Why Dependence on Advertising Is Harmful

To an extent, advertising is an addiction: once you’re hooked, it’s very difficult to stop. You become accustomed to putting a fixed advertising cost into your budget, and you are afraid to stop because of a baseless fear that, if you do, your flow of new customers will dry up and your previous investments in advertising will have been wasted.


While of course there are rare occasions when a particular ad can produce lots of business, it’s as rare in the small business world as catching a 30-pound lake trout off a recreational fishing boat or winning a $100,000 jackpot at a gambling casino.

The story of the great advertising success (the “pet rock” fad of years ago is an extreme example) becomes widely known in the particular community and is picked up by trade journals and sometimes even the general media. As a result, many inexperienced business people are coaxed into spending money on ads.

Overlooked in all the hoopla is the rarity of this sort of success; also overlooked is what often happens to the person whose ad produced the quick profits. Flash-in-the-pan advertising success may bring an initial influx of customers that your business isn’t prepared for.

This usually has two unfortunate consequences: many loyal long-term customers are turned off when service declines as the expanding business stretches itself too thin, and most of the new customers will not be repeaters. Mary Palmer, a photographer in San Jose, California, started her business with a simplistic but traditional marketing strategy, advertising on her local newspaper’s “weddings” page. Palmer was one of the first photographers in her area to insert an ad for wedding photos. She very happily took in $12,000 during the prime April-to- August wedding season.

The next year she advertised again, but this time her ad was one of many. Not only did the ad fail to generate much business, she got few referrals from the many customers she had worked for the previous year. Concerned, Palmer called us for emergency business advice. Visiting her, we found her business to be badly organized and generally chaotic.

The overall impression it gave was poor. It was easy to see why so few of Palmer’s customers referred their friends, or themselves patronized her business for other occasions. Palmer was a victim of her own flash-in-the-pan advertising success. Believing that “advertising works” had lulled her into the false belief that she didn’t really have to learn how to run a high-quality business.

There wasn’t much we could really tell her except to start over, using the solid business techniques and personal recommendation approaches discussed in this book. Palmer’s business is in direct contrast to Gail Woodridge’s, who also specializes in wedding photography.

Woodridge doesn’t do any advertising in the conventional sense, although she does list her services widely in places likely to produce referrals. Her clients are primarily referred to her by wedding planners, bridal gown and flower stores, friends and former clients—people who know her and trust her to do a good job. Since this approach has meant that her business has grown fairly slowly, she has had the time, and the good sense, to make sure that the many details of her business are in order, including her office work and finances, as well as her camera equipment, darkroom supplies and filing system.

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