In 1895, C.W. Post, the breakfast cereal guy, established a marketing tradition by offering, in a newspaper ad, a small square of paper that could be redeemed at the grocer's for one cent off the price of a box of Grape-Nuts. Today, according to The Nielsen Co., 76% of American households routinely redeem coupons, and more than 60% of consumers actively scan advertising in search of them.

It's a leap from cereal to siding, but coupons still have the power to stop the reader and drive response. Here's how to get the best results:

  • A coupon in an ad is visual shorthand for a special offer. The offer must be clear and compelling and the coupon quickly recognizable as a coupon — it should be rectangular, not round or oval.
  • The dotted line indicates “coupon,” so make it a bold dotted line. And, if you're working with color, give the coupon panel a contrasting color so it stands out more. Include a dollar figure representing savings. Percentage-off is less effective, and “fifth-window-free”-type offers are better handled in a headline.
  • The coupon itself should include the company identity and contact information so that if the coupon is clipped and stuck on the refrigerator, the response mechanism is still intact.
  • When dealing with smaller-space units, consider using the coupon itself for the ad's signature, with your logo and phone number appearing only in the coupon.
  • If a competitor publishes a coupon worth more than yours, make the design and copy of your next ad better than his, and you'll get as many leads as he does without sacrificing credibility or closing percentage.
  • An expiration date imparts some urgency.
  • It's customary to use a code on or near the coupon to track ad performance. An alternative is to use the coupon amount as the code.
  • When offering an online promotion, offer an unspecified discount when the home owner provides contact information. When the information is captured, present a coupon, dotted line and all, which can be printed out.

Mr. Post would be amazed.
—John Stevens is a partner in Peterson/Stevens, an advertising agency specializing in brand-building and lead generation for the home improvement industry. 800.270.0911;