A big challenge in marketing, particularly for small businesses, is thinking one’s message is clearer than it really is. It’s easy when you’re the expert to consider certain things a given, and your own familiarity with your product can make it hard to grasp from an outside perspective.

I had a conversation recently with someone about an ad they’d run and their disappointment with its lack of response. As I looked it over I had a few immediate ideas about why that might be, and it goes back to a well-known saying.

Show, don’t tell.

Does anyone know about your product already? If not, does your ad make it clear what your product does? In his case he had a virtually unknown product being advertised at a discount. The product’s name was ambiguous, and the ad did little to clarify. He believed that slapping a coupon on it alone would cause it to fly off the shelves, but from a prospect’s standpoint why would $5 off something you don’t understand be appealing?

Seth Godin said it well when he mentioned that a mistake small businesses often make is thinking of themselves as small big businesses. In most cases their targets will be very different, however, and the difference in brand recognition between a small business and a big business makes all the difference in what types of ads work.

Nike, for example, could run an ad with a picture of a new shoe and a zippy tagline underneath and probably enjoy some success with it. Why? People are already familiar with Nike as a shoe brand, and if you’re a fan of their products and see a good looking shoe it might be enough on its own to get you to swing by your local shoe store.

Imagine a new, relatively unknown shoe manufacturer running the same ad. Looking at it, you’d probably be asking questions like what’s special about the shoe, how durable it is, or where you can even buy it.

If you don’t have a big budget for ads and such, press releases, blogs, and even networking can be solid places to start that won’t break the bank.