Advertising not working? Many home improvement companies have downsized their marketing budgets, taking the dollars that remain and pouring them into direct marketing or so-called "face-to-face" marketing ? shows, events, in-store selling and selling in malls, and canvassing. Advertising, from direct mail to newsprint to radio, home improvement company owners believe, is too much a roll of the dice. Media lead costs are out of sight these days.

It's a smart idea to go where the leads are. The thinking goes: Direct-marketing sources are high-maintenance but scalable and a sure way to produce leads. So back up your direct-marketing efforts by investing some marketing dollars in the Internet (so people who are looking can actually find you) and you'll get through the recession a-OK. Right?

Actually, you might be doing a lot of work you don't need to, and there may be leads out there you're not getting that, with a minimal amount of effort, would be coming your way. The truth is that for most home improvement companies, direct response (or face-to-face marketing) versus branded advertising is not an either/or proposition. It's both/and.

The more kinds of marketing you do, the more likely you are to reach new prospects. For instance, if your media leads are way too expensive, it would be worthwhile to consider direct response, and you probably already have. How much can you spend with absolutely zero return before it starts really hurting your business?

But the smarter strategy is to do both face-to-face and media. And the worst way to react to slow sales is to eliminate or radically scale back your marketing budget, thereby removing your company from the public eye altogether.

Residual Effects

If you've scaled back, let me ask two questions. First, how long have you been advertising in your market? Say you've been in business 25 years, and for most of that time have been advertising in your market in whatever are your chosen media. There are consumers out there who know your company and what it does. There may not be as many as you think, but there are some. If you've been advertising for 20 years, you probably have some share of mind and can afford to allocate fewer marketing dollars to direct response and more to advertising. But if you completely pull away from advertising, people may forget who you are or what you do. They don't have 10 or 20 years of history on their brains. They remember somewhere in the range of six to 10 months, and if you wait longer than that, it will be as if you never advertised at all.

Second, how effective ? meaningful and engaging ? is the advertising you are (or were) doing? There are dozens, if not hundreds, of home improvement companies in any given market all fighting to get homeowners' attention. To grab that attention, you must give homeowners a brand promise. You also have to engage them in a way that's different from the other companies in your area.

When a company's advertising doesn't pull, it's usually for one of three reasons: 1) The ads are full of platitudes, "We're the biggest. We're the best." No one pays attention to that. 2) The message is right but the timing is off. You tell people, for instance, that your windows will save them energy. But what if they don't know they're losing energy? 3) Companies run an ad or two, get no response, and just quit.

Promise Me

Ask yourself why a prospect would want to do business with you rather than another contractor. Figure that out ? make a list of reasons and eliminate all but the most powerful one ? and make that your brand promise. Then build your brand image around that promise. Take a look at everything that represents your company: logo, website, trucks, job signs, business cards, company shirts, etc. Do they look professional? Do they cohere or are they a mishmash of colors and designs? If there's no cohesion, there's no clear promise being made.

Next, figure out how to get some attention. This may require hiring professionals to design your ads, which costs money, but if the ads pull, it's worth it. Give prospects something that engages them.