Should You Advertise on the Back of a Bus?

How do you know where to advertise? And is the back of a bus a good choice?

A few weeks ago I was a passenger in the car when I came up behind a bus with an advert on the back of it.

What surprised me was that the advert was for a forklift truck – (I grabbed a quick photo with my phone to look at when I got back.)

I took this picture and blew it up to see the ad properly

So why is this a bad choice for selling forklift trucks?

One key element to all of your marketing is the target market, or niche. This is the group of people you’re trying to sell to.

Imagine for a moment that you are the forklift truck company. Exactly who are the people that are likely to buy forklift trucks? And where will you find them?

Not the best place to sell forklifts

I would imagine it’s anybody with a warehouse – so the materials or warehouse managers in bigger businesses, farmers for their barn management, smaller businesses in industrial units, any business that uses vans or trucks, and so on.

Once you understand your target market, you can pick the best places to reach them in a concentrated way. This bus advert, unless it gets lucky, is never going to do that.

It’s a waste of maybe £500 that could have paid for a better targeted marketing campaign to just the right people.

Direct mail, cold-calling, magazine advertising within the industry, a stand at an industry exhibition.  All are going to reach a far higher concentration of people who want what you sell, if you’re selling forklift trucks and accessories.

The next time somebody calls you up and asks you to advertise with them, consider whether enough of your best customers would even see the advert.

The back of buses is a place to reach the general consumer, not your specialist niche markets.

Bus-back advertising is normally done either by large corporations who use it as part of a far broader brand-building exercise or by small businesses who don’t have any kind of effective marketing plan.

If you normally approach your marketing rather randomly, consider starting with how to create a unique selling point for your business.

You might also use the free marketing plan template to build a more solid foundation for your lead generation.

If you’re considering social media for business, you might want to read about small business online marketing before you devote too much time to Twitter or Facebook.

And, if you know the guys responsible for marketing at Genesis Forklifts, help them out by getting them to give me a call.


  1. Paul Brierley on February 7th, 2011 at 10:49 am

    Interestingly we received 4 enquiries from the bus campaign and sold two machines.

  2. Lee on February 7th, 2011 at 4:06 pm

    Hi Paul,

    That’s always the challenge in critiquing a marketing piece – inevitably it performs differently to the way you’d expect. I don’t know your costs or the ROI from the campaign, but if it brought in good customers and made a profit for you, I hope you have kept it going.

    And of course, thanks for commenting on the article and putting me straight. It does surprise me and I’d be interested to dig further to see if this truly was the source of the four enquiries.

    Most companies don’t record accurately where leads come from and make some big assumptions. If you’ve managed to crack this element of marketing and are measuring all lead sources, that’s a good move.

    I still think there are a lot of marketing channels I’d pick well ahead of the backs of buses for your business though…


  3. Tim Spencer on June 28th, 2011 at 1:55 pm

    Hi Lee,

    If this particular bus has a route that goes through one or two industrial estates then it is quite possible that it could generate some business for the advertiser, but I do agree with you that it is a scatter-gun approach to marketing.

    Having said that, I recently ran a full page ad in a start-up magazine that is read by thousands, and placed an attractive offer in it for a free prize draw. I would have thought that there would have been several hundred enter the draw, but I was a bit disappointed to only get about 80 entires. It just goes to show, that even with a target audience, we can still make wrong assumptions about our target market.

  4. Lee on June 28th, 2011 at 2:21 pm

    Hi Tim,

    I think you’re right on the button – there’s a chance if the bus route is ideal, but it’s a small chance. I would imagine that those in need of fork lift trucks would tend to look directly for what they want in the obvious places – either via an Internet search, an industry specific magazine, referral from a neighbouring business or even, of all places, the dying Yellow Pages.

    The difficulty with untargeted marketing is the cost involved. It’s possible to spend thousands on a campaign that produces nothing but hot air (I know this because in years gone by I’ve done it myself!).

    I have been surprised in the past by some unusual things that have worked really well to produce sales. However, I’m just not convinced that advertising on the back of a bus would be a good recommendation for me to make to a forklift truck manufacturer.

    Which perhaps is an appropriate time to consider the invisible problem with marketing – pride – we don’t want to admit to ourselves that we made a mistake because if we do that, we admit that we “wasted” money and feel belittled.

