As someone who spent a decade writing advertising campaigns for clients ranging from neighborhood real estate offices to Fortune 500 companies, I have an uncomfortable truth to share with you: nearly all advertising is a waste of money and resources. For large advertisers, increasing sales isn't even necessarily an objective. Popular beer companies don't spend millions running ads to remind you that they still exist and that their product tastes good and is refreshing. The ads are there to stifle competition, maintain market share and reduce the risk of you fleeing and embracing other beer brands.
Getting the word out
Advertising and marketing originally existed to give a business a means for getting the word out about its worthiness. Here, maybe these 500 refrigerator magnets I just had printed up will convince 500 people to call me to provide them the advertised service, whether it's cleaning their pool or practicing law.
Such a strategy has never worked, unless you're selling pizza, Chinese food or something else that appeals to a person who's reluctantly gazing at his refrigerator instead of opening it. However, that doesn't stop businesses from continuing to use outdated and impractical ways to market themselves. It's like those radio or TV commercials that contain the line "See our ad in the Yellow Pages," to which you're probably thinking, "But you have my attention right now, and when is the last time I used the "Yellow Pages?"
A generation ago, the rule of thumb was that one vocal, dissatisfied customer could damage your business as much as ten happy customers could enhance it. The logic was that word-of-mouth was the most unbiased and reliable means of persuasion, and that you needed to give people a compelling reason to do business with you.
The online world
However, a cataclysmic shift happened. Yes, it was the Internet, but more specifically, review sites. Yelp, Angie's List and their competitors, gives consumers a chance to read multiple reviews of a business within seconds. Review sites, which are inherently simple in their plan and execution, have rendered obsolete the standard channels of communicating your existence (advertising, through whatever medium) and using gimmickry (such as the wacky street sign or the inflatable gorilla) to market your product.
Getting reviewed on a review site is so simple it hardly warrants instruction, but here goes:
Step one. Ask your clients to review you.
There is no step two.
Just ask them to. Most clients won't get around to it, but the fraction that do will help immensely. Whatever you do, though, resist the temptation to offer incentives for people to review you positively. For example, "If you don't have an Angie's List membership, I'll pay your $15 annual fee if you say something nice about me." That reeks of unprofessionalism, in addition to being wildly improper and about as far from unbiased as you can get.
Some vendors argue that review sites are unreliable. These same vendors don't say what a better idea might be, but that's beside the point. It's true that inaccurate reviews can slip through the cracks, but like anything else, that shouldn't matter if your sample size is large enough. A conscientious observer knows to discount the occasional outlying review, whether positive or negative. I hope it's obvious that a roofing contractor with 158 Yelp reviews and a four-star average will be a safer bet than a contractor with one Yelp review and a five-star average.
Are traditional marketing campaigns still effective?
It's somewhat amazing that traditional advertising and marketing methods - the radio buy, the mail circular - still have devotees. Yet they do.
Say you service air conditioning units. That is a specialized, marketable skill that can provide a nice living for its practitioners. However, telling that to tens of thousands of radio listeners at a time, none of whom went out of their way to hear about you and most of whom have no use for you, is an inefficient way to spend finite money. When people need your services, they'll look for you. They will Google your type of business and the more diligent customers will look for reviews on relevant sites.
Standard marketing materials derive, of co urse, from the businesses themselves. Newsflash: they're not going to say anything critical. However, what about multiple customers, who have already been in the position that the potential customer looks to be in? Their words mean infinitely more than a vendor's self-promotion.
Even major corporations have embraced the value of online word-of-mouth. As of this writing, Amazon has posted reviews from 331 people saying that the company's signature product, the entry-level Kindle, is worth one out of five stars. Another 148 people think it merits two stars. Amazon doesn't care, because the people who love the Kindle enough to give it a five-star rating outnumber the one-star raters nine-to-one. (If that ratio were significantly lower, the Kindle likely wouldn't exist in its current format - at least not much longer.) No product is perfect, or at least no product will garner nothing but positive reviews. Amazon understands that, and uses that knowledge to its advantage.