How Traditional Advertising Fits In with an Inbound Marketing Plan

Some of my fellow PMG team members and I just finished putting together an advertising buy for a client.

Yep, you read that right: an advertising buy. As in print, TV, and radio.

Nope: lightning didn't strike me as I wrote that sentence.

And nobody has taken away my inbound credentials either.

I know this might be surprising to some readers. After all, inbound is all about creating lovable, delightful marketing that people flock to organically. No more intrusive marketing, like commercials, right?


Well, not so fast.

When it comes to effective marketing, it's not an either/or scenario. You don't need to choose inbound or outbound. For many businesses, a combo approach is what leads to long-term success.

Outbound channels, such as print, TV, and radio, still work. In fact, I'd argue that we can create better ads today, given what we know about inbound. And that's a good thing.

But should every business invest in advertising? How do you put together a successful “ad buy” anyway? And how can you make it work seamlessly with your inbound marketing plan?

This post aims to answer those questions…and more.

Before you jump, understand your overall marketing plan and goals.

Before you dive into an advertising buy, make sure your big-picture marketing plan is up to snuff. It's easy—too easy—to be taken in by a slick sales rep who promises lots of business thanks to a flight of commercials with added-value promos to boot. You might think "Why not? What do I have to lose?"

Money, for one thing.

And muddying up your marketing goals for another.

Remember, if you opt for outbound marketing strategies, it's essential they work in harmony with your inbound strategies.

Before agreeing to an ad buy, you need to ask yourself if it makes sense, given your goals and your business's current marketing landscape.

For example, if you're in the process of redesigning and relaunching your website, an ad buy wouldn't make sense right now. Why send people to a site that's still under development or that's still so new that you haven't had time to work out the glitches?

Not to mention you're going to want to see what sort of ROI the new website delivers. You might discover that you've created a lead-generating machine and you have more business than you can handle (because THAT is the magic of inbound; when done right and consistently, you can expect those sorts of results over time).

Or maybe you haven't been taking advantage of all the inbound marketing tools already at your disposal. We find this a lot with our HubSpot customers—they love the platform and all that HubSpot has to offer, but they haven't had the time or resources to implement everything. In this case, it would make more sense to strengthen your existing inbound machine (since you're already paying for it) rather than adding more dollars into an advertising buy.

But let's say your marketing plan is strong: you blog regularly. You have excellent landing pages that convert. Your site is optimized. You have solid lead nurturing set up. You're getting traffic and conversions, but not enough—you want more. And you want more brand visibility in general, perhaps because you have multiple physical locations/storefronts.

In this case, a traditional ad buy might make sense.

Again, it's never a "one size fits all" answer. You need to consider your current marketing plan and weigh the pros and cons of an outbound effort, such as advertising.

But let's say you DO want to move forward with advertising. What next?

Keep reading…

Know what media your audience engages with.

This goes back to the all-important buyer persona work. Don't assume you know what your customers and prospects watch, read, or listen to—ask them directly, and ask them to be specific (i.e., providing titles of shows, call letters for radio stations, etc.)

If you talk to enough people, you will see some common threads. And while not overly scientific, it will give you a good sense if you're considering the right advertising "players."

Understand your advertising goals: action vs. exposure/branding

Advertising often works as a way to reinforce your existing brand. The idea being that the more times people encounter your company's name or your specific product or service, the better recall they will have when they're on the hunt for what you sell…or when they're in a position to buy.

On the other hand, some ads have a specific purpose. They ask you to take action by calling now, visiting a specific web page, or stopping by a store to get a limited-time offer. There's often a sense of urgency to these ads.

Sometimes, of course, the action—the "ask"—is more subtle and less urgent. The ad serves as a branding device for the product/service, but with the idea being you should check out this product/service at some point.

Here's an example from my own life that shows the power of branding and the subtle ask. I'm primarily a Netflix girl, but occasionally, I'll watch a freebie movie through Xfinity On Demand. The movie might be "free," but it pauses every 15 or 20 minutes to play ads. Fine.

