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How one publisher delighted its advertisers

Yesterday I mentioned the building blocks of an effective, simple product advert. Here’s a story of how this was quietly used in one obscure corner of print publishing for many years to great effect. It’s also something of an admission!

Let’s go back to the 1990s, when I edited a print magazine. The most cost-effective adverts in this were always the tiny ‘free literature’ ones at the back of each issue. They always beat the big ‘display adverts’ hands down in terms of number of enquiries.

The ‘free literature’ adverts just said: “here’s a brochure you can get easily” and stated a couple of benefits about the product. Simple and very effective. Readers loved them.

Major advertisers, of course, always preferred expensive full-page adverts at the front, because they had managing directors to impress. Of course, we would encourage this, because the big adverts made us a lot more money. Most of these adverts, created at great expense by the advertiser, looked more like corporate branding exercises than attempts to generate enquiries. The truth was, however, that they had been designed to generate enquiries – just designed badly.

Our solution

The problem for us was that major advertisers would frequently report back how disappointed they were with the response to their expensive advert. We knew that this was because they didn’t follow the simple structure mentioned yesterday, but they wouldn’t have wanted to be told it was their fault.

Our solution was simple, and we got away with it for years. Whenever we got an order for an expensive full-page advert, we’d generate an accompanying small ‘free literature’ advert later in the same issue, advertising the same product. And we’d give it the same ‘enquiry number’, so the advertiser (even if they noticed the small ad!) wouldn’t know which of the two had actually generated the bulk of the response.

Can you guess which one it was?

They were uniformly delighted at how many more enquiries their flag-waving advert got in our magazine, compared to its competitors. And we found ourselves with a hugely successful magazine on our hands.