Tightwad Marketing

Build your service business through online classified ads

John Kuraoka, a project of www.kuraoka.com

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Online classified ads are an almost ideal Tightwad Marketing tool. They are typically localized, searchable, and free. And some popular classified sites, like Craigslist, come with a ready-made audience ranging from the thousands to the hundreds of thousands.

In other words, you can achieve the targeted reach of your local newspaper or shopper advertising, for free.

The case for using such classified ad websites gets even stronger when you consider that anyone searching them is in a seek-to-hire mode, something that can't be said about most paid media.

Here's an actual case history. I happened to be my handyman's first customer obtained through Craigslist. He did an excellent job, and we used him for many other household projects. The last time I hired him, he estimated that over the past three years or so, he'd gotten about $150,000 worth of work through Craigslist. I'll repeat that: $150,000 over three years just through placing free ads on one local online classified site.

Let's look at what he's doing that's dead-on right.

First, he's a good and careful craftsman. So, he earns respect, referrals, and repeat business. Almost every customer he gets, he keeps - not only that, but each one becomes a referral source to get even more business.

Second, he makes sure his ad is always there. He has two or three ads that he rotates. Even though ads fall off the first page after a day or two, one or more of his ads turns up if someone searches for a handyman. He doesn't worry about "top-posting" - instead, he focuses on being found by people who are actively searching for his services. Consistency really pays off for him.

Third, having embraced a technological solution - online classfieds - he uses technology to get the most out of it. Emailed inquiries are forwarded to his mobile phone, so he can respond promptly either by texting or calling. He also uses text messaging to stay in touch with his "back office" (his wife).

That said, there are a few catches to using free online classifieds to promote your services.

First, those websites tend to attract people looking for bargains, so the leads generated tend to be better for lower-priced service providers than for professionals at the upper end of their industry's pay scale. Also, most general-audience classified sites tend to work better for blue-collar-type enterprises than white-collar: a handyman, housecleaner, or lawn maintenance company will probably get more-consistent results than a corporate attorney or advertising agency.

Second, and again this is just the nature of the beast, there is a ton of competition in online classifieds. Your challenge is two-fold: to stand out, and, once noticed, to establish your credibility. We'll talk about establishing credibility first.

Credibility is essential in persuading browsers to choose you over the other advertisers. Correct spelling and reasonably proper grammar is, therefore, very important. Even though many potential customers might not be good spellers, most of them can tell if something just "looks" wrong with your ad, and are likely to attribute it to something more-important than your proofreading ability.

Two big credibility boosters are using your full real name and business phone number in your ad listing. It also helps to include your website URL, so people can get more information about you and your services. Make it easy for people to choose you!

Use a "company" email address (as opposed to one from a free email service), and generally don't hide it behind an anonymized email account or forwarding service. Many free classified ad sites offer such options, but the reduction in junk you'll receive is minimal and must be weighed against the increase in credibility you get by posting an actual business email address. Install reliable spam-blocking software and a good firewall on your computer, rather than hiding behind an anonymous identity.

If you can, upload one or two relevant photos. They offer visual proof of your ability and often highlight your listing with a "photo" icon (hold that thought). Some ideas for images include work samples, a before-and-after picture set, a professional-looking portrait, locator or service area maps, or logos.

Making your online classified ad stand out: now we come to the nitty-gritty - making your listing catch the eye in a sea of other listings. We already talked about one way to gain an edge: posting a relevant photo with your ad. But there are a few more.

But first, a few don'ts: Don't use ALL CAPS, don't use irrelevant headlines, don't post in irrelevant categories or regions, and don't include lists of keywords. Those are all ways to irritate the community of users, and may get your listings removed. Another thing that irritates readers of online classifieds: ad copy that goes on and on. Get to the point quickly.

On Craigslist, your ad heading can be up to 70 characters long, including spaces. Some classified ad sites have more-restrictive limits. So, given that you have a limited number of characters to draw people to your posting ... how do you do it?

One approach is simply to list some of the most-popular services you offer, knowing that people who are looking for those things will click on every posting that seems relevant.

Another approach is to highlight the problem your services solves.

A third approach is to identify what differentiates you from competitive service providers. With the proliferation of companies spamming free online classified sites with listings in multiple categories or regions, one reliable way to stand out is to identify yourself as a local business.

Use all of these methods to develop several listings, so that you can always have one or another running on the first couple pages of your classified category. For example, a plumber might have one listing headlined:
Plumber fixes leaks, clears drains, installs toilets

And another headlined:
Leaky faucet? Clogged sink? Plumber available now!

And another headlined:
Professional plumber: experienced, licensed, insured
Fresno's favorite plumber: member BBB, prompt, professional service

See which pulls better, what you are or what you do. For example, auto mechanic vs. auto repair. Just one word could make a difference. For example:
Local plumber fixes leaks, clears clogs, remodels bathrooms
Tim's Plumbing fixes leaks, clears clogs, remodels bathrooms

In this economy, everyone's sensitive to price. So test your competitive differentiator against a "control" of mere low cost if you can back it up. For example:
Licensed professional plumber, bonded, BBB
Licensed plumber, experienced, affordable

Rotate them and keep trying different language for your listing headings. If you find one approach consistently works best, develop more ad listings using the same or similar approaches. Also, try long and short versions, because sometimes one or the other may be more eye-catching in a list of headings. For instance:
Plumber fixes leaks, clears drains, installs toilets
-and -
Licensed plumber fixes leaks, clears drains, installs toilets and sinks

Finally, if you can spare five or six character spaces in your listing heading, you can use HTML dingbats to call attention to your heading. For instance:
► Leaky faucet? Clogged sink? I can help today!
- or -
A local, licensed plumber you'll ♥!

