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Spring 2002 Nine Secrets of a Great Yellow Pages Ad

Everybody’s in the yellow pages. A basic listing is automatic with your business phone line, and you upgrade from there. But with all the competition, not to mention miles of tiny type, you have to make yours stand out, even if you’re on a limited budget, to boost your sales with a great yellow pages ad. What makes a “great” ad? It’s not what you think. Successful ads share certain key elements, say consultants who track results.

For one thing, it’s very different from a print ad in a newspaper or magazine. In fact, the creativity and techniques that go into a typical print ad can actually diminish the response to a yellow pages ad. For another, if your print ad doesn’t work, you can change it the next day or next week or the next magazine issue. Not true, obviously, with the yellow pages—that’s a once-a-year proposition. If your ad isn’t as strong as it could be, you pay for it in lower sales for the rest of the year until the next phone book comes out—and in many cases, year after year if nothing in the ad changes. So check your ad against these nine secrets of success. And if you need to make some changes to give your ad the muscle it lacks, there’s no time like the present—you don’t want to miss the deadline for next year’s book. Here are the nine success elements to put in your ad:

1. Charge your ad with “stopping power.”

When flipping through the yellow pages, does the reader “stop cold” at your ad and read the copy? That’s stopping power, “the number-one thing your ad must have,” says Michelle Abbey, vice president of creative and production services for TMP Worldwide, a New York ad agency specializing in yellow- page ads. “That’s because, unlike newspaper ads, a yellow pages ad is always on the same page with ads from competing stores.” Since you’re sharing space with your competitors, your ad has to stand apart in some obvious way. “If you were a consumer, why would you respond to your ad instead of to the others?” asks Berta Stead, president of National Yellow Pages Consulting Associates (Carson City, NV).

To get “stopping power,” first ask yourself what sets your business apart from the competition. Then highlight the difference in the form of text and graphics spotlighting customer benefits, like:

  • greater variety of merchandise or services
  • longer store hours
  • great customer service
  • better prices
  • free information or instruction

Choose one key benefit, and spotlight it in the ad in a way that gets the readers’ attention–and stops them. “Flip through the book to see how yellow pages ads look the same,” says Don Benton, president of National Advertising Consultants (Vancouver, WA). “Notice how you stop and read the ads that stand apart from the others.” The combination of graphics and text should be unique, making your ad stand out from the pack. “Ideally, your ad will look so different [from the others] that it’s the first thing people focus on.”

2. Make your top benefit your headline.

The headline is the most important part of a successful ad. “It’s a vital element because it gets the attention of the reader,” says Benton. “If they don’t read your headline, they won’t read the rest of the ad.” While it’s tempting to make the name of the store the headline, and most businesses do exactly that—don’t. It doesn’t work. “The consumer who knows your name will just look you up in the white pages,” says Benton. “That’s a lot easier [than] having to guess under what yellow pages category you’re listed.” Instead, spotlight the benefit. The headline should give the shopper the reason to come to you and not someone else. Here are general examples of headlines that spotlight an important customer benefit.

  • The Lowest Prices Anywhere
  • The Largest Selection in Town
  • Free Pick-Up & Delivery
  • The Experts

Customize the headline to your retail business, and use the rest of the ad to expand on the headline’s theme. “We always suggest that the headline grab the readers’ attention, then draw them into the ad, which provides more detail on the same theme,” says Hal Hayes of BellSouth Advertising & Publishing Corp. in Atlanta.

3. Keep the copy short.

Another common temptation is to use all available space to cram in lots of copy. Don’t do that, either. A cluttered look makes readers move on to another ad that’s better organized and easier to read. To narrow it down, “decide on the three most important things you want to tell customers,” says Abbey. “These are usually important benefits customers get from shopping there. Then present the three ideas in brief statements.” Don’t try to be too clever, she cautions: that doesn’t work. When people go to the yellow pages for information on which store to contact, they’re searching for shopping information before making a purchase. So they’re comparing the points made in competing ads, and they want the information straightforward and simple. Clever presentations that are more appropriate in print display ads are counter-productive here.Be especially cautious if you use an ad agency.” Agencies accustomed to putting together ads for magazines are tempted to use the same paragraph format in yellow pages ads,” says Maria Mitchell, a representative for Reuben H. Donnelley (Purchase, NY). But you don’t want that in a yellow pages ad: “You have 10 seconds to get the customer’s attention,” she says. “You want to get readers into your ad right away, so be as succinct as possible. If you make it too wordy, you might lose them.” The best copy has:

  • short, simple words
  • short sentences
  • bullet lists (like this one)
  • lots of white space

4. Use a simple type style.

Select a simple sans serif typeface (like Helvetica) or a classic serif typeface (like TimesRoman). “Avoid type styles that are too ornate, or italics, or anything hard to read, ” says Hayes. “You don’t want to distract the reader from your message.” Here are some guidelines:

  • Put statements that illustrate the unique nature of your business in large, bold type.
  • Vary type from bold to medium, and from large to small, to keep the reader’s interest. But don’t use more than one typeface.
  • Reverse type—i.e., light type on a dark background—can be effective in small doses (the phone number in large type, for example). But don’t go overboard with it—it’s harder to read.

