Why–and when–you should use traditional advertising for your small business

In this 10-minute read:

  • The 5 most effective traditional marketing methods for small businesses
  • Why you need to get your online presence right before you spend on advertising
  • Know your customer or you’re wasting your money
  • Billboards and signage
  • Direct mail
  • Newspapers, magazines, and other print advertising
  • Local broadcast media

One of the cardinal rules of marketing is “diversify.” You don’t put all your advertising eggs into one basket, and never rely on one avenue to reach and retain customers. For local businesses, traditional advertising methods such as direct mail, print, billboards/signage, and broadcast media can bolster the results you get from pay-per-click, social media advertising, and other online marketing.

Get smarter about your customers and their impact on your business with CRM software. Learn more, plus get free reputation monitoring and customer insights when you sign up for Womply Free!

In this article we’ll go over several traditional marketing approaches that can make sense for small, local businesses. However, before you consider spending some of your marketing budget, we need to go over a few very important points first.

Don’t spend on offline ads until your online presence is solid

Before you spend a dime on advertising, traditional or otherwise, it’s absolutely vital that you get your online house in order first. 

As we explain in our small business marketing guide, if you spend on advertising before you have claimed your business listings and optimized your online reputation on the major review sites, you will effectively be paying to send potential customers to other businesses.

Why? Because, the first thing almost everyone does when given a recommendation or seeing marketing messaging for a business (even local ones) is to search their online reviews. 

woman shocked at bad online review

If you have great advertising but a miserable online presence with a bunch of negative reviews—or worse, if you haven’t even claimed your online business listings—nobody is going to spend money with you, no matter how big your marketing budget is.

You may also like: 4 simple steps to improve your online business reputation

Define your specific marketing goal 

“Make more money” might sound like a good enough goal for your marketing efforts, but you really need to think deeper than that. What exactly do you hope to accomplish?

If your primary objective is to spread the word that your store even exists, then you might approach things differently than a business owner who is trying to stand out in a crowded local marketspace and win a specific type of customer with specific tastes and spending habits.

If you decide that your goal is to improve your brand recognition or general knowledge about your business, then some of the more broad-reaching traditional advertising methods outlined below may be most effective in reaching a broad range of potential local customers.

However, if you wish to target a very specific customer base with very particular habits, then you may wish to begin with social media, Instagram ads, and/or Facebook advertising.

Know who your customer is

It should go without saying that the most important question in marketing is “who is my customer?”

You can’t market to your customers effectively if you don’t know who they are, what they respond to, how they consume media, where they spend, how they spend, and much more.

female record shop owner and satisfied customer

Throwing money at an advertising campaign in order to find out who your customers are is a special kind of stupid.

Smarter business owners know that customer data is gold, and unless you have a very good idea of who your customers are (and which type of customers you want to target), spending money on advertising is akin to setting it on fire, and isn’t as fun.

For local business owners with no good way to know who their customers are (other than a few regulars), a small business CRM solution that comes “pre-populated” with all your customer data and contact information can seem like magic.

How much should small businesses spend on marketing?

There is a lot you can do with traditional/online word-of-mouth and fantastic service, but eventually most businesses will want to devote some of their yearly budget to paid marketing efforts.

At Womply, we advise hundreds of thousands of small businesses in all 50 states across every consumer-facing industry. We typically recommend that a small business spend about 8% of its gross revenue on marketing, which corresponds to guidance from the U.S. Small Business Administration.

Go deeper: How much should I spend on marketing?

And while it usually makes the most sense to devote the majority of your budget to the marketing method with the highest ROI (email marketing), and the digital platform that’s 900% more effective than Facebook (Instagram), there is certainly truth to the business adage: “diversify or die.”

So let’s talk about some of the traditional marketing/advertising methods that can still be valuable and effective for small businesses.

1. Billboards and signage

The old “Eat At Joe’s” type billboards were reasonably effective in their day, but thanks to today’s high-tech digital/full motion multimedia billboard displays, you can do better.

However, even static billboards and signage can be effective (and more budget-friendly) if you get the location, the message, and the market right. 

Depending on the size of your town, your competition, and your business, a well-crafted billboard can be very effective at attracting new customers to your brick-and-mortar location, or even to your website or online store.

billboard for local marketing

An eye-catching image and a sticky (and LEGIBLE) catch phrase on local buses, taxis, trains, or other marketable spots around your town can spread awareness and drum up interest.

Did we mention your messaging must be easily and quickly readable and simple to comprehend? We’ve seen too many billboards and other “too clever” advertisements that, while they may have caught the eye or satisfied the artistic whims of the designer, were completely illegible and therefore worthless for all practical purposes.

