Advertising: the basics

Advertising is the promotion of your business to increase sales, attract new customers, and make your audience aware of your products or services.


26 min read

1. Advertising overview

Advertising is ‘paid for’ marketing activity that gets your products and services in front of your audience to raise awareness, create demand, and boost sales.

The main purpose of advertising is to target your audience with persuasive messaging in the right place at the right time to influence their purchase decisions now, or in the future. In this guide we’ll provide a useful overview of some of the key elements of advertising for small businesses and introduce some advertising channels.

2. The benefits of advertising for small businesses

Advertising can:

  • provide basic information such as your contact details and website address
  • increase sales by telling potential customers about your product or service
  • tell customers about changes to your service, new product launches, special offers and improvements
  • prompt specific action - perhaps getting customers to visit your premises or website, or use a discount voucher by a specified time
  • remind existing customers about your business
  • change people's attitudes and perceptions of your business
  • help to create or develop a distinctive brand for your business
  • generate awareness of your business
  • develop a particular market niche or position

Target your customers

Decide whether your target audience is local or regional, national or international, or a mixture. Before selecting a type of media, you should find out from the media business and other independent sources about their circulation or audience figures. Basically, you need to know how many, where and who to. Figures can normally be broken down into age groups, average income and other useful indicators.

Remember you have a duty to ensure that your advertising is legal, decent, honest and truthful. The Advertising Standards Authority has information on advertising codes.

3. Set your objectives

Local advertising

Advertising locally can benefit any business, especially small businesses and sole traders. Examples of local advertising include:

  • leaflet drops
  • supermarket boards, postcards in shop windows
  • advertising space rented at railway stations, bus stops or on buses, roundabout islands, leisure centres or doctors' surgeries
  • local organisations' newsletters, programmes and magazines
  • a sign outside your business premises
  • local and regional newspapers, magazines and directories

Internet/online directories

Advertising on the internet can be cost-effective and gives national and international coverage that you may otherwise be unable to afford. Examples of internet advertising include:

  • Advertising on your own website - ensure your website is up to date, relevant and geared towards increasing sales. Make it easy for your customers to find their way around their website, and order from and contact you.
  • Advertising your business on other websites - use banner and pop-up advertising to promote your business and link through to your own website.
  • getting into an online directory - you get set up entries with directories like and, as well as more specialised directories.

Trade and technical press

If your business sells to other businesses, advertisements in these publications can be a useful way of gaining sales, product enquiries, higher profile, trade partnerships and even potential investors.


Most people listen to the radio for music or comment - often while doing other things - and so your advert will rely on repetition to have any effect. You could consider sponsoring certain features, such as the weather or travel news to make your adverts stand out.


Local cinema advertising offers a captive audience with a long dwell time for your advertisements.

Outdoor advertising

Outdoor advertising includes every outdoor medium from static billboards to moving adverts, eg on buses. You may need planning permission for some types of outdoor advertising, ie most posters and some types of signs.

National papers, magazines and TV

These can be costly but can help you reach a wide audience. You should get guidance on readership and audience figures before deciding to advertise nationally.

4. Define your audience

To run an effective advertising campaign, you must understand your audience - defining who they are and what they want. This helps you to target your ads, selecting the most appropriate advertising channels and creating the messaging that will most appeal to your audience.

Create pen portraits

A good way to achieve this is to create pen portraits of your audience.

Pen portraits contain specific information about a fictional ‘customer’ that represents one of your key target audience groups. You may have a few different ‘groups’ within your target audience.

Pen portraits allow you to view your business and your advertising from your customers’ perspective, so your ads will effectively target your audience and appeal to them. Write down what you can about your ideal customers by thinking about who they are and what they do. For example:

  • Who are they?
    • How old are they and what is their gender?

    • Where do they live? Are they local, or in a specific region, or area?

    • What is their job and income bracket?

    • What kind of house do they live in?

    • Are they married, single, have young kids or older children, etc?

    • Do they share certain hobbies or interests (wild swimming, knitting, campaign, gastro travel, food and cooking, eating out, etc)?

    • What issues and causes do they care about? (politics, poverty, sustainability, nutrition, family, etc)

  • How do they interact with media?
    • What other brands do they like? Who do they follow online?

    • How do they shop (online/offline)?

    • How do they read news (online/offline)?

    • Which news sites would they visit and what newspapers and magazines do they read?

    • Which websites would they visit? Which social platforms are they on?

  • What do they want from you?
    • What do they aim to achieve by using your product or service?

