures are in from the initial placement testing, back-end analysis is performed: it’s either an autopsy or the marketers figure out a more focused comprehensive plan to direct further placement of ads.  Successful ads, as well as being placed in large circulations of papers, may run for years.  I’ve personally seen small ads grow from tiny circulations in papers here and there to huge press runs of over 50 million, each week.

    Standard quarter page ads are required to be composed in two sizes, 10-1/2” x 6-7/8” and 10-1/2” x 5-11/16ths inch, the two sizes being necessary to accommodate both the standard and the slightly different tabloid newspaper format.  Ads are usually created in the specific page makeup software of the firm that is electronically distributing the ads, most common are Quark Express and InDesign. This is so the phone number can be changed, and the advertiser can track the response to the ad in each specific newspaper. If this tracking isn’t necessary, the ad can be supplied in a universal PDF format.  
    When the newspapers have an open space, the ad is instantly transmitted to them electronically, imposed into their layout, and goes on press as the paper is printed.

Key Elements
    Most ads are soft offers: no price is given in the ad for the product, and the reader is directed to a toll free number for information or to order.  As in most of direct response, this is the objective of the ad: to generate a phone call from an interested and qualified party.  Different toll free numbers are assigned to different parameters of the ad placements, and the numbers are all tied to a call center, who receives the calls and does the selling, upselling, cross-selling, and the tracking.  Since no price is stated in the ad (soft offer), price testing can be done on the fly from the call center, and adjusted during the campaign according to the price resistance or ROI figures.
    While price testing in real time is a great marketing option, making a better sounding offer in the printed ad helps drive additional callers.  “Buy one, get one FREE!”, “Buy two, get one FREE!” are very common, but the real copy that drives the phone to ring is “RISK-FREE OFFER!” and my personal favorite, “FREE TRIAL OFFER!”  It’s not really a free trial in the sense that the product is shipped free and the consumer tries it... it’s a free trial “offer”: we sell the product and allow the consumer to try it free. They actually purchase it, with the option to return it for a full refund if they don’t like it. 
    Once a prospect reaches the call center, the objective is to close the sale on the spot and offer the caller a quick upsell or two.  The average call time at the call center is surprisingly low - with calls averaging about seven minutes in duration. It’s amazing to me that consumers make a buying decision that rapidly - it takes me that long just to pick out which Q-Tips I’m buying at the supermarket.  Heck, it takes me half an hour to select which jeans I’m wearing that day - and I work with just one person and usually don’t go out of the office.  If I have to go out for  a business lunch, whoa, shirt selection takes… well, I get up early.
    A good campaign can yield a range from a low of 45 to a high of 85 calls per thousand dollars spent.  While I’ve seen closure rates as high as 20%, but this isn’t the way to bet.  While some products lose money on the initial sale, re-ups, autoship and continuity sales for some items such as magazines, vitamin programs and nutraceuticals produce profits over the medium to long run. I believe placing people on auto ship is the highest art form in the direct marketer’s business. 
    Products in all price ranges over $30 may work, the lower the price range the riskier - as media costs can eat up a good portion of the revenues.  Offers of $75 to $150 may work well and both advertisers and newspapers find recurring ad revenues in long running nutraceuticals and vitamins ads. 
    Lately, much scrutiny has evolved from the FTC over the implied merchant ability and wording of ads for supplements and nutraceuticals.  Unlike direct mail which targets selected recipients and avoids the eyes of the mass public and their accompanying government watchdogs, newspapers are a mass media and even slightly out of compliance ads can’t be shielded from federal eyes… and federal audit.  You don’t want to mess with the FTC or the FDA.  They have deep pockets and don’t care how much money you spend defending yourself from a suit - whether real or malicious.  Ask Joe Sugarman.

    Compliance is a really big issue in nutraceutical and vitamin marketing. Both wording and claims must be selected with great care.  Here’s the bottom line: unless you’re a drug manufacturer, you can’t really say you can cure anything.  And you can’t imply it either.  Did I mention you can’t mention a disease because somehow to the FDA that implies you can cure it.  I guess the bottom line is you can’t do anything that may hurt pharmaceutical sales: the drug companies not only have all the money to keep you out of their business, it seems they own a good piece of the government and legislation as well.  Who said money can’t buy everything?
    You also can’t say “eliminates pain,” because you can’t say “pain;”  somehow in the eyes of some governmental agencies the word pain implies disease.  So, while your copywriter is thinking, “At last a cure for the pain of Arthritis!” as your headline, your compliance attorney may be thinking “Soothes aching joints and muscles.” You can’t say, “Stops the Pain of Arthritis” or even “Eases the Pain of Arthritis!”  You can say: “New for Arthritis Sufferers!” Just kidding - you can’t say that, either.  And no matter what you’re selling, you can’t say, “Stops Pain!”  Well, you can say it, but just until you get caught.  Compliance. Tough, huh? 
    You can say, “Aids in Joint Discomfort!”  which makes it tough to sell product - even to someone who has severe joint pain.  In reality, where I virtually think we are, if each ad was in 100% compliance it wouldn’t say anything about anything... and very little would get sold. 
    So generally for the ads our firm creates we ask the client how much risk he’s willing to accept.  If they are loose, we aim for 70% to 80% compliance and hold our breath hoping we stay under the radar for a while.  It may take several years till the client gets a letter from the FTC warning us to stop running the ad, their usual first step with an out-of-compliance ad.  They’ll then tell you the specific wording that is out of compliance.  (You can see some of these letters on the web at the FTC site.)  
    If our client is scared, we aim for 85% compliance, and if they are really scared, we try to achieve 90% to 95% compliance, which is as close as anyone can get.  No nutraceutical or vitamin ad is 100% risk free, no matter what anyone tells you. 
    If it’s a long running campaign, from a client with deep pockets, we send the ad to the FTC and ask for a ruling.  Of course, if they say it’s out of compliance, you can’t run it as it stands or you may face the certain consequences as soon as they find it’s running in the papers.  This, of course, may take months... or years.  But when they find it, it’ll be like a slap in the face - and they are the original 900,000 lb gorilla.

