Best Ways to Advertise

How to get the word out that you're in business and available for work. November 22, 2004

What types of advertising have had the greatest effect for you? What has had the best cost/profit ratio for you? I'm trying to figure out as a start-up which way to go on this issue. I build custom furniture and cabinetry as well as restore. I'm in the Northeast.

Forum Responses
(Business Forum)
From contributor K:
Although there are many ways to market our products/services, we're strong believers in bringing the advertisement to the people in living color so they can touch/feel the product they are going to receive.

Others' experiences may be different, but one of the quickest ways we've found to generate business, especially this time of year (tax refunds), is home shows. You will find yourself among many other companies (we've been at shows that had 25 competitors), but realize that the prospects you are talking to are more often than not pre-qualified (i.e. - they have the money to spend), as they plunk down $20-$50 to get in. If you do something memorable (not just another cabinet display), you will make an impression. We just had a woman call who saw us 1 1/2 years ago at a local home show. She kept our info, as after she saw our product (we do an extensive demo of our cabinetry, which gets the prospect involved), she called us back because she liked our product better than what she saw at all the other booths. She was convinced because we involved her in the demo.

More cost-effective than showrooms, and guaranteed focused traffic... Never been at a show, even a small one, where we didn't close business.

There are other methods, but unless you are creating brand recognition, I'm not a strong believer in print advertising as a main source of prospects, as you usually have to give something away (i.e. your money), to entice the prospect to even call. You know - "$500-$1000 off your project with this coupon"... blech! After all, you are usually competing with other ads, where everyone's products are the highest quality, or they have the best price, or a lifetime warranty, blah, blah, blah.

Any opportunity where you can get a prospect to touch your product and experience it first hand is, in my opinion, the best spent money.

From contributor T:
I have done many home shows and have always had a good response that turned into orders. When I had a showroom where people could come and see the show piece, I was usually able to turn their visits into orders. I have also done home shows where people would call and I would go to them. Either way I had a decent closure rate.

Print advertising was limited to trade magazines. Here we have Florida Design Magazine, where $25,000 gets you a whole glossy page of a pro picture of a piece. Sometimes the shot was in place and sometimes the shot was in a studio. I had good response with this also. It was a lot of money, but usually the first customer's order would be enough to cover the ad.

I have had success with newspaper writeups about the company, usually through a paid publicist. When you pay the local newspaper home and design editor to write all that glowing BS about you, it turns into traffic.

One thing I did learn is that writing about yourself does not work too well. You have to have a publicist build you up in ways that you can't do yourself. I always thought that being on TV would work great, because this is where everybody is - in front of the TV. Usually during the home and design shows this is very expensive, and I have never tried it.

P.S. One thing about home shows. You have to show up quite a few times. It does not kick in right away. People have to get used to seeing you around a lot. I guess this shows that you are established or something like that. The home shows can be from two to four times a year and you have to plan on going to all of them before you get noticed.

Nothing beats "word of mouth" - this is where I get my best customers by far.

From contributor K:
That's interesting... We've had the exact opposite experience. Home shows and even the one-day local municipality street shows (which generate the same demographic, on a smaller scale, for as little as $50-$100 for the day) have always generated sales. We schedule estimate appointments right at the shows. We do between 25-30 shows per year (hot months for shows are January - June, September - November), and spend approximately $20K per year on these shows, large and small. We have other advertising programs, but I agree, word of mouth is best.

$25K for a one-page ad seems astronomically expensive, but if it works for you, and generates the sales to justify it, more power to ya... They include at least 1000 color glossy reprints for that price, right? Well, it's been our experience that print advertising requires a repetitive, consistent program to be effective, and this can be extremely cost-prohibitive for a start-up.

