Read all about it! This month, industry consultant Casey Conrad dedicates her column to newspaper ads.

Health club operators frequently use newspaper advertisements to market themselves. Yet, when you compare the cost of a newspaper ad to actual sales, it is often one of the least productive forms of marketing in terms of return on investment.

And what an investment it is. If you live in a major metropolitan area, prices quoted this week for a 1/8th of a page black-and-white ad were anywhere from $2,400 to $3,500, depending on the day of the week. For a smaller city, costs ranged between $1,400 to $1,800 for the same size. Even if you live in a much smaller town that has a paid-for newspaper, the price was anywhere from $200 to $400.

Keep in mind that although you can receive a price break for committing to run an ad for a number of weeks, the costs quoted here are for a one time only ad. Those type of dollars can add up very quickly and make a major dent in your annual advertising budget. Given the expense, it is imperative that club operators write a newspaper ad that is going to make the phones ring. The question is: How do you do it?

The first step in writing an effective newspaper ad is knowing what outcome you expect. Certainly you ultimately want to sell more memberships; you want to do that with any advertisement. However, most club operators fail to realize that they should use a newspaper as a lead generator first, followed by "back-end" efforts to generate sales. Let me explain.

If you open any newspaper or even visit your own ad archives, you will notice that most newspaper ads are price sensitive. "No enrollment fee," "50 percent off enrollment fee," "99 days for $99 dollars," "two for one" and "summer free" are typical newspaper offers. Although these campaigns undoubtedly generate sales, they limit the response rate to the small percentage of people who are either ready to buy a membership or are highly interested in buying a membership-and who happen to be reading the newspaper that day and see your ad! With the decline in newspaper readership, combined with the diverse population reading papers, it's no wonder few campaigns really generate a high number of sales.

If you change your newspaper ad to become a lead generator that provokes a call from anyone interested in the benefits of a regular exercise program, you will dramatically increase the number of sales you ultimately make. The reason for this is because you can directly and consistently market to those respondents once they are on your mailing list.

How you make a newspaper ad a lead generator is by offering the reader something for free just for calling. Of course, the more specific and educational you make the offer, the more qualified the caller will be. Instead of simply offering a free trial visit, you may offer a booklet titled, "10 Easy Steps to Getting Into Shape at Home" or "How to Successfully Lose Weight and Keep It Off for a Lifetime." One club I worked with made the following offer: "Free Healthy Recipes Cookbook Will Help You Lose Weight & Feel Great." (These free books are inexpensive to create, and your fitness staff will enjoy the project.)

The key here is making a low barrier offer that gets people who probably have a need for your health club to call-even though they may not be ready to buy. Of course, once you have captured their names, addresses and phone numbers, you can directly target them with a variety of direct mail pieces until they buy.

Now, making a newspaper ad a lead generator doesn't mean you completely discard any type of price offer, thereby potentially missing prospects who are ready to buy. The second half of your ad copy can tell the reader about a current membership offer, so long as it follows the basic principles of any marketing piece. (See February issue for details.) Still, first and foremost, you want a headline that will grab the attention of all prospects. You must give them valuable information on the benefits to them, make a strong offer and create urgency for them to call through a deadline or incentive.

The ad in this month's example (see page 54) doesn't follow any of the rules of effective writing. Even worse, the ad is in color, meaning it was more expensive than a black-and-white run. Let's look at how we can improve the piece to make it a profitable investment.

1. The headline. Really, there isn't a headline. A logo is not a headline because it doesn't speak to a want or need of the reader. Further, the slogan "Fitness for the Whole Family" is at the bottom of the ad. As a result, nothing on this ad jumps out at the readers to grab their attention.

Let's change the piece to become a lead generator (and stay with the original theme of family fitness) by making the headline across the entire top of the ad "FREE Booklet: '10 Simple Ways to Get and Keep Your Family Fit & Healthy.'"

2. The body copy. This ad gives a barely readable listing of features but does not take any time or effort to explain to the readers why those things will be of benefit to them.

Let's get rid of the pictures on the right of the ad, leaving space for text to be easily read. Next, bring the picture of the family lower, allowing the headline to run across the entire top of the ad. The body copy could read as follows:

Our family-oriented fitness center offers many activities that will keep you and your family enjoying the benefits of a regular exercise program for a lifetime. Here's how we will keep you excited and motivated on your individualized, personal program.

* Over 52 aerobics and indoor cycling classes for all different fitness levels and at convenient times to make it easy for you to get in and work out.

* Supervised childcare programs with scheduled activities will keep your children stimulated and enjoying themselves while you are free to use the club.

* Multiple lines and types of equipment to meet any fitness level and goal desired.

* Private, executive locker rooms make it comfortable for you to utilize the club before or after work.

3. The offer and creating urgency. The offer in this ad is two months for free with a minimum purchase. The problem with this is that with no additional information, the readers may suspect that they will have to spend a lot of money to get the free time. This will further reduce the number of respondents.

We have already changed the primary offer in this ad to the free booklet in order to get the phones to ring with qualified prospects. Let's keep this ad's two-month offer as a secondary offer and give the readers a bit more detail so they won't be suspicious of the bait and switch. It would read, "If you decide to become a member on any one of our regular memberships, we will add two months free with this coupon."

Of course, you will want to add the club's logo and phone number at the bottom of the ad, large enough for the reader to find it easily but not too large that it unnecessarily uses too much precious space.

Finally, there must be an expiration date in the newspaper ad in order to create urgency. Human beings are procrastinators, especially when it comes to regular exercise. I guarantee you that these types of coupons trickle in for months. Although that's not a bad thing, you must recover your costs at a quick rate to stay in business.

By making these simple changes to the layout of the newspaper ad, your phones will ring, the number of prospect names you acquire will dramatically increase, and, if you do a good job with your follow-up, you will substantially improve your return on investment by way of many more sales.

--A 16-year veteran of the health club industry, Casey Conrad is president of COmmunications Consultants, a Wakefield, R.I.-based company that provides sales and communications seminars. If you would like ad copy as laid out according to Conrad's suggestions, please call Communications Consultants at (800) 725-6147.