    • What problems or do they have which your product or service solves?

    • What are their objections? What reasons do they have not to your business or product or service?

    • When do they consume/use your product or service?

    • How often do they consume/use your productor service?

    • What competitors do they choose for this product or service?

    • Why do they use these other competitors?

  • What do you have that they want?
    • What are your USPs (unique selling points)? What is it about your products and services that is special and useful to them? What are the benefits to them?

    • What do you do best? What do you receive good feedback on from existing customers? Why do they choose you?

    • Why should your audience choose you? What sets you apart from competitors?

  • What messaging will be most persuasive to them?
    • What are the ‘mandatories’? What do your business have to have in order to persuade them and get over their objections? (E.g. you must have a range of colours and sizes available.)

    • What will convince them to consider you and to buy? How can you make the benefits clear to them and sell your solution to their problem?

Carry out some audience research

If you can back up your pen portraits with some research (like demographic data and trends, interviews with your target audience, or surveys) then great. Some ideas for research you can carry out yourself include:

  • Speak to people you know who fit the bill or to your regular customers. Find out their favourite brands, websites, interests, types and formats of content, etc.

  • Look at Business Gateway market reports for your industry.

  • Have a look online for some data on trends within your audience groups (sites such as Google Trends, Statista, and Ofcom, etc, can be useful). See our article on tools and techniques for more information.

5. Take inspiration

Have a look at what your competitors do to advertise their products or services. Have you seen their ads online, or in the local press, or through the door? Try to understand why they use those channels. Put yourself in your target audience’s shoes and consider what you think competitors do well, and what doesn’t work so well.

Also take inspiration from other businesses - what do the market leaders in your industry do to advertise? Looking further afield, look at what other small companies outwith your industry do to advertise to their audiences. For example if you’re a plumber, you could take inspiration from how other tradespeople position and advertise their businesses.

It can be useful to gain inspiration from what other businesses do, however remember competitor research is for insight only. Never just copy a competitor’s approach or content.

6. Tracking success

As with any marketing spend, it is important to understand how your ads have performed and work out your Return on Investment.

  • Benchmark your business data before you begin (for example what is your daily/weekly sales, enquiries, call volume, website traffic, etc) so you can contrast this with what happens during and after your ad campaign

  • If you are running online ads and you have a website, review any online data you have such as website traffic levels, ad impressions, clicks, online sales, etc. Also look at the traffic sources of this traffic and sales.

  • Ask any new customers where they heard about you, was it from one of your ads?

  • You can also include unique identifiers in any offline ads to help track volume of new calls or sales from these ads sales, such as QR codes, specific phone numbers, voucher codes, specific offers etc.

As mentioned, ensure you have the correct permissions to use this data and that you adhere to all data protection laws and regulations.

7. Tips and techniques

Ensure that your ads include these key elements.

  • Are properly branded - with your logo, at least one of your website, social media handles or address, as well as contact details

  • Are targeted to your audience - work with your personals! In all of your ads, think about who you are talking to and what they want to hear from you.

  • Contain clear messaging - keep your ad messaging clear for your users. To be persuasive, spell out the benefits and keep your messaging in line with your objectives.

  • Have a clear call to action - direct your audience what to do next (e.g. call for a quote, come to the shop, go to our website, buy online, find in-store, etc).

  • Are creatively strong - you want your ads to grab attention. They must look eye-catching and professional. Use tools like Canva to design ads yourself or seek the services of a designer if you need more help.

Now that you understand what you need to achieve, and who you need to target, you need to decide which types of advertising could work best for you and your audience.

8. Local advertising

Advertising locally can benefit any business which has a target audience concentrated within specific geographic or local areas. This can be especially true for businesses with physical premises (such as salons, shops, cafe’s, garages, restaurants and bars, etc) or if you offer a service to customers within a specific location (such as trade businesses, cake designers, dog walkers, etc). Local ads can be an excellent way of raising awareness among your local audience, building your brand, generating demand and gaining new customers.

Examples of local advertising include:

  • Leaflet drops. Designing and printing leaflets (such as flyers, menus and brochures) and posting these locally (either by hand or via post).

  • Local business ads. Ads in local businesses such as supermarket boards, posters in shop windows, local leisure centres, etc.

  • Local outdoor advertising. Renting local outdoor advertising space such as billboards at railway stations, bus stops, buses or roundabout islands, and displaying large scale ads or posters advertising your business.