    That’s not my intention at all here, but it may come across that way in the blog post, I admit. The majority of companies don’t track where their leads come from and so never know whether or not a campaign is any good, which is fatal because it prevents them from learning what really works for them.

    The fact that you’ve done a measured campaign yourself using a startup magazine and been disappointed by the results shows that you’re getting things right. You’ve measured the response and been surprised by it. The next step is to figure out why it didn’t draw a stronger response – the offer, maybe? Or the magazine not having quite the readership the publisher claims? Or perhaps just the headline/copy layout didn’t draw them in as much as it could have done.

    So many things to test.

    Thanks again for your comment.


  5. Andy Phelps on November 8th, 2011 at 11:36 am

    Great point, I often see lorries and vans that are owned by a company with the wrong advertising on the back of their own vehicles and it amazes me. For instance, almost all advertising on the back of a vehicle does not tell you what the company do. So what is the point of paying for the sign-writing when it does nothing for the business. eg abc Ltd tel 1234 56789, why would anyone ever call them up if one has no idea what they do. Pointless.

  6. Mark on November 16th, 2011 at 3:09 am

    Hi, Lee –

    I’m in total agreement with you and I’m surprised that they had any direct response to this advert at all. Tim has a point though, and if they knew for sure that the bus was going through industrial estates etc then just maybe it makes sense…

    I remember when I had a bicycle store and years after we had stopped advertising in Yellow Pages (just had the one free line) people would tell us that they had seen our “big ad in the Yellow Pages”!! like you said you can’t always be sure that the information you are getting from your customers is correct.

    When I worked for an aerospace company we were always getting calls from a bill board ad company who gave great stats on how many people passed by and saw their ad spots – when I asked how many of these people owned or even determined where jet aircraft were repaired, the rep said she didn’t know but was sure it was more than enough to pay for our advertising!

    One of the problems is what I call “vanity” advertising where the owner of the company is more interested in being seen and building awareness of the company. That’s all well and good but if it doesn’t bring in customers I believe its a waste of money.


  7. Lee on November 16th, 2011 at 7:06 am

    Hi Mark,

    Thanks for sharing your experience. The way that advertising space is sold drives me nuts – of course they highlight the positives, but putting money into stuff like this is a bit like paying to be in the lottery. It’s ok to try it out if you carefully track lead sources (95% of companies don’t), but otherwise it’s often just wasted money.

    Your point about vanity advertising is very well made, although I think for a lot of companies they are copying what they think is good practice by the multinationals. What’s missing is the branding strategy that sits behind it though. And brand strategy is rarely a place that I’d focus on with a small business looking to generate a few more leads.



  8. KipFX on January 31st, 2012 at 12:28 pm

    Hah, well you know my thoughts on this kind of advertising Lee, for the benefit of the rest of you, Lee and I were talking about advertising campaigns the other day, Lee’s side of the conversation made some very valid points that made me sit up and listen. In my line of work, I look at the visuals, the builders that have “wedding invite” script phone numbers, that nobody can read. Company names like Widget Ltd, with no explanation of what the widget is!

    My favourite was yesterday whilst eating my tea, after a decorating/DIY programme and before “Eggheads” was an advert for a kiddies 500 word story competition, surely this is extremely bad placement too. I know my Daughter, Nieces and Nephews would not have been watching these adverts!

    The chap said he got two sales from the advert, kudos, but I think Lee was doing more than just “outing” the bad placement, if you can get 2 sales from this bus, imagine how many you would have with a demo-targeted campaign.

    Just saying…

  9. Lee on January 31st, 2012 at 1:01 pm


    Might have known you’d stick an oar in! You’re spot on – once you “get it”, going after a really tight target produces far better results.

    Somebody once famously said that “Only half of my marketing works, I just don’t know which half”. If this fork lift truck company is doing well despite the recession (and I hope they are), I’m guessing it’s not off the back of bus advertising.

    TV advertising often drives me nuts. I think often the ads are sold in blocks that are convenient for the TV company rather than directly helpful to the product being marketed. In that case I think you may be right, although my kids often sit in front of Eggheads if we’re having a tv dinner in the kitchen, as a quiz is one of the few shows we can all sit and watch without fighting over the controls! Would love to get my hands on tv show demographics, would make for some interesting reading.

    Now, talking of TV, must reserve my spot on the sofa for the Calcutta Cup at the weekend.


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