OK let's say you just put huge bucks into an investment, an investment that you couldn't touch for a year. Furthermore, let's say that much of your income at the end of that year depended on the success of this one investment.

You'd be really serious about choosing that investment, wouldn't you?

But that's pretty much what happens with Yellow Pages advertising. Many of you easily invest half of your entire marketing budget on Yellow Pages, only to wonder whether it's worth the money it cost.

Considering the amount of money and the length of time, plus the fact you're seen next to every competitor you have in the same Yellow Pages, your ad must stand out.

We've put together a phony Yellow Pages ad to accompany this article, which may make more mistakes than most. Nor is it all bad. It does raise good points that end up buried in clutter. Bottom line - it just doesn't stand out.

Let's start where everyone starts - the headline.

A headline is worth 80 percent of your ad's ability to pull leads. Your headline is the most valuable real estate on the ad, and this one has no customer benefits.

The big reason customers go to the Yellow Pages is to get plumbing work done quickly, period.

"But that's where my customers go to find me!" you say (especially after the Yellow Pages rep has suitably brainwashed you.) If your customers are going to the Yellow Pages to find you, you have a serious customer retention problem. Maybe we can cover that in another issue.

Your company name is not a headline. "Since 1986" isn't either. Nor is "Plumbing" especially since we can assume your literate public found the right page. (I mean, why waste expensive space telling him again?) You've got to launch into "reasons why" a customer is looking at the ad in the first place. And that's done with a clear, concise statement of meaningful benefits to the customer.

Next, I'd like you to just look at the ad and tell what its message is. Where is the reader supposed to go with this ad? Everywhere at once? Or to the next ad? Don't give readers that option, so consider this tip:

Grid your message. What I mean is simply draw a tic-tac-toe board through your ad. Number spaces 1-3 across then all the way to 9 in the bottom right. Spaces 1-3 are the most valuable by far (they include that all-important headline).

Eye pattern studies show the viewer's eyes goes quickly on the diagonal back through the ad, (3, 5, 7) and, I hope, stop at something interesting. Then, their eyes land at 9, which is surprisingly next in value to the headline space. So the best thing about this ad is the phone number in space 9.

This is also known as "Z-pattern" advertising. Your ad should look like a small magazine article with "pods" of interest that entertain instead of confuse. How?

What we call "benefit blocks" help. Put customer benefits in an easy-to-find line up, not scattered all over like a broken dish. Remember, don't tell me what it is; tell me what it does. That's the only way customers attach value. You tell them what it is and you invite comparative shopping. Tell them what it does and you solve problems.

Also, mentally "fix" the problem they have and you'll be light years - and leads - ahead of all the ads that say, "Toilets. Sinks. Sales. Installation. Service. Drains. Pipes. Septic Tanks." Instead, how about something straight to the point: "Do you need a new _______?"

On our ad, I really like the "No Extra Charge" part, but prospects won't know if this means others do charge for it, or if this company is making a big deal out of nothing. In a bullet point, you could say: "No extra charge for weekends or holidays - unlike others, Pro Plumbing doesn't make you pay extra to get extras."

I'd also separate the "Travel time charge" into another benefit bullet. The more the better. You want to "stack" value.

Finally, no bragging allowed. This is really, really tough advice for most advertisers to understand. The natural tendency is to say all sorts of great things about yourself so people will be more inclined to call. That's why 90 percent of the ads start off with "We" and "Our" or "ABC Plumbing does XYZ right."

But people don't care about that. People only care how your qualifications serve them. Therefore, the subject line becomes "You" or "Your." Rather than "We have _____," it's "You get ____ ."

Solution Time

You're paying a fortune for your Yellow Pages ad. It is supposed to produce leads, not showcase your vans, silly graphics, or spout innumerable sentence fragments.

What if you could double your lead count and do it for less money? Would that impact your business? Is this even possible? Let's find out.

I can't rewrite ads in this article, but I can critique your ad for free. Just fax your Yellow Pages ad (or postcard or letter for that matter) to us at 334/262-1115 with your polite request, and we'll send you a one-page critique telling what's broken and how we'd fix it. (We may use it for a future article - with the names and phone numbers changed to protect the guilty!) You can also e-mail the ad to freestuff@hudsonink.com.

Your marketing is an investment. If it doesn't pay, either yank it or change it. Get creative and use the techniques we described or get a free critique. Make your Yellow Pages ad pay you for a change!