Ask an Expert: Better perfect your pitch in sour economy

Q: Everyone says we are supposed to keep advertising. OK, but what really works? I have no budget for mistakes. — Steve

A: What works in advertising? Well, ask yourself this question: What works for you? Begin to notice what sorts of ads catch your fancy. Open the newspaper, or a magazine or the Yellow Pages, listen and watch ads on TV, online, and on the radio and to notice which ads stick out, and then ask yourself why.

Usually it is a combination of the following:

It targets the right market:Great ads begin when you know exactly to whom it is you are targeting. Once you know that, your job is much easier, and conversely, if you don't know exactly to whom it is you are advertising, you are wasting your money.

Too many small businesses, especially early in their life-cycle, try and appeal to everyone. A few expensive lessons later and they learn that they just have to reach a few, key, select people – their niche, their market.

So begin by figuring out for whom it is, exactly, that you are creating this advertisement: Their age range, sex, income-level, what they want from you, and so on. Once you know your market, choosing the right medium is much easier.

Benefits, benefits, benefits:Think about those times when you are looking to buy a certain model car. All of a sudden, you begin to see that car everywhere, right? The reason for that is psychological: The brain filters a lot of information every day, but when you focus on something new, whether it is a car or whatever, it's a signal to the brain that the information need not be filtered out anymore. The benefit of the new thing is allowed to seep through.

That's how good advertising works too. You may never notice an ad, even if that ad typically runs again and again. .. until you have a need for what the ad is selling. So it is incumbent upon you to stress the benefits of what you are selling.

People remember benefits.

It's been tested:It is always smart to test an ad first to see if it works, and then tweak it as necessary, and then roll it out once you know it's a winner. Testing can improve

•The headline. Since the headline is the most important part of any ad, testing to see what works is important. Try different words, or graphics.

•The cost:Does a big ad pull that much better than a small ad? Maybe you could simply keep a big headline with a small ad and save money.

•Success rates:Throwing a lot of money at an untested ad is risky business.

There are a few ways to test an ad:

•"Mention this ad": Of course, the most tried and true way is simply to ask. "Bring in this add and get an additional 10% off."

•Use a lower price:Offer some tomatoes for a quarter on a certain day and see how many you sell that day. This loss leader strategy helps you learn who is seeing your ads.

•Use two prices:Mention one price in one publication or station and a different, albeit similar price, in a different one. The prices can't be too different because that will skew the results.

Frequency:When it comes to advertising, as I always say, repetition is the key. How much repetition? The short answer is: As much as you can afford. If you want people to notice that ad, then it simply has to be repeated, and repeated, and repeated. Of course it depends on your budget, but just know, buying an ad and not repeating it is a waste of money.

Advertising is not rocket science, but it does take planning and a lot of forethought for maximum effectiveness.

Today's tip: Typical ads use the AIDA method: Attention (the headline usually), Interest and Desire (the bulk of the ad) and a call to Action. But beyond AIDA, here are some other things you can do to make your ads pop:

•Use creative visuals:Not everyone likes to read.

•Be unpredictable! No: "Anderson's Market is having a sale." Yes: "Tomatoes Shocked by Low Prices! Bunches of vine-ripened tomatoes at Anderson's Market were justifiably upset Thursday when they learned they were being sold for only $1."

Use words and phrases they will remember:Bad: "Anderson's is the place for Vegetables." Good: "Andersons: Where Tomatoes and Potatoes Are First-RateO". Rhymes, alliteration, and creativity work well.

Ask an Expert appears Mondays. You can e-mail Steve Strauss at: you can click here to see previous columns. Steven D. Strauss is a lawyer, author and speaker who specializes in small business and entrepreneurship. His latest book is The Small Business Bible. You can sign up for his free newsletter, "Small Business Success Secrets!" at his website —