Why the Best Advertising Just Might Be Free

Andrezej Koziol

Last month, I was doing some major work on a house when I ran into a problem I couldn’t handle. I needed a plumber, so I did what a lot of people do — I turned to the nearest telephone directory. At the top of the PLUMBING section, I saw the name AAA++ Plumbing*, and promptly skipped right over it. (More about why I did that later).

First, a short history of plumbing industry marketing: many service company names begin with A, or AA or AAA (often with symbols and/or numbers following the A’s). Why? In the dark ages (before the internet), this marketing strategy was adopted to catapult the company with the most A’s to the top of the telephone directory heap.

It was like an alphabet arms race which, in our infinitely wise hind-sight, surely could only be won by the next guy who was reckless enough to put even more A’s at the front of his company name. The madness could have led to AAAAAAAAAA Plumbing, but just in time the directories started offering display ads – effectively moving the alphabet war mentality to a new front.

Today, those same companies with names containing a bunch of AAs are pouring their marketing dollars into larger and larger space ads. Seemingly small companies are buying two-page spreads, while the larger conglomerates pay for a spread, the back cover, a magnet pasted on the cover AND are now buying billboards and television ads.

Now as a marketing professional, I’m very supportive of companies spending money on advertising. But those ad dollars need to be spent well. You see, as a plumbing consumer, I shied away from calling the plumbers with the biggest ads, billboards or annoying television commercials. I just wanted to know which plumber could do the work quickly without charging me an arm and a leg.

All the ads that I saw told me that these companies were spending a small fortune to get my attention but they weren’t effective at differentiating themselves from their competition. So I closed the phone book, picked up my phone, and started calling friends and acquaintances instead of plumbers.

I got mostly negative recommendations, something you hear a lot when you ask people about their personal service experiences. In fact, I had a negative experience myself several years ago with the aforementioned AAA++ Plumbing. They may be the winner of the phone directory alphabet war, but they’ve lost my business, and that of anyone with whom I’ve shared my negative experience.

So, let’s cut this long story short, and move on to the moral of the story.

Through my word-of-mouth network, I did find a good, reasonably priced plumber who took care of my problem. He did great work, and I’ll heartily recommend him even though his name is not at the top of the directory, and he doesn’t have a display ad.

As this plumber wrote up my paperwork, I got the chance to talk to him a little about marketing. He’s planning to buy a phone directory ad, and he’s hired a professional to build his website. Two good moves that I strongly believe are worthwhile. BUT I offered him some free advice, as I’ll offer to anyone who’s read this article through to the end: keep in mind that while word-of-mouth marketing is not glamorous, and there’s nobody trying to sell it to you, it is still THE most effective advertising available, and it cuts through the clutter of the hundreds of marketing messages we’re subjected to every single day.

To sum it up, if you don’t do good work and treat your customers right, you’ll always be fighting an uphill battle to stay in business. But if you do exceptional work, and go out of your way to treat customers well, the free word-of-mouth generated on your behalf will be priceless.

* Any company names used are hypothetical