Ad composition
    All ads need a large, electrifying or benefit-heavy headline due to the skimming nature of the reader.  The headline can make or break an ad in this particular media more than any other media.  To be effective, use the Jeff Dobkin “Hundred to One Rule” when writing headlines - write 100 headlines, go back and pick out your best one. Hey, I didn’t say you’d like it, I just said “to be effective…”.
    With the larger space ads, a photo or graphic - more than one if copy permits - are a necessity.  Placing a graphic or two in the ad visually attracts the reader’s attention and stops the quick-skimming, page-flipping, short attention-spanned audience and attracts them to your advertisement. 
    Attractive visuals give readers a graphic hook to remember, and provide some additional credibility and a visual point of reference to draw in readers and focus their attention.  Photo captions are usually the highest read part of the ad, so a compelling reader benefit should be mentioned here.  No need to say “Here is the product,” readers can see that.  Why not say “Call now to see how much better you’ll feel in just 21 days.” This will make the phone ring - thereby fulfilling the objective of the ad.  In the end, all lines of copy should be measured against how well they work to fulfill the objective of the ad, which is “to call.”  Nothing happens if the phone doesn’t ring.  Well, something happens… you lose money.
    Most ads, being taller than wide, benefit from both a photo at the top and an additional photo or graphic near the bottom.  Generally the bottom photo is a product shot.  This gives readers a reference of what they will receive when they order, building confidence that the product is real—since they can’t feel or touch the product as in a retail store.  An extra large phone number assures readers they can call.  The phone number should be large enough to see when the paper is laying open to that page on a desk.  Don’t let the reader guess what he or she is to do.  Tell readers to pick up the phone and call now - if they don’t do this, nothing else matters, does it?
    To break up the type and keep the ad even more visually interesting, I usually like to include a graph or a chart.  This mix of both copy and graphics boosts readership.  Almost any kind of graph or chart will do, as it becomes part of the visual hook.  With a little forward thinking, almost any kind of information can be displayed in graphic format.

Large Benefit-Oriented Subheads
    While the visual layout and a distinctive graphic attracts readers, it’s the copy that makes them call.  Eyeflow starts at the top as the reader sees the graphic and reads the headline, glances past the smaller text to the bottom product shot and phone number. If interested at all, the reader goes back up to read the initial subhead and continues skimming the subheads if they are promising.  If a subhead is particularly captivating, he reads the text block following it.  If the whole thing is intriguing, he starts at the top text block and reads the ad until he loses interest or finishes reading it.  
    There is usually room for two, three, or four subheads depending on the layout, and again each of these favor creating them using the “100 to 1 Rule”.  A short, crisp supporting paragraph or two follows each subhead, with the beginning line of each paragraph highly focused on keeping the reader in the copy. That is the objective of the first line of each paragraph - this line doesn’t sell - just keep the reader interested.
    As the paragraph ages and races towards the close, the copy changes from keeping the reader interested to selling the product by offering the reader benefits to pointing the reader to “Pick up the phone and CALL NOW”.  Towards the end of each paragraph the words “Call Now” can usually be placed successfully: always remember, if the reader doesn’t call, the ad fails.  Never let the reader forget what he or she is supposed to do during or after reading the ad.
    If the reader makes it to the end of the third paragraph, my guess is that the reader has quite a bit of interest and has pretty much made the commitment to read the rest of the ad, and I turn up the selling proposition and lay on heavy reader benefits and ask for the call several times. 
    Towards the end of the ad, once again the interested reader needs to be briefly reminded of the major benefits, and to be assured he is making the right decision to call as he receives a progressively harder “sell” to generate a phone call.  It’s “make it or break it” time in the ad and all stops are pulled out to make the phone ring.  Readers at this depth of the ad are looking for concrete reasons to call, and for those that have decided to pick up the phone, they are looking for decision support and reinforcement that they have made the right choice - which is to call. 
    If you need an additional - but independent - selling space, place the bottom two or three lines of copy in a black box at the bottom of the ad and reverse out the letters.  Make sure they are in bold so they don’t fill in - newspapers usually have a 5 to 10% dot gain on press.  This reversed out horizontal bar at the bottom additionally separates the ad visually from other ads on the page and gives the ad additional visual weight at the bottom, making it more distinct and increasing the separation from the ad below it. 
    A 2 point rule as a border around the ad separates it and sets it off from the rest of the ads and editorial on the page.  Place any necessary disclaimers in tiny 5 or 6 point type at the very bottom of the ad.  I usually bury a selling line or two in the disclaimer just in case anyone reads it.  If the ad is service-oriented or sells merchandise in an old fashioned craftsmanship style, a scotch rule (thick then thin lines) around the ad is very handsome. 

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Bio —  Jeffrey Dobkin creates effective traditional and direct response print ads for both newspapers and magazines.  He is the author of 5 books on direct marketing, and one on humor. Mr. Dobkin is a direct marketing writer whose specialty is creating direct response ads, letters, and direct mail packages.  To speak with Mr. Dobkin or for free samples of his work call 610/642-1000.  Fax 610/642-6832.  Visit  him at www.dobkin.com.