  • Local search ads. Running local search ads on Google Maps can help you be found by users searching for your product or service within your local area.

  • Signage. Signage outside or near your business premises, including your premises sign, sandwich boards, direction arrows, etc. For signage remember that you may need permission from your landlord, your local council or landowner.

  • Vehicle ads. Magnetic or stick-on ads or wraps for your own car and any business vehicles (ensure to include your contact details, logo and short descriptor).

  • Local press. Placing print ads in your local press such as small neighbourhood circulars, regional newspapers, or local magazines and directories.


Local advertising can be carried out by you and can be a cost effective option. However you will need to pay print costs and any postage, plus any costs to place your ads or rent advertising space.

Considerations and top tips

Ensure you have well-designed ads which stand out, and contain your address or contact details, your logo and any key persuasive messaging. They should also have a call to action making it clear what people should do next (‘call now’, ‘drop in’, etc).

9. Social media advertising

If social media is a key channel for your business, or is an important step in persuading potential customers, then social media advertising then it is worth looking into paying to place ads or promote posts on social media platforms.

Social media advertising can be particularly useful if you:

  • want to reach a wider audience

  • do most of your marketing on social media (e.g. if your Facebook or Instagram is already a key channel for you, you will gain wider reach through paid social)

  • want to target a specific demographic (e.g. women, aged 30-45 who have an interest in interiors) as social ads are highly targeted

  • your product or service ‘fits’ with a particular platform (e.g if you sell a lifestyle product you may fit well on Instagram and Pinterest, or if you offer professional B2B services you may fit on LinkedIn)

  • however remember, if you have never used social media for your business before, it may be best to hold off on social advertising until you have created your profiles and got to know the platform.


Your social ad budget can be as large or as little as you want, as you set the budgets for each ad (although remember that with more budget you’ll reach more people). You can also create the ads yourself. You may wish to work with an expert to set up and run your ads if you feel you would get better results (which also cover the additional costs) or you don’t have the time to research and run your ads yourself.

Considerations and top tips

Social media ads can be great if you want to raise awareness of your product and if you really understand who your audience are. Social platforms have huge user bases and also offer highly detailed targeting, allowing you to target specific user demographics, locations and interests. You can also set firm budgets for how much you want your ads to spend.

Ensure that your ads are as targeted as possible to your desired audience. Your ads need to be visually appealing, contain your most persuasive messaging and have a strong call to action on what users should do next. Social ads need to be actively managed and optimised to keep spend under control and to improve results - keep an eye on the platform’s stats to see how the ads are performing

For more information on social advertising see our Digital Marketing guide.

10. Pay Per Click (PPC) advertising

PPC can be an excellent way of targeting and attracting new customers if you sell your products or services online, or if your customers ‘research’ your products or services online. It’s called Pay Per Click as you only pay when a user clicks on one of your ads. With PPC you pay to appear in the search engine results for specific search terms. The largest PPC platform is Google Ads.

PPC can be particularly useful if:

  • you want to drive sales of your product or service - PPC can help drive users to your site who are searching for terms that indicate they are ready to buy

  • you need to drive traffic through to your website or online shop quickly - with PPC you can start driving traffic once your ads are live, which is useful if you need potential customers on your site immediately, if you need to clear stock, or if you need to promote an event or short-term offer

  • you want to target a specific geographic area - you can target your ads to only appear to users within a set geographic area that you select


Your PPC ad budget can be as large or as little as you want, as you set the budgets (remember with more budget you’ll reach more people). You can also set up your campaigns and create the ads yourself. You may wish to work with an expert to set up and run your accounts if you feel you would get better results (and cover the additional costs) or you don’t have the time to research and run your ads yourself.

Considerations and top tips

PPC is most effective when you want to drive sales and target users who are almost ready to buy or are ready to buy - i.e. when they are researching products (e.g. ‘best waterproof sock brands’) or when they are searching to buy (e.g. ‘buy waterproof socks’). PPC is not the most effective channel for generating demand or raising awareness. With PPC you can only appear for the terms that people are searching for - therefore if you have a new innovative product that people don’t know about yet, there won’t be any search volume to trigger your ads.

To get the most from PPC, ensure that you do keyword research and target the most relevant terms used by your target audience when searching for your product or service. Keep an eye on your budget to control spend, regularly review results to make sure that your ads are working, and make changes to your keyword or ad strategy where necessary.

For more information on PPC advertising see our Digital Marketing guide.