Personally, I think these are more attention-getting when placed at the start of the listing than at the end, but the online classified ad sites you use may be different.

Here's a list of HTML symbols to use!
All these HTML dingbats were tested in Internet Explorer 7, in mid-2008. If certain symbols do not display as-described, don't be alarmed - it's just that some browsers and some browser versions aren't compatible with all of these codes. For instance, just in the time I was working on compiling the list of symbols and codes, IE lost support for most of the white versions of these symbols! So, what had worked before didn't work any more. I've provided alternate codes for some symbols.

Usage Note: All the symbols use the following protocol: &#(code); -that is, ampersand/pound/code/semicolon - except for those, as marked, which dispense with the # (pound symbol). Sometimes, when you combine these symbols, you can also dispense with the semicolons between each symbol code. So, if you wanted two black arrows, you could do &#9658► to make ►►. That saves one character, which could make a difference when you're working with very tight character counts.

Usage Caveat: Some classified ad boards specifically prohibit the use of HTML characters, non-alphanumeric symbols, or "attention-getting devices," so make sure you read the terms of use before you try them. The Craigslist community so far does not seem to mind them, but that could change.

► 9658 black arrow to right
◄ 9668 black arrow to left
← 8592 left arrow
→ 8594 right arrow
‹ 139 left pointer
› 155 right pointer
↔ 8596 left right arrow
« 171 left guillemet or angle quote
» 187 right guillemet or angle quote
↑ 8593 up arrow
↓ 8595 down arrow
↕ 8597 up down arrow (alternate: ↨ 8616)

Pointer Add-Ons
▪ 9642 mini black square (combine with black arrow pointers: ▪▪► 9642 + 9642 + 9658)
■ 65517 small black square (combine with black arrow pointers: ■■► 65517 + 65517 + 9658)
— 151 long light line (combine with left or right pointers: ←— —→ 8592 + 151, 151 + 8594

Geometric Shapes:
▀ 9600 upper black block
▄ 9604 lower black block
█ 9608 full black block
██ 9608 + 9608 double black block
▌ 9612 left black block
▐ 9616 right black block
▌▌ 9612 + 9612 double left blocks (like a "pause" symbol)
▐▐ 9616 + 9616 double right blocks (like a "pause" symbol)
▐▌ 9616 + 9612 centered black block
─ 9472 light horizontal bar
— 151 long line
▬ 9644 heavy horizontal bar (low)
¦ 65508 broken light vertical bar
│ 9474 light vertical bar (alternative: | key above the "enter" key)
▪ 9642 mini black square
▫ 9643 mini white square
■ 65517 small black square
■ 9632 black square
□ 9633 white square
▼ 9660 black triangle down
◊ 9674 white lozenge
♦ 9830 black lozenge (alternate: ♦ diams - no #)
· 183 tiny centered black dot (alternates: · 183, ∙ 8729)
• 149 mini black dot (alternates: • 8226, • bull - no #)
◦ 9702 mini white dot
○ 65518 white circle
● 9679 black circle
○ 9675 white circle
◘ 9688 white dot in black square
◙ 9689 white circle in black square

Card Suits:
♠ 9824 spades (black) (alternate: ♠ spades - no #))
♥ 9829 hearts (black) (alternate: ♥ hearts - no #)
♣ 9827 clubs (black) (alternate: ♣ clubs - no #)
♦ 9830 diamonds (black) (alternate: ♦ diams - no #)

۞ 1758 Arabic eight-pointed star
۝ 1757 Arabic scroll
⌂ 8962 house
┼ 9532 centered cross (light)
× 215 multiplication or "x" (as in "marks the spot")
± 177 plus/minus (also somewhat close to the Japanese Kanji character for "soil" or "warrior")
☻ 9787 smiley face 1
☺ 9786 smiley face 2
☼ 9788 sunshine
♥ 9829 heart (alternate: ♥ hearts - no #)
¤ 164 tile

Miscellaneous Useful Symbols:
€ 8364 Euro currency (alternates: € euro - no #, € 128)
¢ 162 cent
£ 163 Pound sign (alternate: £ pound - no #)
¥ 165 Yen sign
© 169 copyright (alternates: © 169, © copy - no #)
® 174 registered trademark (alternates: ® 174, ® reg - no #)
™ 8482 trademark (alternates: ™ 153, ™ trade - no #)
° 176 degree symbol (alternate: º 186)
² 178 squared
³ 179 cubed
¼ 188 one-quarter
½ 189 one-half
¾ 190 three-quarters
Ø 216 naught
† 8224 single dagger (alternate: † 134)
‡ 8225 double dagger (alternate: ‡ 135)
♪ 9834 eighth note
♫ 9835 eighth notes
ƒ 131 forte
♀ 9792 female
♂ 9794 male
№ 8470 number
¶ 182 paragraph
§ 167 section
¿ 191 inverted question mark
¡ 161 inverted exclamation point
– 150 m-dash
’ 146 apostrophe
“ 147 open quote
” 148 close quote
~~ 126 + 126 waves

Shades Of Gray:
░ 9617 light shading
▒ 9618 medium shading
▓ 9619 dark shading
█ 9608 black shading

There you have it: nearly a hundred ways to make your listing stand out in a column of listings, plus ways to create multiple ad headlines, and ways to enhance your ad's credibility. Free classified ad sites are valuable marketing tools to build your business. And, by applying a little Tightwad Marketing technique, they can be a real goldmine.
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