Well, during a recent freebie binge, I kept seeing ads for this new thing called Dole Dippers—dark chocolate covered frozen fruits like bananas, strawberries, and pineapple. "Available in the frozen food aisle," the ads promised. I saw the ad probably a dozen times during my binge-fest, and I was intrigued—I thought the combo of dark chocolate and fruit would be enough to satisfy my sweet tooth without spiraling my daily calories out of control.

A couple weeks after seeing the ads, I found myself in the frozen food aisle debating what to get for a treat. I suddenly remembered the ads and the promise of dark chocolate and fruit, all thanks to Dole. I easily found the Dole Dippers, and I bought them (and I've continued buying them).

So there's an example of branding—I've grown up on the Dole name; most of us have—and a subtle ask. Standing in the frozen food aisle, debating a treat, I remembered the commercial for Dole Dippers and bought them since I viewed the product as a healthful alternative.

Figure out how to track results.

Here's the thing: you likely won't be able to track conversions on every ad (especially print) and certainly not with the same precision that we've all come to know and love with inbound marketing methods. But there are still strategies you can implement that will help.

Use call tracking phone numbers. You can assign a specific number to a specific ad. This will help you measure an ad's effectiveness and ROI. There are many vendors on the market. A popular one is CallRail.com.

Ask new customers/clients how they heard about you. You should be doing this anyway, but especially if you're running ads/commercials across multiple channels, such as TV, radio, print, and digital ads.

When promoting a web page in an ad, make the URL ad-specific. This will tell you which ad/media is driving traffic to a specific page.
  • Pro tip: Make sure Google doesn't index your ad-specific URL (that way people won't be able to find the page organically—they will need to come in directly from the URL that someone types into a browser).
Note spikes in web and phone traffic. If you run ads on radio and TV, you'll be given the flight info, i.e. when the spots are running. Check your analytics to see if there's a spike in web traffic within the minutes/hour after an ad airs. (Ditto with phone calls.)
  • Pro tip: Even if you include a unique URL in the ad, people might still go to your main site or simply google your name to get there—so be conscious of general traffic spikes to your site, not just the ad-specific URL. Even though you won't definitively be able to say one way or the other if the spot's the reason the traffic spiked, it's a fair assumption. And, of course, pay attention to conversions. Increased traffic is one thing; increased traffic that converts into leads is another. Make sure you have a clear offer on the home page since this will be a popular entry point.

Understand that advertising isn't cheap.

Sure, an occasional ad in your town newspaper is probably something most small- and medium-sized businesses can afford. But if you're talking a longer run—say a print ad that runs every week in The Boston Globe over eight weeks, plus a five-month radio flight, plus a six-month TV flight—now we're talking BIG numbers. By big, you could be facing six figures at a minimum.

Define your budget.

When it comes to advertising, you shouldn't be coy regarding your dollars. Figure out what you can reasonably earmark towards advertising. If you're a marketer working on a client's behalf, you need two numbers: what the client is willing to spend on advertising and what the client will need to spend having you manage the buys and create the ads.

Figure out your definition of success.

How can you say if an ad buy was successful if you haven't defined what you mean by success? See, this is where it gets tricky, especially with advertising. You can attempt to track results, but you often won't know precisely how effective that three-month print run in the big regional paper was.

Or will you? If sales are up during that time, and you can't attribute it to anything else, you might call that a success.

Bottom line: figure out what success looks like (as well as failure).

  • Pro tip: If you do "fail" at the end of the ad buy (whatever you determine failure means), keep in mind that it might not be advertising in general that has failed you, but that particular buy. Perhaps you didn't focus on the right medium or you didn't have a compelling message.

I realize this isn't necessarily comforting, since these sorts of "near misses" come with hefty price tags. This is why advertising is NOT for every business.

Prepare for an onslaught of advertising requests.

I used to work in radio on the programming and promotions side, not sales. But I did see how the sales reps operated. One approach: the reps paid attention to where businesses were already advertising—and not just in radio. They'd read the local papers and note businesses that were running ads but that were NOT currently running any spots with the station. They knew these businesses were already open to advertising, so they would reach out to the business owners to see if they might be interested in radio.

Once you show your openness to advertising by running some ads, everyone will want to court you. Fielding requests for meetings and reviewing proposals can be overwhelming, which is why outsourcing this task does make sense.

