Competing for customers

February 4, 2016

John Foust

Years ago, I helped judge an advertising competition for a large agricultural association. By design, all of the judges were outsiders. We evaluated each ad on its merits, without being influenced by inside knowledge of individual advertisers or personalities.

I recently ran across a leftover scoring sheet in my files. There were five scoring areas, with points awarded in each one. Although it was an industry-specific competition, these areas easily apply to all advertising:

1. Stopping power (described on the score sheet as “attention-getting ability”): This concept of stopping power is more important than ever. In the old days, we were exposed to about 500 ads per day. But today’s number is 5,000 or higher.

It takes a lot to break through that kind of clutter.

2. Clarity of message (“is message understandable?”): I once heard a speech by John O’Toole, president of the famous Foote, Cone & Belding advertising agency. After his talk, I chatted with him for a minute or two and asked what he thought was the most important principle of advertising. Without hesitation, he said, “Clarity.”

3. Interest of message (“does message hold attention of audience?”): Once an ad gets attention, the task is to maintain that attention. The surest way to do that is to appeal to the target audience’s interests.

And what are we human beings interested in? Ourselves. There’s real truth in the old cliché that we all listen to radio station WII-FM—“What’s In It For Me?” Every time we encounter an advertiser’s product or service—even for a split second—we automatically run it through the self-interest filter. If it holds some appeal, we’ll give it a few more moments of our time. If not, we’ll click, tap or turn to something else.

The key is to know the audience. Marketing textbooks emphasize the value of features and benefits. Along the way, it’s smart to narrow the list to those that are most relevant. Features A, B and C may not mean anything to potential buyers, but Feature D might hit the mark.

4. Believable (“will audience believe message?”): Although advertisers realize that there is no sale without trust, some of them hurt their chances by resorting to exaggerations and unsubstantiated claims. They lose credibility when they use shallow terms like “unbelievable,” “one of a kind” and “best deals in town.”

I believe that people often exaggerate when they lack confidence in the truth. Sometimes this means the copywriter has not learned enough about the product and the audience to create a believable campaign. The remedy is to get the right information—and simply put that information into words and pictures.

5. Tone (“good taste in keeping with audience”): This is a matter of likability. People would rather hear, “We understand you, and here’s something you’ll like” than to hear, “You’re making a big mistake if you don’t buy from us.”

At the end of the day, there’s something that can mean more to your advertisers than winning ad contests. And that’s winning customers. © John Foust 2016. All rights reserved.


John Foust has conducted training programs for thousands of newspaper advertising professionals. Many ad departments are using his training videos to save time and get quick results from in-house training. E-mail for information


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