From original questioner:

So... this is the year of advertising for us. We've been in business for almost 10 years now, and had relied primarily on word of mouth for the first 5 years. Since then, we've grown quite a bit (space, employees, etc) and had needed to increase our customer base. Though word of mouth still provides a percentage of our sales, we've used other avenues to generate sales. These avenues include various "guerrilla marketing" strategies, the addition of a showroom, pay per click advertising, social media, craigslist, email marketing, and attending many homeshows.

All of these have generated sales. However, we are interested in taking the next step... We produced and ran a commercial so far this year, and are looking at putting in a better website (priority).

So... here's my question. Where are your advertising dollars going?

It has been a great year so far for us, so I'm ready to spend some advertising dollars and keep this train running.

We are a cabinet shop...


From contributor Ji

Our advertising dollars don't go anywhere.

[by advertising I'm assuming you mean classical advertising - print (in all forms, radio, TV - the stuff that hopes you placed your stuff where your customers are WHEN they are inclined to act on your ad]

We digested, sorted, polled and profiled our customers. They get ideas from magazines, but don't buy from ads. They hang out on social media, but only perk up to a direct mention by a near friend. They get their info on the web and poll their trusted networks for referrals.

No advertising for us - not a penny.

Find out when, where and how your customers browse and then buy. Then go where they go using the media they use. Use the language they use, tell the stories they engage with.

An acid test we've begun using around here when developing content is "We can sew and squirt finish, so what? Jean (our profile customer) can pick 20 other shops in 50 miles that can do that."

Yes, the website upgrade is a must - and may be enough of a project for a year. Your existing site is not SEO optimized - a quick scan shows no meta name, description, keywords - for a starter. A google for "custom kitchen cabinets Maine" doesn't have you on the first page. Your social media platforms aren't reflected on the site, for example. Are women the buyers? They don't respond well to green and yellow.

From contributor Pa

I have used Google Adwords since 2004, and I would rate it as very effective if done correctly. It's quite complicated, though, so you will need to get help, and finding a good consultant can be tricky. FWIW, I used print back in the day, and my costs ran 10-11% of revenue. With Adwords that percentage is less than 6%. And the business has grown, on average, 16% a year since I started with it. And that includes the recession.

Interestingly, in the years 1994-2003, when I was just running print ads, my growth rate averaged 17%. So those ads worked, too, in delivering growth. But the business was very small back then, so 17% in 1994 was peanuts compared to our growth targets today. And the cost of the print ads was always high, and they only reached my local region. Adwords allowed me to make the switch to a national market, and has delivered good growth rates even as the business got much larger - we wrote $2.85 million in new contracts last year.

Advertising works, if done right. But it's very easy to spend money in the wrong place and not get results. Keep in mind, also, that the ad is just the beginning of a long sales process, and that other links in that chain need to be working in order to see results from ads.

From contributor Bo

I do custom work as well, and my clients are designers and builders. My marketing consists of 3 things. First is cold calling designers and builders, and following up any warm leads with emails and in person visits. Second is having an account on Houzz and Homeadvisor. Third is to have a website and update it a few times a year with pictures from recent projects.

What doesn't work for me: Craigslist - too many inquiries from people without money. Adwords/PPC - it's great for products, but for custom work the ROI has actually been negative for me.

From contributor Kr

Thanks for all the responses so far. Definitely giving me something to think about.

Paul... I hear you, it doesn't end with the ad. Keep contacting until they buy or die right? I thought, for me anyway, that adwords was a great place to cross test ads. I'm a test small, fail small guy. Adwords helped me in finding the right message. I can now use that message in all my advertising mediums.

Jim, Website... I agree 100%. We've used the website as a portfolio only. I have never made a sale from someone searching the internet and finding me. So, this is something we are pursuing.

Bob, Ironically... Craigslist has been very good for us this year. I had periodically posted on Craigslist in the past and got nothing. January 1st I started a "campaign" which basically kept me at the top of the search list. I carry a line of stock cabinetry that is geared toward a lower budget customer, so I figured Craigslist would be a great place to reach out to them. I've yet to sell a stock kitchen. I have, however, sold three custom kitchens. This blew my mind. So... needless to say I'll keep posting. Houzz has been great for clients to communicate with me what the hell they want... I have them create an ideabook, and we go from there.

From contributor Bo

I'm confused by what you just said. You said you have never made a sale by someone searching the internet for you. And then you said you used Adwords to help tailor your message. But without making any sales from your website, how do you know what the right message is?

And for Paul Downs, I think you are putting the cart before the horse. You spent 25 years (is that right?) building a product based company. You had finely tuned manufacturing and sales processes already in place. A website with a national Adwords marketing campaign is a natural extension of your business. What is a small custom shop supposed to take away from your experience with respect to marketing? Probably nothing. They are two different animals.

From contributor Ji

I'm gonna dive in on what Bob said. An Adword hit is not a search engine hit - I think that is what Kris was conveying.

I would make the website updating a constant thing! New stories tied to photos of cool projects and delighted customers. Listen to the questions you always answer and answer then on the site - chances are strong that other folks are wondering too. Through a blog or a photo gallery or outright pages. Even if you have some webmaster set up your site, many frameworks exist that let you then provide updates to galleries and blogs (read: stories, testimonials, expert articles) independently of the webmaster. Help people find you, trust you and buy from you. Run series that folks can fall through like "Tips to Optimize Your Kitchen" or whatever. Write new tips - and email a brief and a link to your list. And gently press the advantage of custom...and of course YOU! Then syndicate that stuff out onto your social media platforms.