  • Pro tip: Putting together a solid plan takes time. It's rare when you decide you want to run an ad or spot today and you "get on the air" or in print tomorrow. You should figure a month or two for planning, reviewing proposals, and making the final decision. From there, you'll need to put together the initial creative. So if you seriously start thinking about a substantial advertising buy today (I'm not talking a "one-off" ad), you could be looking at 6-12 weeks before your ads even hit. Keep this in mind from a planning perspective.

Know how to deal with sales reps and proposals.

When evaluating proposals…

  • Review the demographics and reach. Make sure you're considering a medium that makes sense. And don't let the sales rep sway you. Look at the numbers. I was in a situation where my client wanted to advertise its Plymouth, Mass. location. One of the pubs we had originally been looking at was a good fit from an age perspective and for the client's other locations. But this particular pub did not reach the Plymouth market at all. The sales rep tried to convince us it would work (and she made some decent arguments), but at the end of the day, it didn't make sense for this particular marketing goal. We might very well return to the publication in the future when the marketing goals shift.
  • Make sure you're comparing apples to apples. When requesting proposals from sales reps, let them know what you're looking to accomplish: the goal, the market you're trying to reach, the length of the flight you have in mind (but be open), and the budget. This way when you're comparing proposals from two different radio stations, for example, you're comparing apples to apples.

When talking budgets…

I don't think you need to show your full hand since you'll be negotiating. But once you have a sense of your overall budget, figure out how you want to break it down in terms of print, radio, and TV and share the relevant info accordingly.

So let's say (for the purpose of easy math) that your overall ad budget for six months is 100K. You want a mix of print, radio, and TV, but you know the radio and TV portion will be bigger. You might decide to earmark 60K for radio/TV and 40K for print. If you have your eye on a big print pub, you might tell them the budget is 20K and then for 3-4 smaller print pubs, you might ask them to put together a plan for 5-6K each.

Everyone needs numbers to work with. And if you don't give the sales reps at least some guidelines, they're going to deliver pricier budgets (because that's their job) and then you'll need to send them back to the drawing board. It wastes everyone's time.

But if you tell a sales rep, "I have 10K earmarked for a potential buy with you; what can you put together, given my goals?" You'll get a package that meets those goals. (And yes, you can always negotiate further.)

When considering added-value items…

Every medium right now—print, TV, radio—offers digital advertising. They ALL have websites (and many take part in third-party ad networks as well). This is an added source of revenue for them and an easy way to "sweeten" ad-buy packages.

For me, the jury is still out regarding the true value of these digital add-ons, simply because you (and often they) don't have a ton of control over where the digital ads will appear.

My partners in crime and I got to a point where we even requested that some of the sales reps not even include this in the proposal—we wanted to put any extra dollars towards the main medium we were interested in.

The same is true regarding social media posts. Bigger radio/TV stations will have many fans and followers, but remember that when they post to Facebook, for example, only a small fraction of the fans will see the post. So don't accept "general social media posts" as part of the buy—make sure the channel/station boosts the post (this is for Facebook) so it actually reaches critical mass.

In my mind, the best added value is usually freebie spots/ads. So if that big-time newspaper gives you 10 ads for the price of eight, that could be a decent way to go since you could extend the run by two weeks.

  • Pro tip: Certain things will cost more. For example, live radio reads/endorsements (by a popular morning disc jockey, for example) will cost more but tend to be more effective as well.

Beware the desire to do it all.

Here's what might happen as the proposals roll in. You're going to find you want to do it all. And you might find yourself leaning towards programs you never considered, thanks to a slick presentation. And suddenly you're questioning whether to increase your overall budget.


Look, there's nothing wrong with considering something new or something you hadn't thought of. But always keep your goals and inbound marketing plan in mind as well as your budget. You came up with that original budget number for a reason. Unless you have a good argument for exceeding it, stick with it. You can always try the new program, the new station, whatever during the next buy.

Pay attention to the creative.

You might think that once you place the ad buy, the hard part is over. You'd be mistaken. Now, you have to focus on the creative: the actual ads.