Although most experts caution against using ornate type, they usually make an exception if you don’t have any graphics in your ad. In that case, some of the copy in a decorative typeface can attract the reader’s eye. Even so, you don’t want it so decorative that it’s distracting or hard to read.

5. Use a plain border.

To maintain the clean, uncluttered look you’ve created thus far, use a border that does not call attention to itself. Benton says the three elements of a yellow pages ad that seem to jump off the page are “a thick border, empty space, and a good headline.” He advises using a plain black border that’s 1/16″ to 1/8″ thick. A “busy” border just adds clutter. “If you have too much going on, the customer doesn’t know where to look” says Abbey. “Don’t mix too many graphic elements. It can get crowded and congested. Unless the rest of the ad is too plain, just use a simple border.”

6. Choose the right size ad.

Once you decide you need more than a simple two-line listing, you have choices, and you have to decide: How large should your ad be? “You can do an in-column box ad, which is generally up to three inches in length,” says Mitchell. “These appear alphabetically [and] work extremely well if you want to target a known market.” In other words, they’re very effective for shoppers who know you by name and look you up alphabetically.

Display ads are more expensive but may be worth it. Obvious but true, the larger the ad, the more people notice it, say the experts. But you don’t have to go as large as you might think. What are your competitors doing? For example, if all of the competing ads are 1/8th of a page, then a 1/4-page ad will get the most attention, so that’s as big as you need to be. No need to spend more for a half or even a full page in that case.

But what if you need a large ad and also need to conserve money? According to the experts, take the time to create an ad that’s smaller in size but more powerful in message. “Regardless of what some say, the size of the ad and its position are not nearly as important as content and design,” says Benton. “A smaller ad that’s well designed and says the right things will draw just as many—if not more—calls than a half-page or full-page ad filled with junk.”

7. Select a snappy graphic.

“Good copy is the most important thing in the ad,” says Mitchell. “But copy alone is boring, and people will pass over it without a graphic.” Then again, one with too many graphic elements will look “busy,” and that, too, causes readers to pass over an ad.You have several choices in the graphics area—choose one or two elements such as:

  • your logo
  • a photo of your cart or store
  • a product photo
  • your photo, or a photo of your staff
  • a cartoon
  • a map with cross-streets

Experts say go for the logo first. It’s “the best thing to use,” says Benton, and “should be consistent with your other advertising, so people say ‘I’ve seen that before.’ Consistency is important in building an image.” Larger ads may be able to include a photo without looking cluttered. “Photography adds stopping power,” says Abbey. “Once you choose your graphic element, position it correctly, especially a photo or illustration.” Be sure the illustration points into your ad—not outward to a competitor’s ad,” says Hayes.

What about color? “Using red can help smaller ads stand out from the crowd,” he says. “It automatically attracts attention.” But again, don’t go overboard: “No more than 50 percent of the ad space should be red.” More than that, and the ad will look too busy and the reader’s eye will go elsewhere.

8. Give the details people want.

If (and only if) your ad is large enough, include details that help customers shop—hours of operation, credit cards, free parking and the like. “It’s very important to provide basic info that people are going to the yellow pages for,” says Blanche McGuire, senior vice president at Ketchum Directory Advertising in Pittsburgh. “People go to the yellow pages looking for specific things. If they’re not there, you won’t get the call [or the visit], no matter how creative your headline might be,” she says.

9. Tie in with your other advertising.

“You can create an echo effect by tying in your logo and slogans with [your ads in] other media such as newspapers and radio,” says McGuire. “This maximizes the effect of your whole advertising program.”

On the other hand, keep in mind that the yellow pages are directories of who-what-where information for consumers. Unlike newspaper, magazine, TV and radio ads, the yellow pages don’t create a market for your wares. So depending on your other ads, and to keep your yellow pages ad streamlined and uncluttered, you might not want to echo your other ads, if doing so will detract from the basic informational nature of the directory. “Don’t let [your] catchier advertising overwhelm the ad so that the basic information is [no longer] clear,” says McGuire.

There you have it: nine points to help you design your next yellow pages ad. Investing some time and thought to the medium can pay rich dividends. “When people are ready to buy, they go to the yellow pages,” says Abbey. “That’s where they get the key points to decide whom to call.”


Phillip M. Perry

Perry is a freelance writer based in New York, NY.

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