Human-Interest Stories and Pictures Improve Your Advertising's Reach

Is your advertising drawing its fair share of paying customers? Whether it's a display ad in your local newspaper or a newsletter offering upgraded services to your club's members, advertising is expensive. You want the best return you can get from your investment. The secret shouldn't be surprising to anyone who's witnessed a "Kodak moment" - the shortest route to the customer's wallet is through the heart. Successful ads play to the customer's emotions with strong human interest angles.

"Used properly, human interest can be an extraordinarily effective advertising tool," says award-winning New York ad maven Don Hauptman. "Nothing is more interesting to people than other people. Good ads show individuals involved in events and situations that matter to customers."

This is not to say that customers cannot be sold on price. Yet, with the many options now available to fitness and recreation enthusiasts, price alone is not sufficient. People are also looking for evidence that your services will improve their health and well-being.

Here are five ways to humanize your advertising approach:

1. GET PERSONAL. "To make your ad more personal, show the reader how your services have touched people's lives," says Brad Lehrer, president of Brad Lehrer Designs in Bronxville, N.Y. "Consider this: One of the most successful ways for charities to raise money is to show pictures of people interacting with others." Do the same with your club advertising. Most everyone sits up and pays attention when they hear a story. Combine a good one with a photograph and you have a compelling people-pleaser.

Here are some examples of photographs that seduce customers with stories:

• A happy member uses a new tennis racquet from your pro shop. If possible, show other family members enjoying equipment and sports apparel along with the featured member.

• One of your helpful employees assists a member. People are fed up with club personnel who either appear annoyed when questioned or don't know the answers. Show that your club is different. A good photo might be one in which one of your key workout-room staff members explains the workings of a cardio machine to an attentive member.

• Two members talk about how wonderful your club is. Take this photo inside your club or at the home of one of the members. Again, provide evidence your club cares for its members: Show the people endorsing your club as courteous and helpful.

These photographs can be dramatic testimonials, but they need to be paired with the right text. While traditional straightforward endorsements of your club are fine, pictures that tell a story are much more convincing. The individual in the second example above might be saying something such as, "Before I joined, I didn't know a treadmill from a pepper mill. But the staff at XYZ Club took the time to help me learn about fitness." If you can get real customers rather than models to participate in your photos - with or without their real names - so much the better.

2. SHOW YOUR WILLINGNESS TO TEACH. Provide a bit of helpful information about services right in your ad. This sends a strong signal that your club and its staff members are the sources of assistance and information that members crave.

"People will be attracted to your club if you appear to be accessible and easy to deal with," says Lehrer. "Selling memberships and services is teaching. If you teach, you are already giving your prospect something, whether it is information, knowledge, a tip or some type of value-added service." Inviting people to get answers at your club makes your environment non-threatening. "If people know they can come in and ask as many questions as they want, they will choose your club," says Lehrer. "Your message is that you don't just hire people off the street. You train them. They are warm and friendly, and won't make customers feel ridiculous."

This approach is in sharp contrast with the hard-sell approach that tries to arrest the attention of the customer. Headlines such as, "How would you like to save $$$." lack the vital message that you are in existence to help the customer. "I've always been against ads that start with questions," says Jeff Berner, director of Jeff Berner Creative, a business consultancy in Dillon Beach, Calif. "I think it's assaultive to ask them to a complete stranger. To be humanistic, in contrast, is to be respectful of customers and to stress how you will make their lives better by increasing their pleasure or solving their problems."

The key point is to focus on the need of the potential member. Rather than say you are better than so-and-so and you are the best at this and that, focus on the quality of service and the benefits the individual is going to get.

3. FOLLOW THROUGH. You want to communicate that your goal is meeting the needs of your customer rather than selling memberships. But your salespeople need to be as educated and friendly as you say they are. If they leave callers on hold for 20 minutes or ignore walk-in traffic, you can't expect people to believe you are looking out for their best interests.

"Irate customers will spread the news," says Lehrer. "It's a small world of people. Internet access now makes it easy to call the Better Business Bureau to lodge a complaint that becomes available to other members." The moral: Don't promise what you can't deliver.

4. CUSTOMIZE ADS FOR SPECIFIC MARKETS. "One size fits all" doesn't pay the freight anymore. In direct-mail advertising it's especially important to personalize your pitch. "With computers you can generate a separate mailing for each person to whom you are writing," says Berner. "No longer do you need to go to a printer for thousands of copies of one text." Berner cautions that customizing means more than just changing the name and mailing address. When wooing former members, for example, "you can mention their previous memberships and describe new services they might enjoy," he says. Direct mail can be done so quickly you can even comment in real time on subjects such as the weather or current news events.

5. DO THE LITTLE THINGS. There are many ways to personalize your ads. For example, give a contact name for the person callers should ask for. Once a prospect is on the phone, invite him or her to stop by and have a cup of coffee. Phrases such as "the coffee is always brewing" give a homey and welcoming feel.

Let your ad's format fit your warm message. Its design can help communicate the human touch. "Use warm tones to make an ad more attractive," says Lehrer. "Select a typeface that is easy to read. Use a lot of white space and as little copy as possible."

Let your competitors push prices over people. Humanizing your ads gives you the most powerful force available when spreading your message. Like other club owners around the country, you'll discover that putting more heart in your ads can pump up your bottom line.