Sorry, I got carried away some.

From contributor Kr

Bob... what Jim said.

From contributor Bo

How did Adwords help you find the right message? Was it the number of clicks? The number of phone calls or emails? The number of sales? And once you found the right message, did you then double down the amount of money your were allocating to that winning Adwords campaign?

From contributor Kr

Hey Bob,

Number of clicks. The whole point of adwords is to get customers to your website. Split test two ads to see which one performs the best, then try to beat that one. A jacked up website is real important (which I really need) to get people to pick up the phone or email, then it's all you.

From contributor Ch

"Number of clicks. The whole point of adwords is to get customers to your website."

I question that reason. Yes, you want to increase traffic. But, your second sentence states "customers" are wanted. They are not customers until they buy something. When they are visiting your website for the first time, they are barely prospects.

You not only want traffic, but you want the right traffic.

Running an ad that offers "FREE CARAMEL POPCORN" when the product is custom cabinetry may result in a lot of traffic, but little or no buyers.

For those websites that offer on-line sales, it is much easier to determine "conversions" meaning how many visitors clicked on your adwords campaign, then purchased something during their visit. Google Analytics can help with that directly if you set it up correctly. With custom cabinetry, or other products not sold directly on the website, this is more difficult.

I generally learn from my prospects (those who contact me) and customers (those who actually buy) how they learned about my company. Sometimes they contact me via a form on my website. Often, during a conversation with me, they will tell me how they found me. If not, I try to work the question in somehow either before or after the sale is made. I then record that info on their information card (aka, lead card). I never get too aggressive on learning this before the sale closes, as I don't want to negatively influence the outcome and spoil the sale. This is a little bit of an art; knowing what questions to ask and what not to ask when.

Unfortunately, I still cannot tell if they have responded to an adwords campaign, or an organic search. But, I have noticed that the overall amount of clicks (both paid and free) increase (often double) when I am running an ad. Some folks will see my ad, then see my free listing high on the first page and click the free listing. If that ad was not there, my free listing may still have been high on the first page, but they don't necessarily click. Seeing it twice evidently must increase their confidence level that my website is worth viewing. But, that is simply a guess on my part.

Counting clicks is very helpful, but it is only part of the solution. Getting the right clicks, and preventing the wrong clicks is important. You might also look at "negative keywords" and block those so you don't waste your advertising dollars. Take a look at "keywords" inside Google Analytics to see what words/phrases folks have used to find your website.

For example, if you sell dog sleds as a finished product, but do not sell kits or plans for dog sleds, using "dog sled" as a keyword is good,. But be sure to add "kits" and "plans" as negative keywords. Otherwise you will be paying lots of dollars for folks looking for "dog sled plans" and "dog sled kits." Unless you think you can turn those DIY'ers into finished product buyers, you will be wasting your money. Or, maybe you might consider selling kits and/or plans. :-)

Good luck!

From contributor Pa

That's excellent advice from Charles.

From contributor Ji

Great stuff from Charles!

I was reading an ebook recently about online marketing. The author went up a few notches on the credibility scale when she bottom-lined the planning and research with, "Attract customers, not just traffic."

From contributor Bo

Now we're getting close to where the rubber meets the road. The question I'm still trying to figure out an answer to is whether Adwords can have a positive ROI for a custom cabinet company. Obviously, we know it works for someone selling discrete products. Charles, maybe you can give us at least one data point. Are you selling custom cabinets, or products?

Kris, it sounds like you've had a similar experience to mine. My website is average at best. My hunch is that in order to have success using Adwords is that you have to tailor your site to a specific product (like kitchens), even if you only do custom cabinets. Otherwise, your net is cast too wide.

From contributor Ch

What I have learned that works for me: Focus. Do one thing and do it well. Be known for doing it.

We now have a product line that consists mainly of custom cabinetry. Every project is custom designed, manufactured, and installed for the customer by us. It could be considered a niche market.

We originally started our business by trying to do almost anything with custom cabinetry, but kitchens. (We made an early business decision not to try to compete with all of the kitchen cabinet shops in the area.) The business was growing, mainly by word of mouth advertising. We had a few designers that used us consistently. Then the recession pretty much destroyed our business. Our target market simply stopped spending money. The designers had no work to give us either. So, after a SWOT analysis, we re-invented the company and decided to focus on one area that we felt was being under-served in our geographical area. We built a new website and branding just for this particular niche. Last year's sales set a new record high for us.

We found that specializing in a specific area is much easier. Having a "product line" or "area of expertise" makes it easier for me to answer the question: "What do you do?"

Saying "I work with wood" or "I build custom cabinets" often left the potential customer confused. "I build really great custom entertainment centers and media rooms" is something that many folks can easily understand, and remember.

As Paul and Kris noted, the ad is just the start of the sales process. They clicked on your ad and have arrived at your website. You now have their attention. What are you going to do with that attention? You better do it fast, otherwise they may be leaving in 15 seconds or less. (Many of the visitors to our website never get past the first page. We still have a lot of marketing work to do.)

When visitors get to our website we immediately inform them why we are unique and special. Unique = competitive advantage. They should not have to read through pages and pages to find that out. They are not going to do so. (Well, maybe 0.1% will?) They may not even realize or understand what differentiates you from your competition unless you tell them. If they don't see something that attracts their attention immediately it is very easy for them to click to another website.

Best of luck!