Being a start-up, and depending on his capitalization, the questioner may need to look at options that generate immediate sales to grease the proverbial wheels... One-day local municipality street shows in his town and towns next to him cost next to nothing, and will generate local interest and, more importantly, sales. Don't discount these local shows, as we've generated over $100K in sales from one show. Even picked up a reference from a builder at one show. His friends had asked him to refer them to someone, and he happened to be at a local show, saw our display, and after talking to him for about 20 minutes, he told us he was going to refer us to his friends. 'Course, I didn't really expect him to, but he did, and we sold the job. Wasn't a huge job (around $20K if I remember correctly), but that job also resulted in more business. Look for developing areas, new construction, and call the local municipality and find out when they are doing their "town show", plunk your $50-$100 down for a spot, and you'll have immediate hands-on exposure from, I assume, your target audience. After speaking to them, whether it results in an appointment or not, we always tell prospects to be sure and "don't forget to tell your friends about us."

Referral income can kick in anywhere from 6mos - 3 years, depending on the quality of your work and turn-around.

Put together a media-book, which contains before and after photos, any reference letters you may have, any company info/literature for prospects to flip through at shows, and at their home while you're measuring their project for pricing (gives them something to do that keeps them focused on the task at hand, rather than letting them cool down by getting distracted watching TV or paying bills, etc. while they wait for you to measure).

From contributor J:
Anyone had success with joining the local Chamber? I joined one years ago when I was trying to get my photography business off the ground, and was wondering if there had been any success with woodworking.

From contributor A:
Something I'd like to try if business ever slows is direct advertising using postcards. I do custom work including closets. Each week the newspaper has a listing of new homeowners that bought homes by zipcode, the address and the price paid. I assume it is a public record thing. I'd just send a postcard welcoming them to the area and a short paragraph on what I did.

I ran some numbers and for 1000 postcards to be printed and the postage to mail them, if I got a 1% closure rate, it would be profitable for me.

From contributor T:
I think that it comes down to name recognition. The more you get your name out there, the better. When people talk and ask for a referral, if your name comes to mind, then what they say is, "Did you try so and so?" This works well. We have a designer down here who will be nameless, but he has been around for thirty years and people say he is being sued by everybody. The guy has more work than ever, and at least 20 designers on staff. So go figure. There is no such thing as bad publicity.

From the original questioner:
Thanks to all who responded... I know that word of mouth is the best, but that must be triggered somehow. The home show idea sounds great, but I don't know if I'm ready for that yet. Are there other simple/effective ways? Does your company name/logo on your trucks, etc. have any impact? Any more ideas?

The media book/portfolio is in the works. (Coming from a whole family of graphic designers!)

From contributor T:
This is a Home & Design Show booth double wide that I designed and executed along with my participating associates. It was a little ahead of its time, but definitely caused a stir because it was different and quite beautiful, with lacquer, neon and hand painted accessories made and loaned by my friends. The jar in the corner is covered in Japanese rice paper at a cost of $12,000. That was loaned to me from the artist for this show.

From contributor S:
You can also use a lead referral program like Through them, I usually get several quality projects each month.

From contributor V:
In regard to the Chamber, yes - it has worked for me. But I am very involved in various aspects of the Chamber, which gets my name out. If all you do is join and get your name in the directory, then it is not worth it. But if you get involved with some projects and go to a lot of their events, then it will work. People want to do business with people they know. The chamber is a great way to get to know people.

From contributor T:
The Chamber is a good organization and works well for some manufacturers that I know with leads and what not, but we have a pretty good Chamber ourselves right here at WOODWEB. We have more resources and communication than I have ever seen anywhere. This is a glowing endorsement of the creators of this site. I think everyone who is involved has received some kind of help that is very hard to come by in this dog eat dog world that we have going on the outside.

From contributor G:
Something no has mentioned yet is networking. There are organizations that do nothing but this, such as BNI (Business Networking Inc.), which is a national organization.

Also think of joining some service organizations. This can put you in contact with decision makers or those folks who have ready cash for a new kitchen or are possibly looking at building a new home or cottage (I use the term cottage loosely, as the last one I worked on was approximately 3500 sq ft).

I don't know if you hunt, but Safari Club International has proven to be a great source for high quality work. Cabinetry, trophy rooms, upgrades throughout the house of the woodworking type.

I have advertised my backside off and some of this is necessary. However, I believe, especially for a new business, that it's not so much what you know but who you know.