11. Online display advertising

With display advertising you pay to ‘display’ your ads on other websites or online platforms (such as YouTube). Examples of display ads are the prominent adverts that you see on many websites, such as large video or image banner ads, or the video ads that run on YouTube channels. Running display ads can be an effective way of raising awareness of your business and reaching a wide audience - especially if you have a large, disparate, or national audience.

Display ads can be particularly useful if you:

  • want to raise awareness. Display is a great medium for reaching a wide audience and building and maintaining brand awareness.

  • need to build demand. If you have an innovative product or service that your customers are not actively searching for, display can be an effective way to introduce people to your product and build demand.

  • want to target users before they have made up their mind to buy. Unlike PPC, display ads let you target new customers further back in their decision process, before they are actively searching for your product or service.


Budget required for your display ads varies and is dependent on the level of reach you want and the scale of sites targeted. You could run ads for a relatively modest budget using the Google Display Network and ads you’ve created yourself. But if you’re running a large scale campaign targeting a wide and national audience then your ad spend will be much higher.

If you wish to work with an expert to design your ads and buy your media space, you would need to factor in the costs for these professional services.

Considerations and top tips

Display ads can be a great way of raising awareness, building your brand and generating demand. However do remember that they are a mass tool - they are often ignored and some people have ad blockers in place. Be realistic in what display ads can achieve - they can often have low click-through rates, so it is unwise to set your objectives for display as huge volumes of traffic or sales direct from the ads (although they can help with these goals as part of a wider marketing mix). You can run display ads through platforms such as Google Ads, or you can work with specialist media buying agencies.

Ensure that your creative is visually attention grabbing and contains your key message - display ads are a visual medium and need to attract attention. Also be sure to keep an eye on costs and your results - set a budget and regularly review their performance and optimise results.

For more information on online display advertising see our Digital Marketing guide.

12. Press ads

If you know that your audience read specific newspapers, magazines or trade publications, an option to consider could be running ‘press ads’ by placing adverts in printed press and their related online platforms. They can be a great way to raise awareness and generate demand as they help you reach a wide audience. There are a few different types of press ads to consider.

Local press

We have already covered local press ads (like neighbourhood circulars and small regional newspapers), which can work well to raise awareness of your business among a local audience and help drive footfall and enquiries. They are often considerably cheaper than national advertising and more targeted.

Trade and technical press

If your business sells to other businesses, placing adverts in trade publications can be a useful way of gaining awareness, enquiries, trade partnerships and even potential investors. However you would need to ensure that you select the trade publications that are the closest fit to your audience and that your ads are highly professional and contain relevant messaging.

Specific interest magazines

If your product or service is specific to a nice interest or hobby (such as gardening, cooking, crafts, etc), you could consider taking ads to push your product in niche interest magazines. This can be a useful way of reaching your target audience and raising awareness, building demand and even driving sales. Be aware that you could be sharing space with your competitors. Ensure that your ad stands out and that your messaging pushes the benefits of your offering.

National press

Placing ads in national newspapers or magazines can be costly but if you need to get in front of a large national audience fast to raise awareness, build your brand or create demand, it could be worth considering. If you want to go this route, ensure that your selected titles are a close match with your audience and that you have well-designed ads that will stand out and make a big impression on your audience. You should get guidance on readership and audience figures from the titles or their agency before deciding to advertise nationally and ideally you would test ads in a small campaign first.


The budget required for print ads varies hugely, with a relatively modest budget for self-designed ads in small circulars or neighbourhood papers, to much larger design and media costs for national newspapers.

You may wish to work with specialist designers and media buyers if your ads are reaching a wider or national audience, if you need to look polished and professional or you have slick competition. These services would obviously incur a fee.

Tips on positioning

If possible and budget permits, ensure any print advertisement is in the best possible position. Remember that:

  • right-hand pages, especially early right hand pages (those in the early part of the publication), catch the reader's eye the most

  • an advertisement selling greenhouses, for example, should be on a page devoted to gardening

  • the most effective place for your newspaper advertisement is either page one or three - preferably in the bottom right-hand corner

  • if your advertisement has a coupon - for readers to cut out and send in - make sure it is placed at the edge of the page

Tracking print ads

It can be difficult to track how well print ads have performed. Some ideas to help track their performance include:

  • adding a special phone number (so you know any enquiries are from that ad). You can do this yourself or through specialist organisations that create tracking phone numbers

  • add a QR code to the ad which lands on a separate landing page on your site or contains a tracking string

  • use a separate coupon code or offer

  • ask new customers or enquiries where they heard from you.