Don’t get distracted by a desire to create high art at the expense of effectiveness in the message. You’re not out to win a Clio… you’re trying to convince more customers to give you their money.

2. Direct mail and local ad mailers

“Junk mail” tends to have the same pallor about it as “junk email” these days, but the reason you still get so much of it is because it still works. 

various coupons for direct mail small business marketing

Some studies show that physical mail “direct response” campaigns perform better than digital as far as brand recall, response speed, and percentage of respondents who purchase.

Today’s direct mail marketers also benefit from digital-age demographic information, so you can often selectively target your ideal customer base, rather than blanket an entire town with indiscriminate mailbox stuffing.

Email marketing is hands-down the most powerful, effective, and efficient marketing tool for small businesses. But for small, local retailers with the ability to selectively target a specific group of people that are their ideal customers, direct mail can still be an effective way to increase your customer base, send coupons, and even drive repeat business—assuming you maintain an accurate customer directory, including contact information.

3. Traditional print advertising is evolving

Newspapers and magazines are certainly not as influential nor ubiquitous as they once were, thanks to digital media and the explosion of information technology. 

However there is some evidence that a growing number of people prefer to read actual books, newspapers, and magazines, though they are available in various digital formats—even among younger consumers.

attractive redhead woman reading a newspaper for small business marketing

It seems many modern Americans miss the physical/tactile experience of interacting with good old paper pulp and ink.

Besides, you can still advertise in the printed editions of local newspapers and magazines, and most companies will also include your ad in the digital/online version of their publications, so you can get a double-whammy for your advertising buck.

If your ideal customers are consumers of “traditional” print media, you may find it an effective avenue to reach them.  

4. Brochures, flyers, and handouts

This is where coupons, discounts, and limited-time special offers really live. 

Before you get started with this, make sure you adhere to any local ordinances regarding posting of bills, handing out flyers, or leaving them on cars or people’s property. 

man handing out flyers for small business marketing

However, if you follow local laws and you specific marketing goal (remember that?) is to spread the word about your business or to incite people to visit with a coupon for a special deal, flyers can be an effective tool.

As we mentioned in our 25 free advertising ideas article, you might be able to save money by swapping your goods and services with a print shop.

5. Local TV and radio

For small, local businesses, broadcast media can be prohibitively expensive, depending on the market and the channel/s you wish to utilize. 

However, many towns offer what used to be called “cable access” channels where local businesses can buy promotional time for a relatively small expenditure. The problem there is the viewership is usually correspondingly small.

If your target customers (remember, you have to start there) listen to a lot of radio, you may be able to reach them effectively with a small radio spend, particularly if they are the type to listen to “alternative” or independent local radio stations.

Keep your messaging straightforward, memorable, and clear, and you might see a good return on a modest broadcast media spend.

And don’t forget that you can be leveraging your small business blog content with local media for free local PR benefits, which is another effective way to spread the word about your business

6. Phone book advertising (just kidding)

Is this really still a thing? Yeah… you don’t want to go there.

Those of us who remember looking up take-out pizza shops in the yellow pages know that at one time the phone book was the acknowledged source of all truth for local businesses. 

Today, the traditional phone book has nearly gone the way of the dodo, like the coin-operated payphones that the white-and-yellow pages used to be chained to. (20 years ago there were over 2 million payphones in the U.S.; today only 100,000 remain, with a fifth of those being in New York City).

battered yellow pages phone book

However, the need for local “business listings” is huge, and online business listings have taken the place of paper phone books. 

Data shows that 9 out of 10 shoppers search online for local stores and restaurants, and the smartphone is the 21st-century version of the yellow pages.

So getting your business listed on all relevant online business listings is absolutely vital for small, local companies.

We’ve listed our step-by-step guides for claiming your pages on some of the major sites. If you’re not found here, you’re missing out on a lot of potential customers.

Refer to our free business listings article for many more!

Enhance your marketing with small business software

Smart business owners know that it costs five times more to acquire a new customer than to keep a current one. And, repeat customers spend 67 percent more. 

But you can’t keep your customers unless you actually know who they are, and most small businesses don’t. A CRM solution specifically developed for small businesses can be a life saver here.

Womply’s CRM is the first and only customer relationship management solution that comes “pre-populated” with all of your customers’ data, spending history, and even contact information.

You can see who your best customers are, how much they spend, and when they have visited, so you know who to target with customer retention marketing efforts and special offers.

Small business owners are often blown away at everything Womply’s software can do for them. Learn more, plus get free reputation monitoring and customer insights when you sign up for Womply Free!

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