From contributor M:
Pictures, pictures, pictures. They sell themselves. You can explain what you do and how good you do it till you are blue in the face and no one will know what you are talking about till they see it. You must know a bunch of different people in the other trades. Ask them to put the word in for you with some of the builders they work with (the good ones only), saying you are looking to bid on some work. I never met a builder who wasn't looking for an extra bid to see if he could do better. This is free, so any job you get is a bonus. Once you start building, take photos of absolutely everything. Hopefully you are fortunate enough to have taken photos of work you did while working for others. Get a web site up ASAP and put the name on everything you own - cards, truck, mailers, you name it. Name recognition pays off in the long term. Talk about what you do to everybody and anybody willing to listen. Talk till you are sick of hearing yourself. This is business - no point in being modest or worrying about talking too much. If you know what you are doing in the shop end, the work will come - don't worry. Don't make the mistake many of us did. Have a rock solid business plan!

Here was mine at first: I am a great cabinetmaker, so I will start my own business and make lots of money. What an idiot!

Build a quality product for a reasonable price and people will beat your door down in time.

Business plan, business plan. Always changing, always analyzing.

From the original questioner:
I can't thank everyone enough. I really appreciate the time you took to give me these ideas. Contributor T, nice booth! I'm going to look into the Chamber idea, as well as some home and furniture shows.

From contributor T:
This is in response to the original questioner, who said; "I like the home show idea, but I don't think I'm ready."

I designed this piece for a customer's house and asked if we could use it in the upcoming home show. The customer was ecstatic. He said sure. The entire unit was designed, drawn, built and installed in the convention center in four days. 15 guys working for four days till midnight each night to get the job done. Yours truly included. The paintings on the paneling were added because in the house there were a pair of French doors in their place. Everything else is as sold to the customer. We did the show and it was fabulous and we got lots of leads. We took the piece back to the shop and touched it up and shot it with another coat of clear and off to the customer, where it is to this day, no problems. I'm just showing what can be done. When you have a will, there is a way. The unit is 27 feet long. Mahogany and black lacquer.

From contributor M:
That is thinking outside the box. Wow.

I always thought there wasn't enough time and money to do a show, so that idea was shelved. You could do a ton of shows and always have something different. The only cost is set up and knock down. Full price for display.

Oh man. Got to get cracking on this one. Thanks - I was just about to go to bed.

Actually, it is more accurate to say it is smack dab in the middle of the box and I could not even see it with the blinders on. Just never thought it possible with built-in stuff. I was always thinking it had to be free standing pieces.

From contributor K:
Kudos... real nice stuff. Now my curiosity is piqued - what did you charge for that unit? Had to be one-of-a-kind, yes?

From contributor T:
It was one of a kind. I do the design and the engineering drawings only. I did do my small carpentry part for this job, and I was the third draftsman to get this project. The first two just couldn't make it work and the client was unhappy until I came along. I have done this type of show technique about six times and I have always asked the client first. I thought the clients would object, but in reality they were flattered, as if their pieces gained celebrity status. We gave the family free passes and the work we generated was well worth it. Our only investment was setting up the show and carting the piece around with some minor touchup and a fresh topcoat. Everyone was very happy. I hope it shows that there are alternatives to doing the shows.

The unit sold for $27,000. And yes, the light was too close to the mahogany balls and they were quite toasted. Please leave more room.

From contributor O:
Right now I don't do home shows, but I will tell you a tip from my telecom days of doing road shows. Be prepared to close the deal!

When I was with my previous employer, we did 3 telecom shows a year. Equipment, display, the whole nine yards. Ton of foot traffic. One guy finally said, "This guy wants to talk a buy, but I can't do it right here on the floor." We put in a curtained area next to the display and closed 8 deals by the end of the week.

So if you do home shows: 1) Have a small secluded area to talk to the customer one on one. Most customers don't like talking money in public. 2) Be prepared to close the deal then and there. Take that deposit and set the schedule. Your competition is probably not prepared to do that. 3) The woman dragged the man to the home show. You have to psyche her but convince him that if you close the deal now, he can get home and watch the game.