A s a newcomer to the industry, I've noticed that every home improvement contractor I talk to says that lead generation is his company's biggest challenge. Everyone talks about canvassing, about revamping media efforts, and website optimization. But in the scramble to find the magic bullet of marketing, there is no consensus on the issue of lead generation. Many owners end up trying one thing after another.

Coming from the advertising business, I've found that this jump from idea to idea and concept to concept always proves to be a mistake. Many contractors who bounce from one marketing idea to the next still have problems getting the phone to ring despite their efforts.

Brand Awareness

At Hullco Exteriors, we've opted to stay the course. At the same time, we do what we do in a more strategic way. Why experiment when times are tough?

In 2008 our company spent 4.5% of revenue on marketing. Our marketing mix consists of TV, radio, some direct mail, Yellow Pages listings, a home show, and website maintenance. Our budget for that is less than half the industry standard ? 11.8% of sales for bigger companies ? but we've managed to reach our target customer.

We do that by going where they go. We advertise on the local ABC, NBC, and CBS affiliates. We air commercials during local news and on cable. We run on CNN, Fox News, and HGTV. And we run frequently. Rather than 30-second ads, we negotiated a deal to run "bookends," which are 15-second spots at the beginning and end of the commercial break. This allows our ad to be seen even by channel surfers, while giving us more exposure to those who stay tuned in. We also advertise on the top four adult radio stations, which play country, classic rock, talk/news, and adult contemporary to reach the 35-to-64-year-old demographic.

Getting media right is crucial, but without a message that differentiates, it wouldn't mean much. Our biggest competitors advertise price and sales offers. We focus on customer testimonials. Owner Matt Hullander introduces and closes each commercial, but the centerpiece is customers talking about their Hullco experience. We have four customer bits that rotate, and our ads look, feel, and sound the same. And because of the way we've made our ad buys, the people who saw us on local news at home hear us in the car on their way to work. We end every ad with "Hey, buddy, call Hullco!"

A Lead is a Lead

Many businesses get sidetracked trying to measure their advertising. The reality is when you ask prospects how they heard about your company, they often don't remember or their recollection is inaccurate. For example, when Hullco began using TV advertising, more people told us they heard about Hullco through the Yellow Pages. In reality, it was TV that influenced them to call.

The point is that it's not one ad or one medium that delivers a lead. It's all media working together. The same people who watch TV also listen to radio. Leads are leads.

The only way to become and remain the market leader is to accept all the changes in the industry and the market, and respond. Our marketing has combined three key elements: a compelling message, the right media, and a strategy of consistent repetition to build top-of-mind awareness. A recognized brand leads to inquiries, and inquiries lead to sales.

The result? A 20% increase in leads last year, an 11% increase in sales revenue, and a closing ratio in excess of 50%. We've managed to keep our cost per lead to around $150. Sticking to a solid plan has resulted in growth in uncertain economic times.

?Brian Brock is sales manager at Hullco Exteriors, in Chattanooga, Tenn.