The way the creative works will depend on the medium, particularly the size. For example, a larger newspaper will likely have its own art department and will create the ad for you at no additional cost. Smaller pubs will have smaller art departments and might charge a fee on top of your ad buy. If you have an in-house marketing department (including a designer and copywriter), they can create the ad for you. You might decide to rotate multiple ads (and see which converts better).

Every publication will have different specs. Most have this info already packaged for you. Make sure you have it, and if you're having your in-house designer create the ads, make sure you share it with him or her and that the designer is all set. I had a situation where the publication gave me basic specs, which I thought were enough, but when I showed them to the designer, she needed more info.

Keep in mind that even if the publication designs the print ads for you, you should still provide copy and direction.

Speaking of copy…the key with advertising is this: less is more. Sure, you have SO many messages and points you want to hit, but remember when it comes to print ads, people will likely be skimming (if that). And radio and TV ads work similarly, where people are often only half listening, if at all.

For print, opt for clear, concise headlines and sub-headlines that communicate your points. Make sure your logo/business name is large enough so it registers in people's brains. If you're asking people to take some sort of action, make sure THAT is clear.

Getting cute or coy with the copy might sound appealing, but unless it truly works (and you'd want confirmation from multiple sources that it does—your marketing team, your ad rep, perhaps even informal focus groups), leave the cute and coy copy to advertisers who've been at it longer and have deeper pockets.

For print, the investment in full color is worth it because it will stand out against black-and-white ads. And keep in mind that you'll need high quality, high-resolution images for print ads as well (so this could potentially be another expense if you have to invest in professional photography).

  • Pro tip: Create a Dropbox folder with all of your assets: logos in all formats, brand/style guide, high-resolution photos. You'll have everything in one place, and you can easily share the link with your contacts at the various publications/stations. (Trust me: they will appreciate this!)

For radio and TV, again it depends on the size. Bigger stations will likely request copy points from you. They, in turn, will develop the spots for your approval. Or sometimes you might be asked to write your own spots.

Writing a TV/radio commercial is a different beast. A conversational style is critical. If you're responsible for drafting radio copy, record the spot (use the recording app on your phone), just so you can hear what it might sound like. Hearing the spot will reveal places where you can revise/smooth things over. The read should sound natural and have an easy-going flow.

You should write it in second-person or third, not first (because if the spot says something like "Come in here to get this awesome deal," it almost sounds like you're supposed to go to the radio station). The only time first person would be OK is if someone from the station is endorsing your product/service (and that would be a paid endorsement that would be revealed in the ad: "Awesome Company asked me to use their product for 30 days and I did and here's what I discovered…").

  • Pro tip: In radio and TV spots, I usually recommend giving only web addresses rather than phone numbers. And there's no need to say "w-w-w." Just give the URL: precisionmarketinggroup.com. There are exceptions, of course: a much older audience (think 65+) might prefer phone numbers. This goes back to understanding your audience.

And keep this in mind: deadlines matter, especially for print! If you miss the deadline, you'll be out of luck until the next deadline.

Final Thoughts: Advertising is a long game.

You can't run one or two ads and expect an influx of business. Sure, you might get lucky, but that would be the exception, not the rule. Successful advertising is all about the long game.


When I first entered the copywriting business fifteen years ago (pre social media), the rule of thumb regarding ads went like this: a person needed to see an ad at least seven times before it truly registered.

Considering how noisy our lives are today (thanks to social media and smartphones), I'd be willing to bet it takes double that number now (at least). This is why advertising is about the long game—meaning longer print runs and longer radio/TV flights. (This means more money, of course.)

So, no: advertising is not for every business (nor is it necessary). But when done right, it can complement an existing inbound strategy quite well.

Considering advertising or other outbound strategies? Wondering how it will fit in with your inbound marketing plan? We can help.

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Robyn Bradley | Content Marketer
About the Author
Robyn Bradley, Content Marketer

Robyn Bradley has been a Content Marketer for PMG since 2006. When she’s not writing, she’s…oh, wait, she’s always writing! She loves integrating real experiences with real clients into her blogs and translating them so that any business can benefit from reading. Complete with her world-famous laser-focus, you can find her crafting articles that help other people in the marketing world find success.