13. Radio ads

Radio ads are the spoken word ads you hear on commercial radio stations. They can have large reach and can be particularly useful for raising awareness across a target audience or within a specific geographic region or demographic, for building your brand and for helping to generate demand. Through your choice of station you can target specific geographic areas and different demographics.

Radio can be particularly useful if:

  • you want to reach as wide an audience as possible, you can run ads across stations or even nationally

  • you want to target a specific geographic or local area. By advertising on local radio stations you can reach your local audience to raise awareness of your service.

  • your target audience are a cohort who will likely have the radio on at specific times, such as parents on the school run or commuters who listen at set times, or others who have the radio on more such as those who drive frequently for work, trades businesses, garages, etc.


Radio ads do require some budget behind them. They most likely will need to be professionally produced, including scripts, actors, editing and even music - and will require some budget upfront to produce and then more to buy the media. The price of buying on-air space will vary depending on the reach of the station and the types of ad space you buy. You will likely need to work with professionals to produce and place your ads.

Considerations and top tips

Most people listen to the radio for music or comment - often while doing other things - and so your advert will rely on repetition to have any effect. You could consider sponsoring certain features, such as the weather or travel news to make your adverts stand out, but this is obviously more expensive. Make your ads memorable, for example through humour, and keep them succinct. Be sure to mention your company name at the beginning, middle and end and mention your location if appropriate.

Work with radio stations or a media buying agency to discuss your needs and determine what type of radio ads you should run and when.

14. TV ads

TV advertising obviously provides a huge amount of coverage for your business, reaching a wide national or regional audience. TV ads are highly effective ways to raise awareness at a large scale, build your brand, generate demand and seek new customers. However TV ads also require a hefty budget and should only be used if your business demands that level of reach.

You can reach regional audiences by running your ads on regional tv channels or by specifying location targeting with some national advertisers.

TV ads can be particularly effective if:

  • you need to grow your business at scale - if you have a very wide target audience and you need to build awareness and push for customers on a large scale, then TV ads could be worth the investment.

  • you need saturation within a local market. If you need to reach as many people as possible within a specific area TV could give you that reach.

  • you need to upscale your activity - if other advertising campaigns are now failing to achieve the level of reach to generate the level of demand that you need to keep growing, then TV could give you the wider reach you need.


TV ads, even regional, require a much larger budget than some of the other methods we have covered. You will require budget to produce your ads and buy the air space. Your ads will need to be professionally produced by a specialist agency, including scripts, actors, music, filming, and editing, the costs of which will vary depending on the length and scale of the ads you want to create. You will also need a large budget to buy the airtime, which again will vary depending on station, TV show, time of day, length of ads, etc..

Considerations and top tips

Shop around to find an agency that is a good fit and work with your agency to develop a strategy and creative that suits you and your budget. Investigate the different placement and length options available to decide which works for you. Ensure your TV ads are on brand and that the messaging and creative is relevant to your audience and objective.

15. Rules and regulations

There are rules which govern how businesses can advertise within the UK to make sure that consumers are not treated unfairly or misled. When you are running any advertising is it your responsibility to understand and meet your obligations.


There are regulations that affect advertising and limit what advertisers may and may not do. There are also specific requirements that apply to specific industries and sectors, including food and alcohol. Find out more on regulations on the site.

Codes of practice

There are two advertising codes of practice covering broadcast and non-broadcast media that you must follow to ensure that your ads are legal. Find out more on codes of practice on

Advertising Standards Agency

These rules are enforced by the Advertising Standards Agency. Check out their advice for small businesses to get you started.

Data protection and GDPR

If you are handling, gathering, storing or using people’s data you must adhere to all data protection rules, understand your legal obligations and consumers’ rights, and protect their data. (See for more information). Furthermore, if you are gathering, using or storing data or if you are running online advertising and have implemented any tracking tags (such as Facebook pixel, Google Ad cookies, Google Analytics), you must ensure you are GDPR compliant and that you have full consent from your audience and your website users to use any tracking cookies. You can find out more on the Information Commissioner’s Office website.


This article provides topline information to help small businesses understand the different types of advertising available to them and to bring attention to the existence of advertising rules and regulations and data privacy laws. This article does not provide legal advice for your company to use in complying with advertising regulations, data protection regulations or privacy laws such as GDPR, and does not provide a comprehensive list of laws to be followed. As a business owner, you are responsible for ensuring you understand your legal requirements and seek independent, expert advice where needed.

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